Day 5 – Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow

The second day of the Kauri trip was the day we were scheduled to tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  This tough 19 km hike is routinely called the best one-day hike in New Zealand, and I originally expected it to be the highlight of my north island trip.  The tour company had emailed me two weeks before I left Canada to warn me that the crossing was still buried in snow, so we might have to try another hike unless conditions improved.  I was pleasantly surprised when, at our barbecue dinner the night before, Lina advised us that the crossing was open.  After an early breakfast in Turangi, we climbed back into the mini-bus for the short jaunt to the west end of the Tongariro track.

Tongariro National Park

When we arrived at Mangatepopo car park, the skies were mostly clear.  The morning was cool and crisp, with a strong west wind that brought a spring-like chill to the air.  Our group donned several layers of wool and polypropylene clothing, then we set off towards the hills.  The first hour or so of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is relatively flat, with rock outcroppings here and there to scramble over.  Several sections of the trail consist of boardwalks across the volcanic terrain.  I didn’t see any fumaroles or mud pots, so I surmise that the boardwalks are meant to keep hikers high and dry during periods of inclement weather.  Each member of our group moved at our own pace, with instructions to meet up at Soda Springs for a snack.  I kept one eye on the sky, because clouds were starting to gather and Tongariro is notorious for rapidly changing weather conditions.

The hike starts a significant uphill climb after about four kilometres.  Beyond Soda Springs, the trail features plenty of well-constructed steps and long switchbacks across lava flows.  It was around this time that the ominous-looking clouds and stiff breezes started blasting us with ice pellets.  We forged on, and by Kilometre 5 the pellets had turned to snow.  The snow was a little irritating, but the footing was still acceptable so we kept hiking.  At Kilometre 6, however, the heavy snow and high winds were starting to get dangerous.  When we encountered a section of trail obscured by knee-deep snow, our tour guide advised us to turn around.  Walking in deep snow isn’t a big deal to me – if it was, there would be about twenty days a year when I wouldn’t be able to get to work.  But the point of a high-altitude hike like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is to see beautiful vistas, and it was becoming obvious that we would have no scenery to look at on this particular day.  In heavy snow with visibility down to a couple hundred metres, we reluctantly turned back for Mangatepopo.

On the descent, as we exchanged higher elevations for higher temperatures, the snow switched back to rain.  Combine getting wet with a cold 40 km/h headwind and the hike back to the bus was a little disheartening.  We stopped off at the ranger station and learned that the Tongariro summit had received 60 cm of snow in just the past two days, and was likely to get another 30 cm today.  It wasn’t exactly fifteen feet of pure white snow, but at that point I understood why we turned around.  It made me worry about the troupes of young European tourists that had kept going toward the Red Crater summit, despite in some cases being dressed in nothing more than sweat pants, running shoes, and hoodies.  We let the ranger know what we had seen on trail, and then he showed us some photos of the damage done by boulders ejected from Mount Tongariro during the August 2012 eruption.  It was a graphic reminder that this is a most unusual hiking track.

With the Tongariro hike ending in a 12 km bust, our group decided to salvage the day with a different hike in the afternoon.  We walked the 5 km circuit around Lake Rotopounami (loosely translated as ‘Greenstone Lake’), where interpretive signs educated us on the native vegetation.  We learned how to identify Tawhairaunui (red beech), Matai (black pine) and Rimu trees, and spent some time hanging out on the beach.  From there, it was back to Turangi for a quick visit to the hot springs and a takeaway feast of fish and chips.  I did my best to hide my disappointment about the weather, but I was probably a little quiet that evening.

Post-Script:  Just seven days after our visit, Mount Tongariro erupted without warning.  A plume of ash rose a few kilometres into the sky, making it necessary to reroute air traffic.  Geologists had been monitoring precursor activities at neighbouring Mount Ruapehu, but another eruption at Tongariro was unexpected.

Song of the Day: “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

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