17 Mar 2016

Over The Mtn's & Thru The Woods - NZL by valeriepeltier

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With a 5am wake up in order to catch the earlier shuttle of the two, we began our day in the dark. We sleepily pulled ourselves out of bed, forced ourselves to eat some breakfast and grabbed our pre packed day packs from the night before and went outside to wait for the shuttle. Thankfully the shuttle does door to door service for the early ride so there was no worrying about making it to a pickup location on time. Our driver arrived promptly at 5:50am, we climbed in signed our names and blankly stared off into space for the remainder of the drive, as the skies slowly changed from pitch black to a light shade of grey.
The forecast for the day stated 25km winds, with periods of showers, in which we were prepared with our rain gear. Before getting off the shuttle our driver made sure that everyone was well aware of the weather conditions as well as the pick up times on the other side before we dispersed.
Beginning at 7:30 we crossed through a hut, taking a quick moment to complete a survey then off down the trail. The grade of the trail eased us into the upward slope of the mountain allowing our legs and breathing to adjust to uphill climb although it didn't last to too long before it turned into a full climb of flight after flight of stairs eventually reaching a plateau labelled as Soda Springs. The plateau was completely flat with dark rich soil, yellow tuffs of grass and large erratic boulders that had been placed there many years ago from the volcano. The clouds were quite low so the peak of the mountain in front of is was hidden, although we were able to see across the plateau and over to the base of what was to be our next climb up to red crater.
The first part of the climb was steep, but every so often I would pause to turn and look back and admire the view below. It overlooked the plateau in which we had just crossed with the straight path leading directly through the center and the pool of mineral water sitting in Soda Springs off to the side. The higher we climbed the further we went into the clouds until the view below completely disappeared. With only a small stretch left to climb, it seemed as though it went on forever. The incline of the path turned from a steady uphill to a scramble where there were chains and guidelines for you to hold onto. It wasn't a far stretch of treacherous slippery climbing but with one slip you could easily end up back at the bottom where you started. We moved along slowly inching our way up the mountain eventually reaching the summit. There were a few other people up there taking photos amongst the thick cloud and some just stopping long enough for a drink of water.
We didn't stay there fore long because once we were exposed to the wind our damp clothes filled with partially frozen water droppers clinging to our pants continually worked viciously on dropping our core temperature. Quickly double checking the sign to ensure we were heading the proper direction we took off and began the descent from the summit of red crater. At 1886m the rain clouds seemed to push on forever, never letting up in thickness and with the constant accumulation of moisture Lauren was unable to wear her glasses and therefore proceeded ever so cautiously. Instead we used each other for stability and proceeded along the ridge taking one step at a time. The loose gravel shifted with each step making it seem as though we were walking down a ski hill in deep powder, sinking my heels in every step so I didn't slide.
Just over the other side of the ridge the elevation dropped onto another smeller plateau where two emerald lakes revealed themselves amongst the thick fog. We were only able to really see one, but the other one hung faintly in the distance just beyond the first one. The colour of the water was a milky blue turning a deeper blue towards the center of the pool, reflecting the clouds from above. On a clear day the pools are a rich turquoise blue the sunshine reflecting on the water exposing the minerals below. The pools are supposed to be a beautiful sight on a clear day, but the mist from the clouds added a special feature to the volcano, one that you wouldn't see on a normal clear day. The rain had chased away the majority of the tourists clearing the path of more than half of the regular flow of people. This definitely added to the vastness of the volcano, creating the feeling that we were one of few crossing the Tongariro, embarking on a special journey, one that was ours to complete as well as one to share.
We reached the Ketetahi Hut just in time for lunch, and just before the rain began to pick up. From walking through the cloud my outer layers had accumulated a thick layer of moisture which was beginning to thaw inside. Our descent to the car park didn't take long at all, and therefore finishing the 19.4 km hike in 6 hours. We were among the first few that made it back from our shuttle so we sat and waited for the remainder of the group to complete the trek.