“Are there any questions? Does anyone have other plans for tomorrow?” the hut warden Sally asked the motley group of trampers as we huddled in the Mangatepopo hut on the skirts of the Tongariro National Park in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island. Outside the wind was buffeting against the hut’s wooden walls, whipping the tussock grass (and tent flies) into a frenzy. But inside, it was cosy; the wood-burner was alight, slowly drying wet clothes whose pungent steamy fumes mingled with the homely scent of Pizza Hut pizzas some entrepreneurial Germans had carried up from civilisation.
I raised my hand, catching the eye of Sally. “We’re planning on climbing Mt Ngauruhoe tomorrow,” I ventured tentatively, worried I knew the response. Sally had already mentioned the weather conditions for the next day and while rain wasn’t going to be a massive problem (at least not until the evening) the wind was going to be frenetic, with gusts around 45km.
She looked at me gravely and shook her head. “No,” she said. “Tomorrow is not the day to climb Mt Ngauruhoe, not with the wind. It’s dangerous on those slopes as it is, with the scree and rocks. There’s a lot of rock fall, and it’s very steep on Ngauruhoe, and with the wind at these speeds you won’t be able to hear the rocks falling. And it will be even windier at the summit.”
My heart sank. Outside the window, just beyond the hut, was the volcano in question – currently living up to its alter ego Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. Despite facing a tropical cocktail as the sun set, Ngauruhoe remained dark and menacing, its summit shrouded from view in an unbudging layer of moody cloud.
It was as if the glumness had reached through the hut window and absorbed my soul. Ngauruhoe was to have been my volcano number seven in my challenge to climb 40 volcanoes by the age of 40 (#40by40). I was already woefully behind and now the fickle weather was throwing a spanner in and shaking it vigorously about.
The problem was we were in the middle of a three-day trek around the blasted volcano with pre-booked campsites (a prerequisite for New Zealand’s Great Walks) and the only window for climbing Ngauruhoe was tomorrow – and now that window seemed to be well and truly shut and shuttered.
Drat, drat, bugger. I bit my lip and seethed as Sally concluded her talk.
Afterwards I approached the warden to double check her thoughts and, depressingly, she confirmed it was probably in our best interests given the forecast – and particularly as we hadn’t brought helmets – to not attempt the summit. But she clearly noted I was crestfallen and, as an aside, said weather forecasts were not always accurate and perhaps a decision could be made tomorrow at the turn off to the climb. I rejoiced – the window had been unlatched.
To climb or not to climb
The next day, as we started off on day two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit trek, the sun shone and the breeze blew. Fuzzy cloud still lingered like a bad smell at the summit of Ngauruhoe while billowing wisps rolled over the ridge of the South Crater towards us like galloping horses emerging from a storm-tossed sea. Yet I was hopeful the weather gods would be on our side.
But as we arrived at the turn off to Ngauruhoe after a punishing climb up the aptly named Devil’s Staircase, I was dubious. We could see for miles out west towards the coast, with the base of Mt Taranaki just visible as a faint smudge in the distance, its tip also obscured by cloud. But from where we stood there was roiling mist swirling around Ngauruhoe, which threatened to come at us at any second.
We stood, almost transfixed, staring at the bank of grey cloud, Ngauruhoe hidden behind it, as we weighed up our options.
My stupor was broken as two figures descended from the gloom. They dropped to an outcrop of jagged lava and drank lavishly from water bottles. I approached.
“You two just climbed up to the summit?” I asked.
“Yeah,” was the response, as the man wiped water from his chin.
“What’s it like up there?”
“Visibility’s pretty crap. Here, I’ll show you a photo.” The man rummaged in his bag and removed his phone, swiped through his photos until he found the one he was looking for and turned his phone to me. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad up there,” he continued with an American drawl. “There’s no view; we couldn’t see more than a few yards.”
He wasn’t lying. In the murky image, he posed as a muscle man about three metres from the camera, standing on the skinny ridge at the crater summit. The background was grey; his features were fuzzy and indistinct. As he said, there was no view.
“You thinking about going up?” he asked.
“Yeah, but we can’t decide.”
“Well the cloud was lower when we went up. It’s actually lifted a bit. I’d say go for it.”
And with that our decision was made. We began to ascend, picking a path around clusters of hardened lava and passing an ominous red sign. “Caution,” it read. “Falling rocks.”
Things went well for about 10 or so minutes until the slope dramatically steepened. We decided to stow our backpacks behind a huge chunk of lava and take just the essentials for the rest of the climb.
We faffed for some time unpacking, repacking, taking clothes off, putting clothes on, removing straps, filling pockets, and making a man bag. When I looked up again the landscape had changed. Where there had been hardened brown rivulets of lava snaking down the slope, there was now grey murk. It blurred the edges of the crusted rock immediately around us and then swallowed up the rest of the world.
We looked at each other. As if on cue the cloud came lower and the wind picked up. I watched as two intrepid climbers sporting shorts and bare legs strode past and, just like that, vanished into the gloom.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea anymore,” I shouted above the sound of the wind. “It’s not like we’d even see a view. I just don’t see the point now.” I harrumphed, shoulders sagging and lips pouting in despair.
The boyfriend glanced around at the thickening grey blanket. “Yeah, I think you may be right,” he acknowledged.
And so, we unpacked, repacked, emptied our pockets, and disassembled the man bag. Hefting our packs onto our backs, we set off back the way we had come to join the track.
I shook my fist. Bugger, pants, fiddle sticks. What should have been volcano number seven – foiled by the weather.
NOTE: Don’t attempt a mountain climb without the right experience or kit, make sure you always let someone know of your plans and always check the weather conditions. Do not underestimate the mountains and mother nature.