I had originally planned to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, part of the Te Araroa trail, on Monday.
But, you know how luck happens sometimes – the Mangatepopo campsite was full on Monday so Tuesday it had to be.
Which is how I found myself walking up the side of a rather tall volcano in pissing rain, while the crazy wind squalled around me.
“Bloody typical,” I thought as I hunched over trying to keep the rain out of my eyes.
When I’d booked the campsite for Tuesday, the forecasted weather had it looking better than Monday. I’d been happy about that – you know, luck and all that.
Well that turned out to be wrong.
Sure Monday had been crap in the morning but then it sort of cleared up a bit.
Tuesday, on the other hand, was about 10 times worse than Monday’s morning – more rain, and much, much more wind. To prove a point a rain-lashed strand of hair whipped me in the face.
The weather forecast had changed (this is quite a common occurrence in New Zealand).
Seemingly out of nowhere, some gale force winds (70km/hour) had decided to make an appearance on Tuesday – although according to the forecast they weren’t going to be bad until late afternoon.
So my plan was to head south from Ketetahi and get over the high point at Red Crater (1,886m) before 2pm, before the winds got really bad, because it was down hill from there and should then be easy going.
But as I approached the Ketetahi hut, I began to wonder if the weather forecast was perhaps slightly wrong and I began to doubt if this was a good idea.
This was despite the fact I’d passed several walkers earlier who had all made a successful crossing and, even though they said the conditions at Red Crater weren’t brilliant, they were sure I could do it.
Now I wondered as a strong head wind pummelled me, driving rain into my body, which flew off my coat sleeves in jets behind me.
Yet I ignored the voice in the back of my head that said this was perhaps a silly idea as I passed more people descending who had successfully made the crossing. I mean one woman had plastic bags in her shoes to keep her feet dry.
The clouds started to close in even more but even if there was a view I wouldn’t have been able to see it because of the hunched angle I was walking at as the wind came at me from all sides.
It was punishing. At one point I was worried I might go blind as the wind threw sharp rain slivers like glass into my eyes.
Every so often I’d turn a bend in the trail and the wind would vanish, giving me a chance to breathe and compose myself, only to turn another corner and be buffeted by the wind that would magically reappear.
I struggled upward passing a bearded outdoorsy man who swaggered in a way like someone who had just successfully done the Tongariro Crossing.
I’m sure he eyed me, walking hunched over, like I was a lunatic, then said: “It’s really gusty up there.”
“It’s pretty gusty here,” I shouted back, but I don’t think he heard in all the windy commotion that swirled around us.
Then the trail started to level out. The wind tapered out but visibility dropped.
I was getting close to the lakes and the scree slope up to Red Crater.
About time. The sooner I’m over this high point the better, I thought.
I passed Blue Lake but it looked more like dirty ditch water in the foggy cloud. There was no point taking photos.
Just up ahead were the Emerald Lakes, normally a stunning azure against the yellow sandy volcanic backdrop.
But I hardly registered them as out of nowhere the wind suddenly turned it up a notch. It barreled into one member of a tour group up ahead, knocking them from their feet.
I could see the group watching me as I slowly ascended, which took a lot of strength and will power to stay on two feet.
“Blimey this wind is pretty bad,” I said to myself, or words to that effect but with some slightly stronger and more colourful language.
One of the tour guides wearing a bright orange jacket with a personal locator beacon clipped to the lapple approached me, leaned in close so I can hear above the wind and shouted: “I think you should turn back. The wind is twice as bad up there and you’re by yourself.”
I looked at him and looked at the scree slope. The summit of Red Crater, although hidden in cloud, was only about 300m away.
The pull of summit fever took hold of me.
“But the summit is just up there,” I wailed, thinking I’d walked 10km to get here; there were just six to go to get to the campsite. I didn’t want to turn around now and walk all the way back.
“Well it’s up to you. You can give it a go and you can always turn back.”
He left me to tell his troops about the Emerald Lakes as I stood and stared at the narrow and potentially unforgiving scree slope ahead.
I had walked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing twice before but I couldn’t remember if there was a drop and/or how bad it was from the scree slope. The thick pea soup cloud gave me no answer.
“Now is not the time to doubt myself,” I sternly said. “The summit is just up there, I’m sure I can do it.”
I bent over, readying myself against the wind, and took some tentative steps in the scree.
The gusty winds came from all directions; they pushed me and pulled me. They made a direct hit as I lifted my foot to take a step forward, forcing it sideways. I was close to loosing my balance.
I stood feet apart, leaning on my walking poles, braced against the swirling wind.
I stood like that for a minute or two, thinking.
The summit was right there, I could almost touch it. But this wind was much worse than I was expecting.
Then Bob, the chairman of the Croydon Mountaineering Club popped into my head. He once wisely said something about not taking unnecessary risks.
I looked at the scree slope, black against the white cloud that swallowed it, feeling the wind trying to tip me.
I decided to heed Bob’s advice, turning, somehow without being pushed over by the wind, to head back down the mountain; 10km back to where I started.
Am I a failure, I pondered as I descended, for not completing the Crossing. Could I have done it? Now what do I do to get to the other side?
By the time I reached the bottom I had decided that the return journey was more distance than I should have walked that day so it balanced out what I should have done, meanwhile I would head back to the holiday park where I could book into a cabin and have a hot shower.
A Department of Conservation guy was lounging at the trail head, surveying walkers on their perception of risk (ah the irony).
He said the wind got worse earlier than was forecast and that DOC had measured gusts of around 110km/hour while I was up there.
“110km!” I exclaimed. “Ok that makes me feel better about turning around.”
At the end of the day, my safety is paramount. As one Twitter follower put it, deciding when to back off is a skill and not a sign of failure.
It’s also not a sign that I’m not good enough; yet another important learning on this journey down the length of New Zealand.
Apologies for the lack of photos – it was too wet, windy and cold, and plus there wasn’t much to see.
Photos from Wednesday – the day after the aborted crossing
8 thoughts on “Day 72 of #WalkNZ: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a day of ups and downs”
Bob is absolutely right: assessing risk is a skill and it is extremely personal. What is highly risky to you as a lone (fairly slightly built) tramper may not be risky to a group of large solidly built trampers. Knowing when to pull the plug is really hard hard because your mind will be hoping conditions ‘might’ change for the better. But, as you rightly pointed out, in the New Zealand mountains the weather conditions can change as quickly as flicking a switch. And that change is more likely to be from not great to much,much worse. The Mountain Safety Council of NZ has an excellent publication called “A Walk in the Park” (https://www.mountainsafety.org.nz/insights/a-walk-in-the-park/). It is research on incidents happening in tramping and mountaineering in New Zealand. It breaks down by region and tourist ‘hot spots’ the search and rescue (SAR) call outs and fatalities. Interestingly, the Central North Island has the highest number of SAR incidents. More worrying is that this is increasing each year, whereas other areas of NZ are either stable or decreasing. Tongariro National Park is the top area for SAR incidents, and one of the worst spots is around Red Crater where poor visibility causes people to get lost. Based on this brief look at risk assessment, did you do the right thing? No doubt about it; it was a good call.
I bet that hot shower was the best. Just been looking at this route on a YouTube vid in perfect sunshine and no wind. I can see it’s stunning but bad weather transforms it into a bit of a nightmare. Thank goodness you decided to turn back. Hope the weather perks up for you. I’ve been reading your blogs aloud to Terry. They read really well. x
Listening to your inner wisdom isn’t failure. Far from it! Great blog 👌🏻
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