Tongariro Alpine Excursion

After a night in Wanganui, I left for “National Park”, the town, to be closer to access the Tongariro Northern Circuit.  Hugo, an Argentine guy from the hostel there, came along for the ride – we had spent several hours chatting the previous evening, and he hadn’t seen much snow before…

We had a nice drive through some dreary weather, and checked into the first hostel in town that appeared to have anyone staying there. It turned out to be a nice place to spend a few days, while I waited for the windy and wet weather to blow by and Hugo waited for his plane to Asia. We had good company with the hostel staff, and some of the guests. One evening turned into a big foreign language lesson, another was spent playing in the hostel’s large indoor climbing wall.

I asked around about conditions on the mountain, kept an eye on the weather and avalanche forecasts, and generally tried to get an idea for when the crossing would be reasonable to start. Several people told me there was “lots” of snow on the mountain, and a significant avalanche risk, but specifics about what “lots” or “significant” meant were rare. Unfortunately for me, the official avalanche forecast for the area I was aiming for also includes Mt Ruapehu, which is considerably taller and steeper than the mountains near the Tongariro Crossing.

For a few reasons, I figured that once the precipitation stopped and wind stayed constant for a day or so, the avalanche risk on my route would be minimal. Snow depth might be an issue, but I didn’t have the time to wait until it melted enough to reduce that risk. I also didn’t have time to take the recommended approach and wait until guided trips started going through the crossing.

So, Tuesday morning, I had my pack ready, and took off for the mountain after a big breakfast. There were clearly a few other people on the track already, the first bit was a cruise along rock, and compacted snow:


After an hour and a half or so, I caught up with the people who had so graciously been packing down snow for me. It was a big group, probably 40 clients and a few guides, who were waiting around while the guides decided whether to continue on or not. They had dug a couple pits to check the avalanche risk, and were coming to the conclusion that they would turn back.

I’m fairly certain that the pits were a show – they were dug in opposite sides of a small depression, which was sheltered compared to the slopes that were capable of creating an avalanche risk. A few clients I chatted with at the back of the bunch hadn’t been mountaineering before, were clearly frustrated, and didn’t have gear for traveling in deep snow. So, my guess was that the guides were just avoiding a messy, post-holing, slog in the deeper snow ahead. I had a quick chat with the guide bringing up the rear as the group retreated, he gave me a 60% chance of getting out OK if I continued, and a smile.

Of course, that was bad news for me, since I don’t have snowshoes or skis down here, and hadn’t had the sense to rent a pair of snowshoes.

Beyond the beat-down area where the group had stopped, the trail was easy enough to find, but nobody had been through since the last wind so it was much slower going. I pushed on for half an hour or so up some steeper terrain and met a couple guys coming the other way. Turned out they were from Michigan, and were finishing up the Northern Circuit in the opposite direction. These guys had some good insight into what was coming up, and snowshoes.

It was nice to have some partially beaten tracks to follow, but the warm sun was making things mushier and mushier. After another couple hours, about 150m below the top, I decided to turn around, rather than push on to the hut – likely arriving exhausted and after dark.

Looking down the Oturere valley from the rim of Tongariro South Crater

View down the Oturere valley (left and middle) from the rim of Tongariro’s South Crater (right)

That evening after dinner at the same hostel, I met a nice English lady who had been one of the people in that group. She was quite satisfied in her trip, and disappointed in the contingent that had been frustrated with the decision to turn around. In the end, her trip had covered more ground than they had planned, since they opted to also approach the crossing from the other side.

At any rate, I think those guides made the right decision. Bit stupid of me to not bring snowshoes, but it was a solid workout and some good views!

About ianrrees

Nerdy guy.
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