It’s at the ungodly hour of 5:30 that our lodge wakes up and scrambles together to get out the door at 6:30. I have an enormous respect for Nats, that road is crazy windy, has no lights, and its covered with gravel, and she’s driving it an hour before the sun starts to rise. That cannot be easy.
Thanks to it being winter, the heavy price for the crossing has put most people off the walk. They’ll be doing the shorter hikes and heading up the mountain for high tea. Only three of us are actually braving the climb. First stop, checking into the guide office in the National Park and getting our gear checked.
In the summer, they recommend 2-3 layers. In the winter, its more 4-5. I only bought thermal leggings, and most of my gear is cotton blend (a big no-no for hiking), but they offer rental options to help people along. Thankfully, my gear is good enough that I only need to rent a wind resistant jacket and a thermal shirt at $10 each. Then it’s out to get fitted for crampons.
These are the little spikes that go on the bottom of your shoes when you’re walking on snow. We also get covers for our lower legs to keep out the snow, an ice pick, and a helmet. The covers stay on, while the crampons go in our bags, and the picks and helmet get strapped to our bags. A quick stop at the local café for a breakfast burger (pre-ordered, $8.50 and worth every penny), and we’re off into the sunrise heading for the mountains.
The walk is composed of several parts. The first is relatively flat, the second is affectionately named ‘Devils Staircase,’ the third is a flat area of the volcano, followed by a steep walk up said volcano, the fifth is heading down, and the sixth is a relatively flat wander through a forest. The biggest issue is that because there’s so many different landscapes, you need you figure out what layers you need. Which is an issue because my bag’s already pretty damn full, and trying to find space for 2 heavy jackets and a fleece is kind of difficult. I have to get creative with the holdings, but that takes a step aside when we finally get in sight of Mt. Ngauruhoe, or as it’s started to be known thanks to Lord of the Rings – Mt. Doom.
Unfortunately for us, the weather is really bad this day. We’ve ended up with heavy fog – essentially low hanging cloud, and for much of the walk we can’t see anything…until we can.
Within a minute, it’s covered in fog again, but at least we can see the infamous mountain, sporting its head of white snow, before we start heading up the toughest part of the trek, devil’s staircase.
It’s essentially hundreds of steps up a very steep slope. I’m not exactly unfit, but I definitely do my best work on flat surfaces. Within the first few stages, I’m all the way back at the end of the group, panting like a dog. Half my water’s gone before I’m even mid-way up!
Thankfully, mercifully, about 2 hours in, we finally hit the midway, and all of the soft, soft snow. The cloud/fog here is so thick I literally can’t see where the snow stops and the sky starts. People are appearing out of mid-air as they walk around.
Since the snow has started, it’s time to bring out the crampons. But first, get the layers back on, and then take out the spiky soles of death. They’re not hard to get on, but they do make things awkward. Add an additional 2 inches of height, and they cause damage if you brush your legs too close. Basically heels with teeth.
It takes a good half hour to get these things on and learn how to walk in them. We also have to use the pick as a walking stick – pretty much the only use we have for this thing…but damn do you need it. Not only is it steep, but your feet are struggling to grip, even with the crampons. As an added bonus, there’s a really strong wind while we walk through the cloud, pretty much pinning us to the rock. Every time we get some shelter we’re huddled down. Even my camera is struggling as it’s gotten soaking wet, even through waterproof layers.
We finally reach the top…unfortunately the cloud is still extremely heavy. We can almost see the crater if we go to the edge, but in this wind I’m kinda sticking close to the centre.
Ironically, once we start walking down towards the Emerald Lakes, the weather suddenly clears, and we FINALLY get some decent views of the top.
We take this time to take off the crampons, although not before one poor girl missteps and slips down. Thankfully she’s fine, but I know her pain as I did something similar on the way down and my ankle didn’t thank me for it. At least because the weather clears up, we have time to hang around and recover from it…while others decide to risk the frozen lake. Apparently it’s an inch thick, and people are going at it with the axes to see if they can break it. Breaking the only thing keeping you afloat from freezing water seems like a really stupid idea to me. Credit where credit’s due, none of them fall through.
Now that we’ve gotten over the hump, the weather’s properly cleared up and we get to enjoy the walk down, with close to clear skies and some clear snow, before heading down into the bushland. This is a pretty nice walk, although its hideously muddy, and due to the flat walk, we’re seeing the same view for about an hour. It’s a nice view, but I am so over it when we finally get into the grasslands and walk down the ridiculously windy pathway.
I end up joining up with another slower girl as the rest of the group has sped into the distance (with a handful miles behind me) when we hit the forest. It takes about 45 minutes once you leave the mountain, and it has my least favourite things – stairs. Why we have to go up when we’re heading down, I’ll never know. There’s a great sigh of relief when we clear the trees and see the parking area, and the free drinks/booze next to the bus.
All in all, its an 8-hour trip, and my feet are killing me by the end of it. When we get to the hostel for the night – the Pukenui Lodge – I walk to the fireplace and collapse in front of it, quite literally.
At least I don’t have to worry about dinner. One of the other girls has started cooking a giant meal of pasta for everyone to dig into. Means the only thing I have to worry about is making sure my bag is packed for Wellington tomorrow. It’s gonna be a long trip in the bus before we get there.