Monday, 24 September 2007

Thinking back to Tongariro Crossing...

I don't really know when to start with this blog! Has it been a whole month since we last updated? Wow! Life really does spin by at an unbelievable pace! I suppose it would be best to start somewhere around where we last left off, which would be New Zealand. As anyone whose been following our adventures closely knows... we're not there anymore, in fact we left on the 5th of September. We stuck with the Stray tour alllllll the way around New Zealand. About the only parts we didn't see were Stewart Island (because we needed a rest day) and the very top end of New Zealand. We re-did portions of the tour where the weather had been bad. Second time to Tongariro National park for an attempt at doing the Tongariro Crossing was successful. Unfortunately, the weather was not perfect. In fact, had the wind gusts been just 20km/hr stronger we would have been forced to turn back... shall I give you my interpretation of the crossing? Yup I thought so... you really can't wait to hear it all in exciting detail. I'd show pictures as well, but I'll explain the problem with that in a minute.
We met up with Nads, the driver we had been with for a majority of our Stray tour until we hopped off her bus, in Taupo. The bus left the next morning at 6:30am... but we hung around hoping to get our key deposit back, only to realize it was a Sunday and they wouldn't open the office until 8am. So we set off in the bus at around 7am. No jeans allowed for the trek. We both wore our pajama pants. Once at the beginning of the trail, everyone is fitted with hiking boots. Yes. We had to wear used boots, a little reminiscent of going bowling, except these have a lot more wear and tear involved. Over the hiking boots, cramp-ons are fitted, then packed in our backpacks along with some water-proof leg coverings, both to be used later. Extra jackets, hats, gloves are given to everyone who needs it. And then the all-important ice-ax is added to our gear. One quick bathroom break, and we head out for the 8 hour hike over an active volcano... in winter. The sky above us has those random clouds floating by, looks like a nice day. We don't feel like we need quite so much winter gear, but looking up at the peaks, they're all snow-covered and we know it could get much colder. We set off at a bit of a bruising pace, and right away I started thinking on my previous experiences with climbing steep slopes and doing hilly hikes... and the question "What the (insert appropriate word here) am I doing on this hike? Why did I want to do this? I'm going to slow everyone up! Will I have to turn back? What is wrong with me that I even entertained the idea of doing this?" And other such questions. I kept up using shear determination, and a whole lot of that stubborness that tends to get me in to trouble sometimes. About a half hour after we started, having gone over rough terrain that was a very gradual slope, we caught up with the other half of the group that had started before us. With the two groups joined, we had 16people plus two guides. At this point we were a short walk from one of the steepest climbs we were to face that day. It was quite easy to see how much more difficult things were about to become. Up to this point, the path was quite clearly label and ANYONE could have followed it without getting lost or confused. The guides told us this was our last chance to turn back if we felt we couldn't handle the climb. After this point we would have to make a group decision on continuing or turning around. I was still in stubborn mode and decided, I've gone this far, no turning back now. I had no idea what I was about to face. Remember my previous comments, about how it tend to get out of breath and nauseous when climbing steep hills for extended periods? hehe he. Sheer stubborness and refusing to be left behind was the only reason I made it up that slope.... I have no idea why I even call it a slope. It was between 70 and 80 degrees straight up and a combination of large rough rocks and mud with random spurts of greenery. Myself and one other girl were placed at the front of the pack to set the pace, since we seemed to be having the most difficulty. Actually Laurie was placed there too, but her only "problem" was the fact that she hung around the back where I was and enjoyed being at the back watching people. It's hard to be comfortable being the pace-setter when there's a bunch of much fitter people behind you itching to pass you.
Over an hour into the hike, having polished off almost half the water we brought with us, feeling like I might be sick at any minute, we finally get to the top of this section. The guides gather us all together and tell us the wind is about to be our biggest obstacle, bundle up if we need to. Gloves and hats added to our gear, we set another blistering pace, this time across smooth, flat ground, that is very soon a snow-covered white-out where seeing 20 yards ahead is an accomplishment with the snow blowing in our faces. And suddenly I'm near the front of the pack and feeling fine. I'm a prairie girl. THIS is the easy part... snow, wind, flat, bring it on. Laurie laughed at my sudden ease and comfort level, saying she knew I'd like this part. I responded with a comment about why I would be paying to trudge through a blizzard. I couldn't believe how far behind some people got during this journey. It was the EASY part!
About 20 meters away from a steep snowy slope, we stop again, protected from the wind by the hulking mountain beside us. The easy part is over, time to put on waterproof leg protection, crampons (big sharp metal spikes strapped securely to the bottom of our boots to give grip when trudging through snow), and pull out the ice axes. We got a short lesson on how to use an ice-ax if we find ourselves slipping down a snowy mountainside. Reassuring. All geared up, we get one final warning. This is our absolute last chance to speak up if we want to turn back, the wind will get worse as we climb, it has started to rain, and this part is going to be harder than the last slope. We're all gung-ho. (we've been standing in a little sheltered cove for almost 20min getting geared up. We're rested and feeling good. What do we know.) After a hearty reply from everyone that we want to go on... the guide states that we're all stupid, and starts climbing the mountain. Not very encouraging when the guide thinks we're stupid to continue. Ten meters up and I'm already regretting my decision to continue. I know the other girl that was struggling before is having a hard time too. She's starting to complain. About ten minutes into this climb, she's asking the guide if she can turn around. After a bit, they convince her that it's really not that much farther, and the hardest bit will be over. And by then, we'll be at the half-way point, and it'll be faster to continue on than to turn back. She get's escorted to the front of the pack again to set the pace. I like the pace she sets, this I can handle. Slowly we trudge up through wet, slippery snow at a good 50 to 60 degree angle. Up and up and up some more, then we turn further to our left, travelling a very thin path, stepping carefully so we don't jab ourselves or anyone else with the crampons, the slope on to the left heads straight down at at least an 80 degree angle, and the same going up to our left... with random rocks making bumps in the smooth snow. The ice ax is gripped firmly in my right hand, ever at the ready. Random gusts of wind make it over the mountain, slamming into us. I'm using the bottom of the ax with it's short spike like a cane, as are most people. I was certain one of those gusts would send someone tumbling down if they weren't ready for it.
So we reach the summit, quick look around at fog and whiteness that we can't see beyond as the rain soaks us through. The longer we stay still the colder we get. On we go, over the black volcanic rock that's so warm I can feel it on my feet through the crampons, boots and socks, it's steaming and lovely. Soon we get to the crater, another steep slope down, feet sliding with a woosh with each step. I slip slide slowly, scared of ending up in a tumble. I'm near the back of the pack again.
The group is stopped for "lunch" a short ways from the slope. Only 10mins to eat whatever we've brought with us, the shorter the stop the less we'll freeze. The rain's still coming down. Laurie and I dig into the chocolate bar we packed... a few bites of bread, bunch of water... time to go. Through the crater, once again we're trudging on flat ground through a blizzard. You can't see more than 10 or 20 feet ahead. The guide is using a compass to navigate. Another steep snowy slope to get out of the crater. Another narrow path along the edge of snowy cliffs with the axe in our left hand this time. Finally, we're told to remove our crampons, the snow will end soon. It's amazing how slippery the snow is without them. Slipping and sliding down a much safer area, we arrive to a spot that must be where the spring run-off flows. A bit of a dip in the midst of a steep slope where many others have slid down like going down a water slide. Off we go, one by one, warned that if we rip any of the snowgear we rented we'll have to pay for it. Faster and faster down the slide, my boots won't even slow me down properly... the guide is walking along beside it... ooooooops! I knocked him flat, took him out at the back of his knees. Other people thought this was brillant... he on the other hand starts yelling out that we're not supposed to slide. Most of us wait for him to get to the front again and walk on with the faster ones, then we continue sliding... so much more fun. Off down a well marked out, muddy path, down some stairs, twisting round and going downhill all the way. Finally reach a cabin where we shelter a bit, eat some more, use the toilets, and split into two groups again, fast and slow groups this time. Laurie went with the fast group, I stuck with the slow group. I didn't use the toilets because I didn't want to strip out of soaking layers, and I thought we were almost at the end. Turns out almost at the end means about an hour and a half left. I slipped behind some bushes part way down... when you gotta go you gotta go. This part of the trek is also labelled "the devils steps" I forgot to count, but there are a LOT of stairs along the way, apparently its around a thousand. At the end of the path, we're met by the van, taken to the main office in the National Park and given beer and hot chips (french fries for you north americans), and stripped off all the rented clothing. I COULDN'T put my soaked socks into my nice dry shoes, so I went barefoot in my shoes, not caring if I'm cold. Back to the hostel, we still had to unpack our stuff from the bus, check in, and finally we could strip down and shower. Laurie simply changed into her swimmers/swimsuit and went for a dip in the hottub. I didn't even have the energy for that, all I wanted was a shower. I had worn every warm item I had with me, all my jackets and pullovers. That left me with one dry longsleeved shirt and a thin pair of pants while everything else went into the wash. Three hours later just before midnight, after a nice hot meal and finally getting our clothes from the dryer, we climbed into bed exhausted, with the alarm set for 8am the next morning.

FYI: Yes, we are currently in Europe, safe and sound. I'll try and get around to writing a few more of these, but it may be awhile depending on internet access options etc. I think we should have the net for the next few days at least.

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