It was the beginning of winter and the we already had seen the first snows of the season. I had a few days off work and I was hesitating between a surf mission to Taranaki or a hiking trip to the Tongariro region. According to the forecast we had a high that would stay in the North Island for at least three days. Despite having been in New Zealand for a couple of years already, I hadn't done the famous Tongariro Crossing and was dying to check it out. After doing some research in the great DoC website I decided to do the Northern Circuit, as it would allow me to experience most of the Alpine Crossing and a bit more!
I left Wellington in the early morning. The roads were empty and when the first rays of light started to come up on the horizon I knew it was going to be amazing. It was one of those very rare days where no cloud could be spotted in the sky. I thought I was dreaming but half of the way I was able to see Mount Taranaki on the horizon. Not long after, the majestuous Mount Ruapehu appeared in front of me, completely covered in the first layers of snow.
I got to Whakapapa Village around 11h and went straight to the DoC center. I bought a couple of hut tickets and had a chat with the ranger about the forecast and the avalanche risk conditions. According to him I would have a couple of days window with great weather and then there would be a change. I left my car in the carpark and started the walk towards the first hut of the trip, Mangatepopo Hut.
From Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut
I don't know if it was because it was a working day but I didn't see anyone during this part of the circuit. I assume this is not a very popular tramp since all the tourists tend to to do the Alpine Crossing single day walk. It wasn't the best trail I've ever done but it was a beautiful day and the views were already great. Muddy and icy at a times, I thought it was a good warm up for the next day or two.
It only took me 2-3 hours to get to the hut. I brewed some tea, read under the sun and admire the great views of Mount Ngauruhoe. Early dinner, some star gazing and straight to bed.
The Crossing and to Waihohonu Hut
I got up quite early since I was a bit scared of the crowds. I had heard that on a good day you'd find yourself walking in line with other people all the way. But sleeping in the hut gives you some advantage over the crowds that get dropped at the carpark, around half an hour down the way.
I was alone all the way up until the South Crater. This bit of the crossing is magnificent. You're surrounded by volcanic and alpine landscape on both sides and go up from 1200m to around 1700m quite quick. The South Crater is a big plain between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro. I thought of going up Ngauruhoe but I didn't have an ice axe and wasn't feeling confident enough to do it by myself. Instead I thought I'd give the Tongariro summit a try. I crossed the plain and kept ascending.
At this point I was already wearing crampons as everything was covered in snow and some sections were completely frozen due to the low temperatures of the night before. Just before getting to the Red Crater I saw the signs of the path leading to the Tongariro summit. I followed them and made it to the summit shortly. It wasn't a technical or steep walk but the views from the summit were great.
When I got back to the main trail I found myself surrounded by the masses doing the Alpine Crossing. I walked along the Red Crater, the Emerald Lakes and had great views of the Blue Lake. Despite being surrounded by literally hundreds of people, all the things I heard about the place were true. I don't have the words really, it is just magic.
After the Emerald Lakes I took the path that goes down along the Oturere Stream. This section of the trail offers different views of Ngauruhoe. You follow the stream and have these big icy walls on the left while Ngauruhoe is on your right. I got to Oturere Hut around 14h and had lunch under the sun. For a moment I thought of spending the night there but it was too early and the day was too good to stop.
I didn't meet anyone until I got to Waihohonu Hut, which was great :)
Back to Whakapapa Village
After having slept like a rock I woke up ready to tackle the last day of the tramp. It was foggy and drizzling but at least it wasn't windy. This part of the tramp crosses the plains between Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, providing great views of both volcanoes along the way. I already knew this bit since I went to the Tama Lakes last year. After a couple of hours the weather started to clear and the views improved significantly. I decided to go to the Tama Lakes since they are kind of on the way out. I met some people coming from Whakapapa Village that were heading to the Lakes as well. Apparently is a popular hike among visitors to the park.
I think it was around 13h or 14h when I made it back to Whakapapa Village.
If you're considering doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing I recommend you spending a bit more time and doing the Northern Circuit instead. You don't know how good it is until you do it.