January 17th 2017
Ketetahi car park – Whakapapa
16.6 miles + Mt Doom side trip
Total distance: 672.7 miles
I had a terrible night sleep, I was apprehensive about the day ahead and worried about getting caught camping in a place we shouldn’t be. People started arriving at 4:30am and they made so much noise; slamming doors, music blaring, shouting at each other. So we were awake early. I felt terrible my stomach was churning and I had to run to the toilet, the outcome wasn’t too bad, and I don’t think I’m ill at all, I think it stems from being worried about the long day ahead, the bad sleep and the thought of smelling that sulphur again.
The car park was completely full by the time we stayed hiking which was about 6:10am. The earliest we have got going for a long time! We had that massive climb to do back up the Ketetahi hut. The stairs were a killer, I was struggling and there was still so much of the day left! The sulphur smell soon hit me and it was doing nothing for my churning stomach. It’s one of those smells that really gets into your mouth and you feel like you’re chewing on it, then you feel like you’re swallowing it. It’s so so gross. But there was nothing I could do about it. I had to keep breathing and hope that the nausea would pass.
The wind was blowing in gusts across the open plains and it was really slowing things down, bit on the plus side it was clear blue sky. After 2 hours we were back at the hut. I tried to eat something but could only manage half a croissant and a slice of cheese. The sulphur was really killing my appetite. We then had even more climbing to get to the start of the crossing, only 3 hours into the day and we had already climbed over 3000ft. The wind was strong at the top of the climb near blue lake, but it eased off a bit when we dipped down the other side and headed towards Emerald lakes and the Red Crater. This is where all the people were hanging out.
The climb up to red crater was tough because the ground was so loose, every step up you took included half a step backwards so progress was slow, plus the 500 other people up there who had no clue what they were doing and no regard for anyone else made things difficult too! Every time I looked behind me the views of Emerald lakes just got better and better. Unfortunately the smell of sulphur got worse and worse, I think it could be one of the worst smells in the world, even worse than a dead possum. Mt Doom looked even more intimidating than it had done before and it was hard to believe we would be able to summit it and come back down in the time we had.
As we passed red crater, which was cool, but more impressive on the ascent rather than when you are right next to it, the volume of people increased. Although from stories I have heard, we had a pretty reasonable day, some people have said they are queuing just to walk along which sounds hideous! For us the people were a bit of an annoyance but mostly avoidable. I was surprised but the vast range of society the people represented, the whole spectrum was out there. From people in full mountaineering kit to people in shorts and tshirt who were just carrying a sandwich in a plastic bag. The forecast was for clear skies which held true, but you never know if the wind will pick up so I think it’s pretty foolish to be without a jacket at least, but there you go!
From what we could work out the actual crossing itself is the flat part (the saddle) which goes between Mt Tongariro and Mt Doom. There is a narrow part which creates a bit of a bottleneck, but once we were past that and down the slippy part it was a nice easy walk towards the junction to climb Mt Doom. Once past red crater the sulphur smell goes away and it becomes a lot nicer to breathe.
We arrive at the junction and look for somewhere to stash our packs, hundreds of other people are there too, I think we must have seen around 1500 people today. One of the main reasons we saw so many people is that we are going against the flow, most people do the crossing heading north as there is less elevation gain that way. We saw a guy from Oturere hut and he gave us some really good tips for summiting, he told us to climb up the rocks because the sand is too difficult to get up, then slide down the sand. Sounded easy enough. We heard Erin before we saw her, she was with Kristen and they had just done the climb as they were doing the crossing in the opposite direction to us, they confirmed the guys advice and also told us to leave our poles behind as we would be doing a lot of scrambling.
We filled our pockets with our camera and sweets and set off for the summit of Mt Doom. From the base it had looked super steep because it was super steep. The sand is difficult to walk on but once we reached the rocky patch it do a little easier, although easy wouldn’t be a word I would associate with this mountain. I used my hands a lot to support myself but of course it’s all lava and the rocks are like razors so my hand got pretty sore pretty quickly. We picked our way up the rocks, occasionally having to move from rock pile to rock pile across sandy patches. It was fairly slow going but not too difficult until we came to the final push to the top where the ground became a lot looser and falling over meant cutting yourself up pretty bad.
Looking behind us the views over to blue lake where we had come from this morning were incredible. I kept thinking how lucky we have been with the weather and how terrible it would be up here in the rain and wind. I’ve heard some people have been waiting for years and years to do this. As I came up to the top it made me say ‘wow!’ I knew it was a crater but it was breathtaking, it was right there, a deep crater, a perfect image of a volcano. You can walk around the edge of the crater so of course we didn’t that, to get all the way up here and not walk around the rim would be crazy! The views were incredible from every angle, on the other side you could look out over Mt Ruapehu, which looks like a smaller mountain but is actually higher.
On our way up we had seen people on their way down dislodge some of the bigger rocks which roll down the mountain gathering momentum. Cries of ‘ROCKS’ ring out down the mountain and everyone stops in the tracks to see if they are going to be taken out by a rock, there is very little time to react! We were slightly nervous about our descent. It was a beautiful day on top of the mountain and I didn’t really want to come down but time was marching on. The first part of the descent was pretty sketchy and the rocks were super slippy, not only did they slide underfoot but it was really easy to catch your shoe on them because they were jagged. Then came the really sketchy part, one wrong move and it looked like you would just slide straight down the mountain. I fell countless times, my backside and the heels of my hands bearing the brunt of the falls. We shuffled about, using our bums and hands for extra purchase. When we finally got to the sandy bit things became a little easier and a little quicker. It was possible to slide down on a wave of sand and rock, some people likened it to skiing, but skiing doesn’t hurt as much when you fall over. I fell a lot, it was impossible not to! I got a few scrapes and bruises but nothing bad. I imagine all sorts of injuries are sustained from going down this mountain! It was a long and exhausting descent, something I am in no hurry to repeat for a very long time.
At the bottom we took a brief stop to remove all the sand and rocks from our shoes, have a quick sip of water (very dehydrated) and we moved on. The mountain completely beat us up. I have holes in my shorts, shoes and skin, I have used muscles I haven’t used in a long time and I have various sore bits all over my body from falling over so much. But it was so worth it. The rest of the trail down to the Mangatepopo hut was luxurious in comparison, it was steps and boardwalk almost the whole way. I normally like descending but I had had enough by now, I didn’t want to go up either, or walk on the flat, I just wanted to stop walking, but we still had a long way to go.
It was 3 miles to the hut, we didn’t bother to stop there as we still had 5.5 miles to go to get to Whakapapa. The estimated time was 3 hours, or 5 hours in bad weather. We hoped the couple of dry days we have had will have dried out the mud and we would be closer to 3 than 5. The trail was terrible in places, like it had once been a trail then water ran down it cutting a deep trench (which is probably what happened!) making it very had to walk on/in. But we ploughed on through it. The sun was so intense, way more intense than any other part of the day, I had to use my bandana to shield the right side of my face as it felt like it was burning up. I also tried to avoid a puddle and ended up submerging my feet completely, so now I had wet feet on top of everything. It was very close to strop territory, but today had been so awesome and I was too tired to have a strop so I just carried on. We ended up smashing the time and made it to Whakapapa in just 2 hours.
It was 6:40 so it had taken us 12.5 hours, we worked out that we had 7400ft of elevation and around 5000ft of delevation today. We had done the Northern circuit, which is advertised as a 4 day walk, plus 13 extra miles and a side trip up to the top of Mt Doom in just 2 days! And we have now walked around the base and the top of Mt Doom which is pretty cool. It has been completely exhausting!
We went to Whakapapa holiday park to find the office closed and a no vacancy sign. I called the out of office number and asked if they could fit in 2 tents. They were fantastic, someone came down to see us in just a couple of minutes, let us pitch our tents, use all the facilities, gave us free wifi codes and said we could settle up in the morning. We were super happy. Although the desire to do anything was at an all time low, we managed to pitch our tents and take a wonderful shower to remove the layers of volcanic dust coating everything. We had considered waiting until the morning to shower but I’m so glad we felt too disgusting not to, now I feel wonderful.
I was starving now, having not eaten much at all today, and the thought of anything from my food bag wasn’t appealing at all. We made our way down the road to the Chateau Tongariro Hotel, which was a bit too fancy for us! There was a piano man in the lounge and people dressed smartly. The restaurant was a little pricey for us but they did have a cafe which more reasonable food options. The waitress gave them a call and asked if we could eat there, they were technically closed but they would make an exception for us. Bloody brilliant! So we had a great, warm, filling dinner, a big bowl of chicken spaghetti for me and chicken curry for Julia and a very well deserved soda.
After that it was time to be horizontal.
I’m walking thousands of miles for Just A Drop because everyone should have access to clean water. Please donate here, every little bit helps.