A Tramp through Tongariro

Hut Stories
  |  Gorp.com

So here we are, now, sitting around the stove in the hut as Steve tells us stories of ski-mountaineering in the park, of taking groups to the summit lake of Mount Ruapehu and watching it change color from baby blue to sullen gray.

"You know what that means, don't you?" he asks. No, we murmur.

"It means she's gonna blow! When that lake turns gray, you wanna get out of there."

Steve was right. A handful of months earlier Ruapehu, then 2,797 meters, had achieved international fame with a spectacular eruption, hurling smoke and ash and lava and other subterranean junk miles into the air.

"Played hell with the ski season," grumbles Steve. It did, too: Mount Ruapehu hosts two extremely popular ski resorts and the volume of hot gray matter spewed out did no favors to the late-season snow.

Steve tells us more stories—about scraping wildlife off the road for dinner, and plucking pigeons from the hut's water tank. We aren't sure which are true, but we pay extra attention to our drinking water. Giardia is a problem in New Zealand and warning signs abound in the huts, but no one has yet mentioned Death by Pigeon.

After a crowded night in the hut, we are ecstatic to see blue sky in the morning. We race up the now-familiar track, pausing on the top long enough to snatch sight of Mount Taranaki (until recently called Mount Egmont) a hundred miles away, thrusting through the cloud. Blast the weather, we think, as we stare up the smooth slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe. Two hours are all we need to climb to the 2,287-meter summit, for a once-in-a-lifetime look down the gullet of an active volcano and then a scree-run down.

But the snow has given the mountain a treacherous coat of ice, and without ice axes or crampons or even heavy boots it would be a crazy venture. Later that day we see a helicopter churn overhead, and hear on the hut radio that two people have been killed on the volcano. Unable to resist the challenge, they had headed up the perfect 30-degree slopes, slipped on the ice, and, with no axes to arrest their fall, had smashed to the bottom. And so we turn our backs and begin a delightful journey across South Crater instead, a huge walled amphitheater with a pool of meltwater glistening in the central explosion pit. What fools we would have been, to have plowed through the fog yesterday and missed these views, which get better and better as we climb the ridge that separates South Crater and Red Crater.

Red Crater! Hot, sulphur-laden mist rises from its throat, the very breath of the Devil stroking red rock and choking the air. Gasping at the impact, we pass quickly over the ridge's high point and drop down, down toward Emerald Lakes. These, too, are amazing: brilliant-green pools of water that provide a vivid contrast to the bright red and dull gray of the crater. Despite the steam vents sprouting all around, and the warm, sometimes hot ground, the lakes are ice-cold.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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