Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dusty Sunset Upon the Top of a Snowless Mountain - Northern Crater Camping

I really am quite a fortunate soul. It seems that wherever I happen upon crazy ideas for adventures, I also happen upon the people to bring them to fruition with. My life is one that is filled with experiences and people that deliver meaning and joy, and for that I am grateful. I was having one such conversation with my friends Claire and Ben a couple of weeks ago (in amongst the obligatory discussion of how 9-5 work is a necessary evil to fund gear purchases). We were on our way up Tongariro in the early afternoon on a beautiful sunny day to do some camping and stargazing. I spend a lot of time up the three peaks in Tongariro National Park (as you may have noticed), and it never ceases to amaze me how much it differs from trip to trip... There is, without exception, something new to be seen or experienced each time I go up there, and it's a fantastic "training ground" for me. Having only spent my first season playing in the snow last year (and discovering how much I loved it), I have made it my mission to gradually put together a "tool box" of the skills and gear I need to keep enjoying adventures in the mountains and hopefully, eventually, pass those skills onto others so they may also enjoy the experiences which I hold so dear to my heart. The Ruapehu area is the perfect place to work on these skills, and I have come to know the terrain pretty well... It's like my little adventure playground just down the road.
But anyway, enough of the mushy stuff... We were on our way up the mountain for an adventure! The last time I had been camping up here at red crater, I remember gazing across to my left and having a flat expanse of snow catch my eye. Further inspection on the topo map showed me that it was the northern crater, and was flat as a pancake... Perfect camping spot well off the track with elevated views for the sunsets and sunrises I love so much... So ever since then, I had been on a mission to get back up there and go and check it out. We were hideously disappointed at the lack of snow up here on this visit, and we secretly wished for our camp spot to be free of boulders. Camping on the scree was going to be far more uncomfortable than camping on snow, but camping on boulders would have been a pretty crappy experience.

So we climbed up to Red Crater, then followed the Tongariro summit route until the final climb, then dipped down off the saddle to the north, negotiating the scree and boulders down the slope and back up the other side. The cold wind rose up from the south and nipped away at our skin and I continued to ignore it until the cold finally got too much for me and I succumbed to removing my pack and putting on an extra layer (removing my pack, at 19kgs, was a rather cumbersome task and one I avoided when I could... I had learned to pack smart so anything I may need was well in reach, but I had not yet mastered the art of adding and removing layers without taking the pack off, and suspected it was probably actually less awkward to remove the pack than it was to attempt "jacket gymnastics" on the side of the mountain).

Once we reached the top of the other side of the saddle, we were faced with a series of bluffs which blocked our path down onto the crater plateau. A combination of creative route choice, bum-sliding and coarse language soon saw us arrive at our destination, a lovely flat canvas which was relatively boulder-free (although we still wished there was snow there!). Ben had generously offered to bring their three-person tent, which was awesome for two reasons... Firstly, it meant I didn't have to carry a tent, and secondly, meant that we could socialise inside the tent once it got too cold outside, as opposed to me retreating to my own lonely abode. It also meant we could play UNO... But more on that later.

Ben and Claire pitched the tent whilst I took photos (sorry guys... seriously, I just didn't want to get in the way!) and we boiled up a brew. The crater plateau was a good kilometre across and we had camped on the eastern side behind a small rocky knoll to keep us out of the wind. This meant that to see the sunset, we would need to trek across to the other side of the crater, and as the sun lowered in the sky, a cloud rolled across the mountain. The haze was coloured a deep ochre red from the pending sunset, but apart from shadows, little could be seen. Moving 5m from the tent made it nearly invisible. The suggestion that we wouldn't see the sunset anyway was bandied around and then we decided that we had little better to do otherwise and so struck a westerly bearing across the featureless moonscape, dragging our feet in the scoria as we walked so we could follow our tracks back to the tent.

As we walked, the sun hung in front of us on the other side of the cloud, a large red spot blotting out the sky. Shadows of rocks and of each other crossed in front of the sun and blacked out spectacular silhouettes bordered by a hazy ochre background. It was really eerie, and had we not being in each others company, I probably would have found it a bit creepy. As we neared the other side of the crater, the cloud seemed to roll through, revealing a bright blue sky in front of us... The sun reflecting off the cloud created a incredibly stark contrast of red smoke against the blue sky. We reached the edge of the mountain just as the sun was about to disappear to find we were floating above a sea of clouds with little more than the sun and the tip of Mount Taranaki in view. The horizon above the clouds was layered with a brilliant array of colours which continued to shift and change long after the sun had left us as we made our way back to camp.

The cookers came out and meals were thrown together (I was rather jealous of Claire's frittata). We collected a series of rocks to use as tables and chairs and sat down for our feast (the size and weight of the rock we could carry was directly proportional to our comfort whilst dining). We had some wine and checked out the stars. The clear night sky and the new moon meant the blackness was punctuated by a million pin pricks of light... Sometimes I think I could stand there forever and gaze at the night sky like this. It is completely mind-boggling the concept of exactly what you are staring it. I was quite visibly stoked about being up here. It made me feel good breathing the fresh mountain air and gazing into the clear night sky.

As the evening grew colder, we retreated to the tent, hot chocolate in hand. I had recently purchased myself a new 840 loft fully waterproof sleeping bag and a new 4.6R sleeping mat and was looking forward to taking them for a test run. I stripped down to my thermals and snuggled into my sleeping bag (just as a small side-note, did you know that sleeping bags are more effective the less you wear???)... Then the UNO cards came out... There was vigorous debate surrounding how legitimate a win was if it was gained with a wild card, and after quite a competitive couple of rounds, Claire was crowned the UNO Queen of the mountain that night.

We then settled down for some sleep. My new sleeping bag was toasty warm, but I still had broken sleep (and the weirdest dreams I ever recall!). It probably didn't help that Ben's last words for the evening were "imagine how freaked out you would be if you heard footsteps around the tent right now"... Thanks for that Ben!

When we awoke at about 6am, my GPS told me it was -2.4 degrees... Inside the tent... With three people in there. I had been needing to go to the toilet since about midnight and kitted up for a quick exit from the tent. The vestibule was filled with ice crystals that had formed in the soil overnight and outside the relative warmth of the tent, the temperature was noticeably cooler. We boiled up a cuppa and climbed to the top of the rocky knoll which had protected us from the wind all evening. When we climbed over the top, we were hit with an icy blast of cold mountain air, so we stayed on the closer side, protected from the elements whilst we waited for the sun to crest the horizon, which it did in it's usual spectacular fashion, first dancing across the lakes, making them shimmer and ripple in the morning breeze, then setting the horizon and the peaks on fire. The warmth it bestowed upon my body was absolutely divine, and I soaked it up to remove the chill from my bones. It was another beautiful day we had ahead of us.

We took our time packing up our tent site. Lisa and her friends were climbing up the Tongariro Crossing in the opposite direction (from Ketatahi carpark) to meet us at Blue Lake and were running a little late, so we were at our leisure. We descended off the northern crater on what should have been a loose scree slope, but given how cold the evening had been, the slope was frozen solid, and we walked across it with barely even a pebble breaking loose. We rejoined the Tongariro Crossing just near the blue lake and meandered around to the edge of the lake, then circumnavigated it's shores. The lake had a thin layer of ice over the top of it, which made a strange, bubbly "plonk" sound when broken with a rock. The green alpine shrubbery that crawled across the ground contrasted against the deep blue of the lake and with no wind, there was quite a pronounced reflection of the surrounding ridges and peaks on the lake.

Around 11.30am, I saw the smiling face of my fave girl walking up the track towards us, her friends in tow. I was looking rather disheveled from my night on the mountain, but it didn't seem to stop people giving me the obligatory hug... I guess I'm just that lovable right?
As the morning wore on, more and more people made their way up onto the plateau, until there was a steady stream of bodies marching along the Tongariro Alpine Highway. It blew me away how many people were up there... Thousands... And the mess they made... Frozen lakes were covered in rocks that people had thrown on them and not broken the surface... The edges of the same lakes were shattered from people stomping on the edges as hard as they could to see if they could break the ice, people dropped rubbish and food, and one guy was walking along with a boom box hanging off the bottom of his pack, disturbing the peace surrounding him with some sort of repetitive fork-scratching sound layed over a kick drum (I kindly asked him to switch the f**king thing off). We were going in the opposite direction to what most people do, so fortunately, we only had to endure the loss of serenity for a relatively short period... It just reminded me of exactly why I come up here so early in the morning. It broke my heart to see people so aloof to the fact that they were treating the mountain with such apparent lack of appreciation.

I'll admit that the climb up to Red crater from this end of the track was pretty hideous and we trudged one by one up the steep slope, taking one step back for every two steps forward in the loose scree. The most demoralising part of it was seeing everyone else coming down the other way! Cresting the top of that climb and nestling into the side of the hill for some lunch was one of the best parts of the day. We had only downhill ahead of us, I was hanging with Lisa and our collection of buddies, and we were gazing upon a brilliant blue sky. What really set the day off was the stunning sunset we were treated to when we arrived at our destination at the Mangatepopo carpark. It seemed fitting to see the sun gently settling across the flats around the mountain as we pulled off our packs... The sun setting on yet another cool little adventure with the people I love most!