I feel the need to tell a story to go with the enclosed photos, which have, over the past few days, received far more attention than I expected. Before I begin, though, I would like to add a disclaimer that there is no way that any photo could have possibly captured the true and accurate beauty that sat in front of us that evening and that morning... Nothing could do it true justice... And the photos are stunning (what can I say, we had a very photogenic evening)... So I can only leave it to your imagination and my meager description to attempt to grasp just how impressive this sight really was.
The last-minute nature of Eddy's inclusion, and my own work commitments, meant that we arrived at the trail head just before 11pm. As we had driven along the road towards the mountain, the moonlight reflected off the landscape, highlighting the snow-capped mountains like a beacon in the middle of an otherwise flat landscape. My level of excitement welled up from the pit of my stomach through to my throat as we marveled at how clear the evening was, and how incredibly bright the moon was. We kitted up, including my 20kg pack complete with tent and alpine sleeping bag, and headed off up the Tongariro Crossing track.
We didn't use headlights or torches. The landscape was so brightly lit by the moon that you would be forgiven for thinking it was the middle of the day and someone had applied a blue light filter to the sun. As we climbed through the first smatterings of snow and ice and onto the Southern Crater, we were greeted by a giant amphitheater of blue-white light. Behind us, another team of 3 was climbing up the mountain, to our right, we could see another couple of people climbing Mount Ngauruhoue, and in front of us, in the distance across the smooth, pancake-like crater, we could see a larger group climbing down off Red Crater ridge. It was a bizarre experience... All these slightly unhinged people out at nearly 1am on a Saturday morning, playing on the mountain in the moonlight just like it was the middle of the day.
Despite it being so late (or early), our spirits and the mood was pretty high, as was everyone else's. We stopped as we crossed other parties to share in our excitement at being treated to such a stellar evening. As we made our way along the crossing, I found it hard to stop taking photos. I just wanted so badly to capture this beauty and share it with everyone I knew... But it was a vain attempt... Really, there was no way to truly experience the evening without being there... The cool light reflecting off every slope and surface, shimmering off the crystalline mountain slopes that surrounded us on every side, the crunch of our crampons on the cold, firm ice, the warmth of the climbs and the biting cold when we stopped for photos or a break, and the lengthy moonshadows that kept us company... It was all so surreal.
As we crossed the Southern Crater and started climbing Red Crater, the windless calm we had been experiencing was replaced by a raging, icy cross-wind. Our jackets flapped around our heads and fatigue starting setting in as we battled with the icy slope that had been stripped bare of any snow. The wind carried the smell of the alpine scrub from below up the slope and into our nostrils. I felt so alive... Occasionally I would look behind me to see Mount Ngarauhoue standing boldly against the night sky, illuminated by the moonlight and bordered by twinkling stars. The addition of the blistering wind had added a foreboding and serious mood to this part of the climb, and watching the other parties on the mountain disappear into Mangatepopo Valley left us reveling in the fact that the mountain was now all ours for the rest of the evening. The descent into Central Crater brought us huge respite from the wind, and as we climbed up onto the ridge alongside blue lake, that was where we decided to make home for the evening.
It was roughly 3am when we started pitching our tent. I had recently purchased a new alpine tent and this was the first time I had pitched it outside of my living room. It was a frustrating exercise with frosty fingers, but we had soon set up our little abode (I was actually rather stoked with my purchase!). This was the part of the evening where I got some of my best photos. The wind had abated and provided the stillness required for a longer exposure time. Seeing our little yellow tent pitched against a background of shimmering mountains and millions of stars was quite a sight to behold. I just wanted to stay outside in the company of the evening. It was so indescribably beautiful.
We knew this was special. We knew how incredibly privileged we were to be here, in this place, in this moment, with each other. There is something that makes an experience that much more special when you have a reliable buddy to confirm that you are well within your rights to feel stoked. We lay down, but didn't get much sleep. My cup-a-soup and tea had me crawling out of my sleeping bag and leaving the tent to relieve myself every 30mins, and two hours later our alarm would go off.
It was time for the sunrise, and as if it were even possible, the beauty of the sunrise matched that of the evening before. We climbed a nearby peak and felt the first rays of warmth crest the Kaimanawas and the band of low cloud... Pink highlights danced around the sky to the west, and around Mount Ngarauhoue. The lower slopes of the mountain were spotted with patches of snow amongst the black scree, and all the ice and snow around us, which had been blue the night before, was now shades of orange and pink as the sun moved higher in the sky. From our viewpoint, our tent was merely a dot in a huge white expanse. How incredibly lucky we were to be able to experience and witness what could only be described as one of nature's finest moments.
After a quick breakfast and tent deconstruction, we trudged from east to west across central crater and took a backcountry route up over the summit of Tongariro and down a lovely little ridgeline to return home.
I remember driving into Mangatepopo carpark not even 12 hours earlier and thinking to myself "this is crazy... Who does this at nearly midnight?", but it was too late to plead insanity. We had committed to the adventure and we were rewarded justly for doing so. I thanked the mountain as we stepped back on the track to return to the car. What an incredible show you put on for us, Tongariro. How amazing it is to feel so small, insignificant and vulnerable, yet so incredibly empowered...