Champlain Abroad Goes Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Kia ora!

Champlain Abroad Students in front of the Emerald Pools. L to R: (back) Meghan, Alexa, Connor, Ali,Seth, Kate Kohl (front) Sarah, Emmalee

On the second weekend in April, the whole Champlain Abroad crew went on a road trip.  The journey began at 6pm outside WSA, when we loaded up the massive twelve-person van that we rented.  Seriously, the thing was a small bus. The first leg of the journey was a 5 ½ hour car ride to the south. Kohl volunteered to take the wheel from our starting point in Auckland all the way to our destination in Tongariro. We only stopped once along the way, in Hamilton, to refuel, eat, and pick up groceries for the next day’s meal.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
AUSM lodge and the spaceship we rented for the weekend.

We arrived in Tongariro a little before midnight.  Another perk of attending AUT is that they have a small lodge, big enough for twelve people, in Tongariro. AUSM, the school’s student union, owns the property and rents it out by the weekend to students at little to no cost. Since we filled almost all of the beds, we each paid $15 a night! The lodge was open plan with one huge space for the combined living/dining/kitchen areas, complete with a wood-burning stove. Off of the central space were three bedrooms with varying numbers of bunkbeds in each and an attached bathroom.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

On Saturday, we were all up and out of the lodge in time to catch the 8am shuttle to the Tongariro National Park. The whole purpose of the trip was to attempt the 12 mile long Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”. We arrived onsite at half past eight and immediately took to the trail. The first two miles or so was an easy walk through a relatively flat and barren igneous rock-filled field at the foot of Mt. Tongariro. We paused for a break at the last bathroom station on the up-hill side of the mountain before continuing on our way.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Starting the hike!

Playtime was over. The next four or five miles were intense. The mountain rose into the clouds with no warning and the trail began to zigzag back and forth across the shear, rocky face. At this point, the path was more of a staircase. Each step was probably a good 18 inches high; luckily for me, I was given the gift of ungodly long legs. Safe to say the quads and the hammies got a nice workout. As everyone went at their own pace, we got spread out a few times on the ascent. We all met back up at the leveling off point where the trail diverged and the choice had to be made to continue on the same path or to do the Mt. Ngauruhoe Summit Trail. We all really wanted to do the Mt. Ngauruhoe trail because the mountain was made famous in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as Mt. Doom. However, it was an extra three hour round trip hike and we were on a timetable because the shuttle back home was meant to pick us up at 4:30pm at the end of the trail. Also, our shuttle driver had cautioned us to not attempt the hike if it was cloudy. Apparently, that trail was much more dangerous and much easier to become lost on. By the time we had reached the trailhead it was nothing but clouds in the sky; we had trouble seeing more than 20 feet in front of us. We decided to save that hike for another, better weather day. We turned left at the fork and went on our way.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The stairs leading up to the stairs that lead to…more stairs.

The next leg of the hike was certainly not for people with a fear of heights or those
without a strong, adventurous spirit. The next mile or so was much more steep and there were no stairs. As we walked, the rocks shifted below our feet and sent smaller ones tumbling down the mountainside. The trail now was only a few feet wide and on other side of it, the mountain dropped off rather sharply. At one point, there was a chain bolted into the side of the mountain to hold on to as we climbed. At last, we had made it. We sat beside a boulder, to shield ourselves as best we could from the frigid, dew-heavy air that ripped over the crest of the mountain, and we ate.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Seth posing for a quick picture on our short break after lunch.

After finishing our lunches, and feeling refueled, we took a few photos and made moves toward the Emerald Pools. The Emerald Pools are geothermal pools that are fed from the mountain on which they sit. When we saw them we all felt a rush of accomplishment and gained a second wind. We probably spent around 30 minutes admiring the three pools and taking pictures. Alongside the pools we also found the source of sulfur smell we had been inhaling, and now become immune to, the whole way up the mountain. (Oops, I forgot to mention that the mountain smelled like a giant egg fart.) Tall columns of smoke rose into the sky from yellow stained spots in the earth before being picked up by the wind and blown down the mountain.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Me in front of one of the Emerald Pools.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Emerald Pools were so beautiful!

The descent. The fastest mile we walked on our journey was probably the most dangerous. The backside of the mountain, at least the first mile or so, was all loose dirt and gravel. Once you got going, it was hard to stop.  Speed wasn’t the issue, neither was the fact that the mountain fell away fast on either side of the four foot wide trail; it was the people in front of you, the ones who stood still or froze up in fear, the trick was avoiding them.  Some of us ran down this section, others slid on their butts, the rest crab-walked going down sideways…if only we had a sled!

Low visibility on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Low visibility.

Next, and for the rest of the descent, the trail was skirted with alpine brush and flowers that slowly transformed into a rainforest with tree branches and huge ferns creating a tunnel overhead. The views were amazing. The weather was wonderful on this side of the mountain. There was little cloud coverage and the sun was shining down over the mountains and lakes in the distance. Its radiance confirmed that the hardest part was now over and we had conquered our goal of completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Although, I have got to say, the last marked mile was the longest of my life. In total, we walked a little over 12 miles in 6 hours.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

That night, when we returned home, we had reason to celebrate. We had all pitched in for ingredients and I made enough homemade pasta sauce with sausage, spaghetti, and garlic bread to feed a small nation. No, really. We had to cook pasta three different times and when we ran out of sauce we switched to canned carbonara sauce. Still, that wasn’t enough but Seth had thought ahead and heated up two frozen pizzas. We spent the rest of the night together, playing cards and drinking a well-deserved beer or a glass of wine. And the mighty Champlain Conquerors of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing were all in bed before 10pm.  

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Priceless views worth every mile we walked to be able to see them.


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