The Winter Tour of Tongariro National Park

The view from Red Crater

Every year as the temperature starts to drop I get the same longing to be up high in the hills, above the snowline and as far as possible from civilisation. This year was no different, so when Ben called and said bro, we need to get to the hills again, I knew it was on. Past excursions with Ben ‘Hardman’ Howell included the mighty 9465 ft Mt Tapuae-o-nuku (report here ) and our more recent Barry Crump inspired 16 hour epic in a storm in the Ureweras.

So after some discussion it was decided a mid winter grand traverse of the Central Plateau would suffice. We would start and finish at Whakapapa, and include a climb to the summit of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. We were stoked to be joined by ‘Trooper’ Tom Anselmi, a veteran of many adventures including an epic 25000 km ride on his farm bike from Kamchatka to London.

top of glacier
Trooper Tom and Ben Hardman Howell, legends among men

This mission had all the key elements that I love…seemingly impossible targets, high altitude, long days through remote country, epic vistas, and of course great camaraderie. We had a six day window pencilled in which to complete the 3 day mission. It was with much anticipation we watched the weather brew the preceeding week, a stiff southerly blew up the country and produced this years largest dump of snow on the area. A high pressure system and blue skies followed behind giving us the perfect weather window. Frothing like kiddies in a candy store, we packed our bags and headed on down south.

With all the fresh snow avalanche risk was high. We had pushed our trip back a day to mitigate the risk and allow the pack to harden. Ben, a backcountry snowboarding specialist, had been in contact with various backcountry ski patrollers from both sides of the mountain. Reports were favourable, including to be ready for sheet ice on windward slopes. The Hardman had equipped us with transceivers and shovels, and over a cold brew in National Park the night before briefed the lads on how to dig him out. Perfect.

We set off in darkness at 630 am from the top of the Bruce. The ski fields were eerily empty, and we climbed under a stunning dawn over the mountain. The skies were clear apart from the shower of snow from the snow machines pumping the trails with a fresh layer. There was some dicussion about the best line to tackle the climb to the summit plateau.

Heading up the valley below Glacier Knob

We strapped the crampons on at the ski field boundary and headed up the shallow valley to the distant horizon under a warm morning sun. The going was tough with heavy laden packs and 3 days supplies. As we trudged up to the valley ice hardened and we were stoked to arrive abeam Glacier Knob with a mint view down over the summit plateau. It had taken us 4 hours to get to the top.

Descending into the Summit Plateau from Glacier Knob

The summit plateau is vast and spectacular. After a steep climb down into the plateau we were stoked (and tired) to be making fresh tracks in deep untouched powder. The distant rugged ridge line of Te Heu Heu ridge was our taget that loomed high and intimidating over the Mangatoetoenui Glacier.

summit plateau
Fresh tracks over the vast summit plateau, Te Heu Heu ridge in the background

We had left early that morning and were hoping to walk off the mountain via the Glacier and Takino ski fields, but uncertantinty about snow conditions on the otherside of the mountain meant we wanted to leave a way out back the way we came over the summit plateau. Ben conducted some tests for slab avalanche risk on the pack at the top of the Mangatoetoenui glacier and after a quick assessment (it looked pretty solid) we headed on down. We were pleasantly surpised with the lack of ice, and quite the opposite – we spread out and crossed the deepest driest powder I have ever encountered in NZ. The lads were gutted not to have there sliding gears with them!

Ben checking how solid the snow pack is at the top of Mangatoetoenui Glacier
Down Glacier
Descending down the Mangatoetoenui Glacier through deep dry powder

The rugged remote beauty of the Eastern side of Mt Ruapehu – huge bluffs, sharp ridge lines and steep glaciers was spectacular. We continued down the mountain making the first tracks. We finally joined a poled route that lead us into the Takino skifield. After a brief chat with some of the more eccentric characters of this club field we pushed on knowing we had another at least 4 hours to run to our hut for the night. We had been going almost 8 hours.

deep snow
Coming down the slopes below Te Heu Heu Ridge. Hard work in the snow!

We hit the round the mountain track in fading light. The track was realtively easy going after our previous climbing but sections of deep snow and river crossing slowed our progress. It was epic being out in the remote country under darkness in perfect weather conditions. The lads started dreaming of warm fireplaces and I got my usual end of day mad march on and just wanted to get there. The Waihohonu hut after 12 hours out on our feet was a welcome site. The water pipes were frozen, but man that fire was epic. DOC has done a great job with that hut. Ben brewed up the freeze dried ‘sunday roast’ , Tom produced some delicious single malt to help us rehydrate and entertained us with some epic tales of adventure and isolation on the roads through Russia. Day 1 complete.

fēnix 3 (red) vs Ambit2 (blue)
First day over the top. Note the massive difference in accuracy of two of the trialled GPS watches – fēnix 3 (red) vs Ambit2 (blue)

The next day started early again with another 12 + hour day and a couple more summits to bag. As the day dawned enroute we were greeted with some amazing sites and colours with the sunrise lighting up the snowladen SE slopes of Ngauruhoe. It was another magical morning, we felt like we had the mountains to ourselves. With not a breath of wind or cloud in the sky we had one of those epic winter days ahead for us. There were sections of bush tracks with trees laden heavy with snow and I felt like I was in North America.

Sunrise in Paradise
Unbelievably epic morning in paradise, had the place to ourselves
East Narahoe
In the foothills of the mighty Mt Ngauruhoe

I was excited to approach the craters of Tongariro and Emerald lakes via the wide Oturere valley for the first time. As we hit the valley progress became slow under very deep and tiring snow. We were gutted not to have snowshoes with us (what were we thinking?!). Bens knees were feeling stuffed and on arriving after 3 hours at Oturere hut we reassessed our position. Looking at the miles of terrain ahead in the demanding snow conditions Ben decided to let the summits go, nurse his knees and focus on trying to make it to the next hut by nightfall. Trooper Tom and I decided we would push ahead to make a dash for the summits and see how the day unfolded.

Trooper Tom lead the way charging like a man on a mission up the valley. The going was hard through more deep snow. I struggled to keep up as he cramponed up the steep icy ridge to Emerald lake.

Heading up the ridge to Red Crater. Frozen Emerald Lakes far below with the Oturere Valley to right

We were greeted at the top of the ridge with a mint panorama over north crater and the frozen Emerald lakes. Tom ventured out onto the lake, the ice was thick enough!

Trooper Tom testing the Ice on Emerald Lake

We pressed on up the ridge to the summit of Red Crater. The going had been slow despite our persistance and we reassesed our summit objectives. We had already been going 7+ hours and did not want to be high on the Ngauruhoe at nightfall so elected to summit Tongariro and unfortunately forgo the more challenging climb of Ngauruhoe.

rest braeak
Tom contemplating what could have been
tongariro ridge
The mellow but spectacular route to Tongariro Summit
ice blocks
Remnants of less favorable day on the hill were visible on the marker poles

The walk to Tongariro followed a stunning ridgeline and had an icy traverse on the way to a narrow summit top. We were elated to be on top of another mountain!

Tongariro Summit

From the top we could see Ben coming over the top of Red Crater and we headed back to meet him. The long walk out to Mangatepoto in darkness was mentally draining as we arrived to a surprisingly busy hut. We had been going all day and not stopped to eat any lunch so preceeded to smash lunch and dinner in quick sucession. Day 2 complete, after another 12 hours on the trails.

There had been some discussion about an early morning dash to bag the summit of Ngauruhoe on the morning of Day 3. To be honest we were pretty stuffed after 2 long days, but the weather destroyed any slim chance we had been up for it. The forecast frontal system was on its way, winds had picked up to gale strength and the summit of the mountians was quickly enveloped in cloud in the morning. I was relieved the weather had closed the door because mentally I was spent. I still wonder how we managed to get within 3 hours of climbing the 4 (Ruapehu/Tongariro/Ngauruhoe/Taranaki) in 24 hours all those years back!! So Day 3 was a cruiser, we set off after a late start for a straighforward 3 hour walk out to the Chateau through an eroded trail back to the car.

Mt Taranaki from Tongariro

It had been another epic trip to the hills. I still try and put my finger on what it is that gives me so much satisfaction everytime I head out. Undoubtably a large part is the quality of the companions who share the love of the hills and the trails. Its amazing how much my thoughts turn back to my times in the hills as I go back to my day to day life. Thanks to our ladies who have been so supportive you gals are legends xxx


4 thoughts on “The Winter Tour of Tongariro National Park

  1. Thom, your alpine reports are food for the soul of the modern man chaffing against his tether to the office cubicle. Gotta get my adventure fix soon.

  2. Epic photos and great writeup thom. Your mention of the 4/24 mission has me excited. We’ll be in good shape from the running events later this year, so could aim for jan?

  3. Thanks guys, was a beauty… Looking forward to the next one. Matt, nice website, didn’t know u had one of them !! You talk of 4/24 and the thought makes me wanna dry retch right now, try again in a couple of weeks

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