Matthew Cattin learns the basics of mountaineering and avoids the crowds on a winter expedition on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Like fresh sheets, the South Crater stretched an unblemished white to the distant slopes. Given Tongariro’s reputation for volatile weather – especially in winter – we knew we’d hit the jackpot with clear skies all the way to Mt Taranaki.
After a sweaty climb from the Mangatepopo Road end, we’d made it over the cusp and onto the usually lunar landscape of South Crater, now a brilliant white.
A short diversion brought our group to a gentle slope where we enjoyed a crash course in mountaineering 101. It was my first time experiencing crampons and an ice axe, and with unbridled energy I climbed up and slid down over and over, practising little self control, but plenty of self arrests.
We then cut a zigzagging line skyward, crampons crunching their teeth into the solid incline. Everything felt cinematic. Just several hours prior, I’d been on a shuttle with no experience with mountaineering equipment, and here I was sticking perilously to a mountain, no doubt feeling a lot cooler than I looked.
In summer, the views from Red Crater are enjoyed with dozens of others, but not today. The ant trail of walkers was absent, replaced by a refreshing stillness.
Snow covered most of the landscape, but for the turquoise lakes and other geological hot spots.
For all its serenity, there was a sense of danger here, too. Weather is the usual killer on the crossing and I was happy to be with a guide.
Tongariro Guided Walks owner and head guide Terry Blumhardt says decent gear and a good weather forecast are no match for experience.
“Guides generally live in the area where they guide and obsess about the weather and ground conditions, even on their day off,” he says.
While the park’s weather is dangerous year round, it is particularly so in winter, where avalanches and sub-zero temperatures are commonplace, and sometimes it may be that a guide’s best advice is the hardest to hear.
“Taking a guide never guarantees a point A to point B day, as the changeability of snow and ice do not allow that luxury,” Blumhardt says.
“However by being a part of a guided group you have increased your chance of going further and more safely.”
Where Tongariro National Park
Who Tongariro Guided Walks, www.tongariroguidedwalks.nz
Duration 6-8 hours