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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Three Peaks

Taking in the view to Ruapehu from Ngauruhoe in Winter. (Photo: Tony Tse)

To link up the three peaks of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in one day is definitely one of the most satisfying missions you can have in the Tongariro National Park. The lure of the triple has been like a toxic craving, every time the idea enters my mind a fanatical craze of planning and checking maps, weather reports and trip reports follows. One weekend in early May, with unpredictable autumn conditions, Sam Clark and I headed into Turoa's Blythe Hut late on Friday arriving just after midnight. How every great weekend adventure should begin.

Cold drizzle on Friday night at Blythe carpark

4:30am - Cold. Blythe Hut's deck was covered in icy rime, and liner sleeping bags felt thinner than ever. I downed my bag of muesli while shivering in my pit - the freezing level had dropped to 1700m overnight. We broke through frosty tussocks under a star-filled sky, picking a line towards the Skyline Ridge. Above Turoa Skifield, my light shoes felt way out of place skidding on icy snow and cold rock. I was nervous to see how my heavy-duty Black Diamond crampons would perform on Inov8-295s. Strong winds blew spindrift through our hoods and made the situation feel desperate, but we continued rapidly up the long slope to the ever-approaching summit.

At 8:30am we reached the western crater rim, and were blown away by the view over to the summit plateau. Tahurangi's summit was blasted in icicles, it felt like full winter conditions but without the the deep snow. The sun was well up in the sky - an awesome day lay ahead of us.

Tahurangi Summit (Photo: Sam Clark)

Excellent views from Tahurangi (Photo: Sam Clark)

The wester crater rim traverse from Tahurangi to Pare Col via Te Ataahua was gnarly. Sam struggled for grip with his light hiker-crampons, spikes a mere few centimeters long. At times sidling around icy bluffs presented some exposed drops below with nightmarish rocks jutting out before a long tumble to the skifield below. We took it slow, and to our relief soon found easy slopes to Pare Col.

Tricky terrain on the crater rim traverse

We set a solid pace across the summit plateau despite the headwind. Light packs are definitely the way to go. The plateau threatened some fissures and crevasses, as we weaved a path to our escape point. I aimed for the narrow col between Tukino Peak and Te Heuheu, but as we got stuck into the slope, we realised it was far steeper than our crampons could handle. Some time lost, the longer route was taken towards Whakapapa, but we made up the difference with a fast sidle to Waihohonu ridge.

Searching for our summit plateau exit point
Running in crampons? The sidle to Waihohonu Ridge
Our route followed the left skyline and curves towards Sam

With running shoes and light crampons, the descent towards beckoning Ngauruhoe was extremely fast. A long gentle scree slope in a screaming tailwind blew us right to the Tongariro Northern Circuit track - the time was just on 12pm noon.    

(Photo: Sam Clark)

It was a strange experience jumping onto a great walk track after the past 6 hours of wild alpine terrain - tourists and elderly couples began appearing regularly along the popular walk to the big green Tama Lakes. Beyond the graded gravel path we returned to rough ground above Upper Tama, steep and loose. At home again. We lost some precious height dropping to the base of Ngauruhoe to begin what we dreaded would be a long slog of a climb. I was interested to see how the toll of the morning's 1500m ascent to Tahurangi might affect our speed, or could we push through it. We now faced a 750m climb on relatively solid rock - a huge relief. Climbing up scree is incredibly energy-sapping. We raced up the blocky slope thrusting with our poles to full advantage. Flaky snow gave way to  a thin icy crust for the final 200m to the crater rim, though the top was out of sight and seemed never-ending. 

High on Ngauruhoe

Taking shelter from a rib leading up Ngauruhoe South Face

On the last pinch, we were completely exposed to the full gale force of the wind funneling in from the south-east. 80km/h or more gusts plastered us against face-flat against the ice. Ice axe firmly planted, we took desperate rests in between flat out bursts of what can only be described as scampering. It was an exhilarating and crazy experience to climb on ice in such fierce winds, our loose crampons adding to the sense of vulnerability. We literally ran up and over to the crater side, no time to celebrate the second summit, and were gifted instant shelter from the wind. Silence.  

Swaying in the wind around Ngauruhoe's crater (Photo: Sam Clark)
On the familiar north side of Ngauruhoe we could strip off crampons and lean right into the wind on the deep scree powder descent to South Crater. Below us, Tongariro, our last peak, was hiding in clouds but a dusting of snow was visible around the summit. From the top of Devil's Staircase, instead of following the main Tongariro Crossing track we continued our 'off-track' journey and climbed the more direct South Ridge. 

Tongariro from Ngauruhoe, resting behind a rock (Photo: Sam Clark)

Picking through the frosted rocks to Tongariro Summit

This route only had 400m vertical, but it really dragged out. Several parts of the ridge gave us tricky climbing challenges and squeezes through rock to stay on the ridge. Nearing the summit the wind picked up again, relentlessly -  the evening was chilling but we were already wearing all 4 of our layers. The rock was plastered with wind-driven snow. This combined with swirling winds, my low blood-sugar and a latent thirst, made for an atmosphere that was wild and eerie. Literally seconds before the sun dipped into the horizon, we scrambled onto the summit rocks of Tongariro.

Feeling good  on the third peak of the day! (Photo: Sam Clark)
A toxic sunset at last of the Three Peaks (Photo: Sam Clark)

In the fading light we dropped down a long scree slope to the Mangatepopo hut, a small triangle of light in the distance. 13 hours after starting out at Blythe Hut that morning, we called it a night at the hut. And a massive tick next to the Three Peaks! In fantastic pre-winter conditions.

 Our hearty dreams of a plush meal at the Chateau were put aside when we arrived at the hut to a hive of trampers and warmth. Among them were a big group of trampers from AUTC who had almost finished the Northern Circuit trip. Skimping on cookers or pots, but wracked with guilt to ask our friends for gas, I poured cold water into my Backcountry De-hy Chicken Tikka Massala and waited an excruciating amount of time for the fire to warm it up. 

A calmer Sunday morning at Mangatepopo
The following morning was a pearler. We stretched our legs out for an hours jog back to Whakapapa Village, quickly heating up with no wind. What a difference. At the village we dropped packs at DOC for the last stretch of our journey home. The Whakapapaiti Valley was only the warm up to the Goat - a relentless array of gnarly climbs and descents, stream crossings, muddy gulleys and a brutal Waterfall face to finish on. Although we felt fresh and light running with no packs, the rugged trail and endless climbing wore hard on us.

Early morning jog to Whakapapa

I felt dizzy and jaded approaching the Waterfall Face, swaying side to side on the trail. I prayed for some energy, a second wind... around the corner Sam held out a Caffeine Leppin energy gel. Wow! It was potent and immediate.With Sam hot on my heels, he'd be angry if he beat me up after I'd taken his gel, I revved up and red-lined at race intensity up the face and boosted over to Ohakune Mountain Road. A 7 hour mountain run was a decent outing on its own, but overshadowed by the Saturday's conquest it didn't get much glory. But for an aesthetic round trip to finish, we drove back to Rotovegas truly satisfied.

1 comment:

  1. What an awesome blog. So inspirational! I've been thinking of trying for the three peaks this December. Any chance of getting a beta for the route? Keep up the great work. Cheers Chris
    Chrisr@douglas.co.nz :)