Notes, photos, and maps from a few days in the Aotearoa mountains
We're on NZ6 from Auckland towards LAX (/ Seattle) and I'm still amazed everytime I use this "wifi in the sky" technology, especially over the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We're headed home after a 5 week holiday in New Zealand, catching up with family and friends after a 3 year COVID-related international travel break.
For the last three days of the trip, the kids hung out with the grandparents and we got the chance for some quality mountain time!
Before you go!
Just getting in an afterword, before you read any other words. Heading up into the mountains? Things don't always go according to plan. For a start:
Get a real weather forecast, from a real mountain weather forecasting organization. Don't just rely on whatever app is on your phone! (In NZ, the Met Service mountain forecast and NIWA parks forecast are reasonable sources.)
Take the right equipment! Jackets, warm layers, sun protection, footwear (approach shoes? boots?), climbing gear (axe, crampons, etc). Huts can make life easier / lighter, as you may not need a tent or sleeping mat.
Consider your technology. A topo map app on your smartphone may be suitable, but that may also not work so well in the rain and battery life might be an issue. A handheld GPS device may be better? Also look into a personal locator beacon.
Choose a route that fits your experience, skill, and comfort level. The route that's good for us may not be good for you, or vice versa.
For more, see NZ's Mountain Safety Council and DOC's Know Before You Go.
Mountains are great. They're big, powerful, dramatic, scary, centering. I like spending time in mountains! But they're best with not too many other people around.
In planning this trip, we knew we were going to be around the North Island's Central Plateau, so we had a few options:
Just day trip it & do the big tourist attraction - the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. But I've done that a few times already, we know it's busy / crowded, and the grandparents are keen to have more than one day with our kids.
Do the Tongaririo Northern Circuit, which includes the Tongariro Crossing and some other scenic parts of the national park. But that is still somewhat busy - it's considered one of NZ's "great walks", and hut bookings during the summer seasons can be hard to get.
Do the Ruapehu Round The Mountain Track. Tempting, but we tend to prefer a bit more elevation gain / challenge in a trip.
Looking at the topo map of Tongariro National Park, I came across Whangaehu Hut. Searching / researching, I came across two pieces of inspiration. Checking the DOC bookings site, I found 2 bunks at Waihohonu for a night that could fit with the rest of the trip. And suddenly, we had a (weather-dependent) plan.
We'd start out on the Tongariro Crossing / Northern Circuit, join on to the Ruapehu Round The Mountain, then use Whangaehu on the way up and over, back to Iwikau Village on the Whakapapa side of the mountain. It's been 15 years since I was regularly snowboarding / hiking around these parts, so it'll be nice to revisit them!
Mangatepopo to Waihohonu
Packs loaded, we started the day by leaving a car at Iwikau Village, then got a drop-off at the Mangatepopo trailhead. This is the start of the Tongariro Crossing, and it was a gorgeous fine morning, so we joined the hordes heading off down the trail and up the Devil's Staircase.
View larger topographic map (then zoom in.. these maps are much better at higher scale)
The route for the Crossing goes up the Mangatepopo valley, gains a saddle between Mount Ngauruhoe and Tongariro's South Crater, crosses the crater, then heads up to the Red Crater.
We walked past Ngauruhoe, talking about Mount Doom, and the time me and friend Rob did a spring climb and snowboard descent off the top.
After climbing to Red Crater, the route drops down towards the Emerald Lakes. This is probably the busiest-feeling stretch of the Crossing, and the bottom Emerald Lake is where we turn off that route and head on down towards Oturere Hut and then around to Waihononu Hut.
There's a short stretch of track just before Waihohonu Hut that is in the bush, which is a nice change from the "rather scenic volcanic wasteland" vibe felt elsewhere.
We pulled in to the hut abound 5pm, in time to cook dinner and enjoy the sunset views towards Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.
Day one complete, coming it at about 14 miles and 3,700 feet of vert.
Waihohonu to Whangaehu
The next morning, we're some of the last to leave the hut, knowing we have a few hours of leisurely travel on the Around The Mountain track.
We meet the Tukino access road, where we briefly have cell reception, so get in a quick text message check-in with the grandparents/kids and weather forecast update. The original forecast had been 2 days of sun/cloud then 1 day of rain, but the rain seems to have been brought forward to this afternoon clearing by tomorrow.. good to know.
We climb the road up to the ski lodges, eat some lunch enjoying the view back over the Desert Road, then keep heading up. We meet a couple of locals who give us some beta on the route up to our destination, so we adjust plans slightly and scramble out though a cliff band above Tukino's Whangaehu tow and meet up with the poled route toward the hut.
Looking back, we can see the showers out over the plains. Then the cloud closes in, the rain starts dumping, and we begin to get rather wet.
After a few stops to check GPS position / map and agree on direction, we drop down off the ridge as expected and eventually the hut emerges from the cloud.
It's a small, 4-double-bunk alpine hut with great views (when the clouds allow). And it feels good to be there! Reading through the intentions book, seems it gets used about once every 2 weeks or so.. a much less travelled location than last night.
Day two complete, coming in at about 10 miles and 4,700 feet of vert. We eat, read for a while to pass the time, then go to bed a little nervous about the weather tomorrow and planning for an early start. (We really don't want to revert to plan B, which involves backing down through Tukino and out to the Desert Road.)
Whangaehu to Iwikau
Thankfully the next day dawns clear up high, and with a fantastic sunrise. We eat some breakfast, pack our bags, and head out about 7am.
We're off any form of marked or established route now, and just following our intended upward path on the map. At one point we fall for the old mistake of thinking we're traveling faster than we are and misplacing ourselves. No big deal, just keep looking / talking and figuring out what is next.
After a few snowfield crossings, and a lot of scoria and rock band climbing / scrambling, we eventually top out past Cathedral Rocks into the Summit Plateau.
We cross over to check out the Crater Lake, and eat some lunch while watching the clouds start to swirl back in on the side of the mountain we'd just traveled up.
The Summit Plateau has a range of high points to top out on, if desired. But we're feeling a little tight time-wise, so decide to just keep moving along. We head out between Paretetaitonga and the Dome, and drop down into the Whakapapa Glacier before heading down into the ski area and out to the car.
Travel is pretty easy, as we can see our intended destination and we manage to pick our way down without cliffing ourselves out.
Day three complete, coming in at 6 miles and 2,400 feet of vert.
Wrapping it up...
Swapping the approach shoes out for jandals feels good! As we drove back around the Central Plateau back towards Taupo, we were rather happy not to be walking the last leg to complete the circuit from Iwikau / Whakapapa over to Mangatepopo.
This was an excellent 3 days in the mountains! The weather worked out very well, our route was a good fit, and everything generally went according to plan.
Back to civilization we go, I suppose... but first, a jump into the lake at Bulli Point.