TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for International

Super Volcanoes: Hiking New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park

We have just begun our all-day hike over some of the volcanoes of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park when a trailside sign conveniently itemizes the life-threatening hazards awaiting us.

For starters, an eruption could eject large rocks into the air to rain onto us from the sky or release lava flows. Pyroclastic flows, which are clouds of ash, rock, and gas that can cook flesh, could come upon us at 60 mph. Just such a flow in 1975, in fact, formed the black rocks we’re standing on. Even short of a volcanic eruption, deadly volcanic gases can pool in the bottom of craters on calm, sunny days like today. And the rock on these peaks is so unstable that falling rock looms as a constant hazard.

Should we notice any signs of an eruption—an earthquake, for instance, or an ash cloud, or that other telltale indicator, rocks flying incongruously through the air—we should “move as quickly as possible down off the mountain.”

Yea, sound advice. In theory, anyway.

I find the sign rather comforting, actually: Before exploring a new place, I like knowing what could kill me there.

The warnings are not hyperbolic. Tongariro National Park looks like a place recently devastated by a very big bomb—which is, in a sense, what happened. The first volcano we will climb, Mt. Ngauruhoe, erupted 45 times in the 20th century. Red Crater, also on our itinerary today, last erupted about 130 years ago—an eye blink in geologic time. Mt. Ruapehu, dominating the horizon just a few miles to the south of Ngauruhoe, ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes. Blowing its top with a major eruption roughly every 50 years for at least the past 250 millennia—including in 1895, 1945, and 1995-1996—Ruapehu has also experienced at least 60 “minor” eruptions since 1945, some of which produced ash falls and lahars, which are deadly flows of mud and rock.

Sounds like very serious stuff.

I’m spending the day hiking a 12.1-mile loop over three of the main volcanoes and craters of Tongariro, in the center of New Zealand’s North Island. Established in 1887—just five years after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park—Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park and the world’s fourth. It is also a dual World Heritage area, recognized both for its importance to the culture of the Maori, the original people of these islands, and for its natural values. Besides prolific volcanism and associated natural features, the national park is known for its strikingly stark, colorful landscape.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Tongariro_Volcanoes.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

A Secret New Zealand Paradise: Trekking the Rees-Dart Track

We’ve hiked just thirty minutes from the trailhead when we hit the kind of view that frequently makes you stop and take a deep breath when trekking in New Zealand.

The Rees River Valley sprawls out before us, golden grasslands dissected by a braided, meandering, emerald-green river. In the middle distance, a fat and foaming Lennox Falls plunges over a cliff. Farther off and thousands of feet above us, glaciers pour off a row of sharp peaks in the Forbes Range angling into the sky.

My hiking partner, Gary Kuehn, an American who has lived here on New Zealand’s South Island working as a mountain guide for several years—long enough, apparently, to pick up that semi-intelligible Kiwi accent—looks around, grins, and mutters, “Pritty noice.”

Gary has seen a fair bit of these Southern Alps, where vistas like this are so common that they inspire an odd sort of déjà vu that you have stumbled into paradise for something like the fourth time today. And yet, he jumped at the invitation to join me here on the Rees-Dart Track because he’s actually never done this trek.

That fact affirms my impression of the Rees-Dart, most of which falls within Mt. Aspiring National Park: Although just spitting distance from the world-famous and enormously popular Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. Other than the expected busy atmosphere at the huts, we will spend most of every day out here seeing no one else.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Rees-Dart__New_Zealand.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Into the Mystic: Sea kayaking New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound

A light mist falls as our small adventure armada of nine sea kayaks cruises along the shore of Deep Cove, the farthest inland extremity of Doubtful Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Around us, cliffs rise straight up out of the sea to 4,000-foot summits—sheer, Yosemite-like granite walls improbably sprouting a vertical jungle of the podocarp trees and other indigenous vegetation that make these forests look like something from another planet.

The sun makes feeble attempts to break through the soupy overcast. But the clouds, mist, and intermittent rain will persist throughout our trip, as they do most days of the year here. When you head out into a place that receives upwards of 23 feet of rain annually—which is about ten feet more precipitation than falls on Washington’s famously saturated Olympic rainforest—you don’t bother looking at the weather forecast. You just bring good rain gear and think sunny thoughts.

Our guide, Simeon Grig, who goes by “Sim,” leads us to the lee side of tiny Rolla Island, to take a break out of the wind. In a pronounced Kiwi accent that could make him the star of an action movie or a really funny beer commercial, Sim tells us that Rolla, covered with a thick fur of impenetrable rainforest, is a breeding ground for native crested penguins.

I’m sharing a two-person kayak with a young Portuguese named Leonardo, whom I just met this morning. He and I paddle ahead of the others as our group circles the island. On Rolla’s opposite side, we surprise two penguins waddling along the short skirt of rock at the shore. Seeing us, the penguin pair scrabbles quickly up the wet rock and disappears into the jungle.

It’s the first morning of our guided sea kayaking trip run by Fiordland Wilderness Experiences. For two days, we will paddle around the upper reaches of Doubtful Sound, a remote, roughly 30-mile-long fjord in the vast wilderness of Fiordland, which sprawls over nearly three million acres of the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, an area as large as Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined. Fiordland is also part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, which spans four contiguous national parks (including Mt. Aspiring and the Rees-Dart Track), and covers 6.4 million acres—almost three times the size of Yellowstone, representing roughly 10 percent of New Zealand’s land area.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Fiordland__New_Zealand.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

The Patagonia You’ve Never Heard Of

As our 20-seat, twin-engine Otter DHC-6 prop plane drops through the ever-present Patagonian cloud cover, the Beagle Channel comes into view. On both sides, green hills rise to craggy, treeless mountains. To the north, the jagged Fuegian Andes of Argentina push into the sky. To the south looms our destination: the sharply pointed spires of the Dientes de Navarino. With a steep banking turn, the plane glides down onto the airstrip in the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams on Chile’s Navarino Island.
The leather jacket-clad pilot—whom I could practically tap on the shoulder from my second-row seat—turns around and says, “Que pase un buen dia!” or, “Have a nice day!” The other 18 passengers offer friendly responses, leaving the impression—possibly accurate—that Jeff and I are the only people on board who don’t know him.
Being the only gringos on the plane is the first hint at how different our trek of southern Patagonia’s Dientes Circuit will be from any international adventure I’ve ever taken.

Jeff Wilhelm trekking Patagonia's Dientes Circuit

The southernmost trek in the world, the 22.7-mile (36.5k) circuit around the Dientes de Navarino, or “Teeth of Navarino,” certainly qualifies as one of the most remote: At 55 degrees south latitude, the Dientes, which rise up from the edge of town and reach almost 4,000 feet in elevation, lie just 60 miles from the tip of South America and a short flight from the Antarctic Peninsula. Puerto Williams, home to more than 2,000 residents and a Chilean navy base, receives a grand total of six flights a week from this 20-seater (one per day, except Sunday).
My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I flew here from Punta Arenas right after trekking in the flagship national park of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine, where knife-like granite towers soar thousands of feet into the sky. (Read that story and see its photo gallery.) But that park’s proliferation of Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians, and other foreigners can feel not only a bit crowded, but somewhat homogenized. In the packed huts, you could easily imagine being in Switzerland or New Zealand. That’s not an argument against going there—the mountains really are mind-blowing, and meeting people from around the world enriches the experience. But you don’t visit one of the world’s most sought-after national parks to discover a place untainted.
Established in the 1990s, the Dientes Circuit receives fewer than a hundred trekkers a year. Indeed, for four days out here, we will see no one and very likely be the only people on the circuit. There are not many outstanding hiking destinations on the planet you could say that about. Though it may someday become as much of a classic as others in Patagonia, this trek remains in virtually unknown.
So we have come to the Dientes de Navarino in part to get a sense of what Patagonia was like before it became a darling of the international trekkers’ set.

Read the full story and view its photo gallery, and see other stories and photos of outdoor adventures in the U.S. and around the world at TheBigOutside.com.

Inside Patagonia: Trekking Chile’s Torres del Paine

We march upward through innumerable switchbacks on the steep and dusty last mile of trail to the Torres del Paine. Small stands of Patagonia’s ubiquitous, twisted lenga trees cling to an otherwise barren mountainside of dirt and rock, earth overturned by glaciers and continually rubbed raw by the abrasive wind.

The whitewater roar of the Rio Ascencio fades as it slips away below us, replaced by the moan of gusts that grow stronger and colder as Jeff and I climb higher. In these last days of the austral summer, we’re suited up as if for winter in warm hats, gloves, and waterproof-breathable jackets over fleece.

A guanaco below Chile's Torres del Paine

Nearly six miles from the trailhead, we clamber onto boulders as big as refrigerators and look up. Three sheer-walled granite thumbs jut 5,000 feet straight up above an emerald glacial lake. Dark, gray clouds swirl around them, streaming off the summits as if the peaks are blowing smoke. They hint at gales up there that might make the wind blasting us seem calm.

These towers in the heart of southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park—which lend the park its name—look intimately familiar from the many pictures I’ve seen. And yet, they are kind of surreal, too massive to really comprehend their scale.

Suddenly, and very much without my consent, I am weightless and moving.

The abrupt, powerful gust releases me a moment later, several steps from where I was standing. I somehow managed to stay on my feet hopping across boulders as the bullying air gave me a very rough shove. Jeff and I exchange looks that say “whoa!” and laugh out loud. We’ve now been formally introduced to the infamous Patagonian wind. It will knock us around many more times in the days ahead.

My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I have come to southern Chile in the second half of March to hike in what is undoubtedly one of the most prized trekking destinations in the world: Torres del Paine National Park. From here, we’ll fly to the very tip of South America to set out on the southernmost trek in the world, the Dientes Circuit. I’ll write about that obscure, end-of-the-Earth adventure in my next blog post.

In a sense, though, Torres del Paine is merely where we ended up. We really came here in pursuit of something bigger and more slippery: the reality behind a legend.

The region called Patagonia has earned a cache among adventurers that’s rivaled by very few places on the planet. It’s an ultimate aspiration for trekkers all over the world. We refer to it like a one-name celebrity. And saying “I want to go to Patagonia” is like saying you want to hike the Rocky Mountains—it’s rather vague.

Being nebulous is acceptable when you’re dreaming big. But there comes a time to fulfill the dream, and that means sticking a pin on the map and poking holes in all of your preconceived notions.

You could say that, perhaps like every other international trekker here, we’ve come to discover the actual meaning of the word “Patagonia.” As is usually the case when you finally visit a place, we’ll find that Patagonia is more complicated, difficult, and rewarding than we imagined.

Not to mention quite breezy.

Read the full story and see a photo gallery, as well as other outdoor-adventure stories, at TheBigOutside.com.