Mountain man swaps one high life for another

Stewart Barclay has a special relationship with the majestic, but moody mountains that live in his backyard.

Stewart Barclay has a special relationship with the majestic, but moody mountains that live in his backyard.

After a mid-life awakening, a former city businessman traded it all away for the peace of New Zealand’s North Island peaks. Now, he’s sharing his special slice of volcanic wilderness with all who come his way. 

At 2am on a clear night, when most people are tucked in bed or heading for a hangover, Stewart Barclay, straps a light on his head and heads up the slopes of a live volcano. His moonlit path takes him through forests, across slippery volcanic rock-crusted slopes and around boulders as big as houses. Four hours later, he and his group of hardy companions take their seats for a panoramic view of a new dawn – 1869m above sea level on the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island. 

Barclay says it’s his favourite walk. “It’s like going back in time – walking into daylight.” Later that day, he may head back up a ridge with another group of trekkers to farewell the sun with a glass of champagne.

In the Tongariro National Park area, Barclay is known as “The Mountain Man”.  He’s completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – regarded as New Zealand’s greatest one-day walk – 1500 times. In runners’ terms, that’s the equivalent of doing 1500 half-marathons well above sea level. On the days he’s not guiding others on the alpine crossing – and before the buses offload hordes of backpackers fresh from the beaches of Bali – he may run the 21km track, sprinting up the Devil’s Staircase, toe-hopping down the slippery scree and striding out downhill towards the finish in less than half the time it takes to walk it. His best time? 3 hours.

Stewart happily admits he is addicted to this lifestyle. When he’s not walking in his own backyard, he tramps, climbs, cycles and canoes in New Zealand’s wilderness. There are still walks to do along a route he’s mapped through New Zealand’s Southern Alps. And on his 60th birthday – coming up in two years – he plans to take on the country’s highest peak and one of the world’s most challenging climbs, Mt Cook. “I’ve always had a reputation of going down ‘no exit’ roads to see what’s around the corner,” he says, “Being fit is my lowest common denominator.” 

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1990s, Stewart was besotted by another high life that involved long lunches, big profits and bad habits. An accountant by training, he owned a video distribution company. These were the boom years for entrepreneurs and Stewart was part of the rat race. The only trips he made to National Park were for skiing weekends. When the excesses of the lifestyle took their toll and his marriage ended, he sought solace in the mountains. 

“I was part of a group that had arranged to stage the highest dinner party in the world on a peak in the Andes.” At 20,000 feet, aged 40, he had an epiphany. When he returned to New Zealand, he shed the trappings of corporate success, moved to the Tongariro National Park and began training as a mountain guide.

Today, his company Adrift Outdoor Guided Adventures employs six guides – people who share his love for the outdoors – and guide walks, canoe trips and cycling treks. Stewart has installed a gym in his home where they all work out. He makes his own ginger beer and kombucha (fermented tea), and lives on healthy salads, steamed salmon and protein shakes. Auckland remains a place he likes to visit. But home is where he can lie in the bath, look out the window and see three mountain peaks.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is now one of New Zealand’s most popular walks and has become a magnet for Tolkien fans since it appeared as the backdrop in The Lord of the Rings films. In mid-summer, there are continuous trails of ant-like figures heading up the slopes through sub-alpine shrubs and mosses to the dark, post-apocalyptic landscape that never quite prepares you for the startling blue Emerald Lakes and vast Red Crater at its highest point. 

While most hikers do the walk in summer, Stewart says the shoulder seasons are better options because there are fewer people. “April and May are particularly stunning when there is a little snow.” 

His own preference is winter, which is popular with young trekkers. During winter, Adrift takes tours of 30-40 trampers, fitted with crampons and ice axes, three times a week.  Every trek is weather-dependent and safety is never compromised.  Conditions can change quickly during the seven-hour walk, especially at the highest level. “This is no place for flip-flops and supermarket shopping bags.” His company keeps a good supply of appropriate clothing for those who turn up unprepared. 

The walk also traverses a live volcano, which is an added attraction for trekkers, but a potential hazard. Mt Tongariro erupted four years ago, sending ash and rocks a kilometre into the air. The day before the eruption, Stewart had been on the Crossing. “We got off the mountain at 6pm. Six hours later, it erupted.” 

He says the mountain had been rumbling several weeks earlier but it had stopped, so it was deemed to be safe. When it blew up, most people tried to get as far away as possible but Stewart was also impressed by the power and majesty of nature. “But my good sense prevailed and I didn’t go too close.”

He says he can’t imagine ever tiring of walking the Crossing and sees it through new eyes every time he guides a group of trekkers. The youngest people to complete the walk are toddlers in their parents’ backpacks. The oldest was an 84-year-old Japanese man, who – the following day – climbed Mt Ruapehu (height 2797m), “although he had to be piggy-backed for the last few hundred metres.”  

Stewart’s three daughters share his love of the outdoors. He is looking forward to taking his grand-daughter – just a few months old – across the track when she is old enough. 

Stewart Barclay’s top five tips are: 

  • Climb Mt Ruapehu: Walk, run or catch the chairlift to New Zealand’s highest café, Knoll Ridge Chalet at 2020m above sea level; 
  • Canoe Whanganui River: Paddle through lush bush steeped in Maori and European history;
  • Mountain biking: The trails in the region are suitable for beginners and those who like the wildest rides; 
  • Hauhungatahi Track (also known affectionately as “Baldy”) is a 10km wilderness track, starting from Erua. It takes from 5-7 hours and is graded medium to easy;
  • Paddleboard or fish at Lake Otamangakau where rainbow trout commonly exceed 4.5kg.

How to get there

National Park Village is located at the intersection of SH4 & SH4, halfway between Auckland and Wellington. It is 97km from Taupo. There are flights from Auckland and Wellington to Taupo, and buses from Taupo. Most accommodation centres and tour operators at National Park offer shuttle buses to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. 

Best time to visit

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is less crowded in the shoulder seasons. Guided walks are conducted all through the year, but the walks are weather-dependent. Operators recommend visits in April and May if you want to avoid the crowds. During the winter months, walkers need crampons and ice axes.