Mastering Mount Doom: Tongariro Crossing, NZ

You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you get back… You will not be the same –Gandalf

Location: Tongariro Crossing, Tongariro National Park, North Island, NZ

Length: 7-8 hours plus 3-4 hours to summit Ngauruhoe

KM: 19.4km (excluding Ngauruhoe) – Click here for GPX File

Click here for logistical and technical info regarding the Crossing.

The thing that struck me during this hike was the importance of a hiking group and how people shape the experience. Hiking companions determine the pace and difficulty of a hike but also how enjoyable it will be. I embarked on the Tongariro Crossing with my partner Fraser (an experienced outdoorsman), my brother Lewis (a recreational sportsman) and Fraser’s mother Diane (a regular walker). The group bonded quickly and broke off into twos which naturally rotated throughout the day, allowing us to draw on the strengths of different individuals; we soon discovered this teamwork was essential to surviving the day.

The Tongariro Crossing is a beautiful but challenging walk known world-wide. It forms one leg of a Great Walk through the Tongariro National Park. The National Park is a UNESCO dual World Heritage Area and the Crossing is regarded as one of the best day hikes in the world.

Elevation Profile – Ngauruhoe Summit via Tongariro Crossing

The day began at 6am when Lewis arrived at our accommodation ready for the big day ahead… wearing trainers… with no food. He seemed completely unconcerned with this but, with foresight, I added extra provisions to our day packs to avoid any ‘hangry’ scenarios. Fraser had talked us into climbing Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom to fellow Lord of the Rings fanatics) in addition to the Crossing so I knew we had a long day ahead. Little did I know.

The entrance to the trail was barred by a sign detailing the dangers of the walk and helicopter rescue stats. This was followed by alarming signs at the base of the Devil’s Staircase claiming ‘IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO TURN BACK’ and ‘THE EASY PART IS OVER’. This left me feeling more like I was entering the devil’s lair than his staircase. We exchanged encouraging words at the base, agreeing we’d make our own way up and meet at the top, Diane with her hiking poles to hand and Fraser kindly adding he would wait for me at the top after overtaking me. The thought of beating him propelled me forwards. I initially observed that I was just as out of puff as everyone around me but, soon my cardio exertion began to plateau. My heart rate fluctuated between 150 and 190 BPM but I was able to achieve periods of active recovery as the terrain varied. Without needing to stop I was soon overtaking people ahead of me, leaving those behind in my dust.

Lewis was the dark horse of the stairs. I had wondered how his sports background would translate and, with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry, believed I might beat him. Lewis put Bambi to shame as he overtook everyone with his long, loping legs. I could only stare skywards to see him bounding effortlessly ahead. It goes without saying that Lewis made it to the top first. Fraser came in second having overtaken me a third of the way up but I was hot on his heels. Diane conquered her fears to join us.

This was a day of challenges!

We found ourselves at the mercy of the elements at the top of the Devil’s Staircase. The wind came in with an icy force that penetrated every layer wrapped around my shivering body. It was a stark contrast to the glorious thirty degree day below. I had decided against merino thermals, opting for a sleeveless active top, Icebreaker hoodie, Marmot puffer jacket and outer shell. As soon as we stopped moving I felt very cold and made a mental note to bring my merino thermals (top and bottoms) on my next hike.

For more info regarding our clothing and gear click here for Fraser’s Deep Dive.

We took refuge behind the largest rock outside the South Crater toilets to prepare for the Ngauruhoe climb. I was in charge of sunscreen but when the time came I found the bottle nearly empty. We blocked up as much as we could, assuring each other we’d survive. After all, I’d lived in Australia for two years… Famous last words.

Poor Diane waved us on our way as she perched amongst the contents of our packs; we had ditched as much as we could pre- Ngauruhoe, each bringing only 500ml of water and warm layers. There is no official entrance to the base and we instead navigated a dendritic maze of goat-tracks, the easiest of which led directly from the toilets (see map below). Few people were tackling the intimidating face and one onlooker cried “Are there people actually climbing that? Oh my God!”

How encouraging.

Lewis and I smiling in blissful ignorance below Ngauruhoe
Lewis scrambling up Ngauruhoe

Fraser assured us that we could turn back at any time. I privately decided I would rather shrivel up and die than turn back and face Fraser’s taunts. Fortunately, Ngauruhoe wasn’t as bad to climb as I’d feared. It was covered with loose volcanic tephra which slid out from under our feet with every step, creating a one-step-forwards-two-steps-back scenario. It was an intense muscle workout with burning lactic acid but didn’t allow the pace required to achieve an intense cardio workout. Muscle-dominant activities are foreign to Lewis and I and it was Fraser’s time to shine. He muscled his way up the mountain with ease, accompanied by our new backpacker friend carrying a 12kg pack! The newcomer had joined our party after informing us of the death toll associated with the climb… Wait, what death toll?!*

Panoramic view of Lewis and I perched atop the Ngauruhoe Crater

Reaching the 2291m summit was the proudest moment of the day. Stunning views of Mount Tongariro and the crater of Ngauruhoe greeted us at the top. However, the elation was short lived. Having told Diane we would be 2-3 hours we found we had already taken 2.5 hours. I worried we’d return to find Diane frozen into an ice block still clutching her hiking poles. Fraser raced ahead, his descent aided by gaiters which protected his legs up to the knees while keeping debris out of his boots. Lewis and I had mercilessly teased him earlier in the day as his gaiters and jacket looked like a dress and boots. We now realised the joke was on us.

The ascent had been surprisingly easy but the descent was surprisingly difficult; the tephra which had impeded our way upwards now proved perilous. The steep terrain made it difficult to find a stable foothold and the rocks bit into our legs when we attempted to slide down. We also found that we had to descend side-by-side to avoid the rocks loosened by each other’s feet. Shortly after this discovery I narrowly avoided an out-of-control boulder the size of my head kicked down by the backpacker above. By the time we reached the base – one hour after Fraser – we had both twisted our ankles and hangriness was creeping in.

Diane edging tentatively down the northern side of the Red Crater toward the Emerald Lakes

Diane was the champ of the Red Crater saddle. Extreme weather ravages the saddle and winds were the strongest at this point. Diane was relentlessly buffeted and lifted off her feet at times. With teamwork and the aid of hiking poles the four of us made it over and into the final leg. Diane and Lewis steamed ahead while Fraser and I paid for our lack of sunscreen. The backs of our legs were glowing red after the long Ngauruhoe ascent and sun-stroke was setting in. The burn lasted for days, the skin bubbling up and peeling away in chunks. Fraser and I hobbled the final three hours back to the car and couldn’t bend our knees for 48 hours. Never again will I underestimate the New Zealand sun.

The final hurdle appeared in the last kilometre. A sunburnt Fraser and I were desperate to get back to the car when we came across a disconcerting sign: ‘WARNING: LAHAR DANGER ZONE… DO NOT ENTER IF YOU HEAR A LOUD NOISE UPSTREAM’. The sign was decorated with images of animals and I immediately feared a ‘lahar’ was a ferocious creature about to leap upon us. In reality a lahar is a mudslide comprising volcanic debris and melted ice with roughly the consistency of wet concrete. Regardless, that kilometre was my fastest time of the track. I ran.

The Tongariro Crossing was certainly a baptism of fire in terms of New Zealand hiking. I was tried, tested and found to be a novice. There was blood, sweat and sunburn in the process. The variety of terrain, weather conditions and temperatures made it a real challenge. It’s easy to see why tourists are heli-rescued from the Red Crater. We were fortunate to make our mistakes on a forgiving day hike, preparing us well for our future multi-day adventures. The steep, loose ascent to Ngauruhoe set the bar high for future summits.

*Note: We have since researched the alleged death toll and have been unable to find any correlating news reports. There are some accounts of fatalities regarding unprepared tourists and people collapsing.

2 Comments on “Mastering Mount Doom: Tongariro Crossing, NZ

  1. Pingback: Lake Waikaremoana – Pathless Woods

  2. Pingback: Edge of the world – Pathless Woods

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