Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (aka Mount Doom)

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Situated in the middle of the North Island, The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is in the Tongariro National Park. This one way, 19.4km (7-8 hour hike) track is known as one of the country’s best day hikes to accomplish, as well as being rated as one of the best day hikes in the world. Tongariro was NZ’s first national park, which was established in 1887. The native Maori tribe in that area gifted this land to the Crown as long as they ensured it’s preservation as a national park. At the time this made it only the 4th national park in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrated for it’s cultural and natural significance.

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Screenshot of New Zealand map for location reference

The park has 3 active volcanos – Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Tongariro, and Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings). The volcanic nature of the region is responsible for Tongariro’s hot springs, boiling mud pools, fumaroles, and craters.

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Topographic map of the hike – Source

When I booked our trip to visit New Zealand in May (late autumn/almost winter), I knew I was taking a slight gamble for the weather. I had put hours of research into this trip, and everywhere I read pretty much screamed to NOT attempt this hike during the off season due to absolutely unpredictable weather, severe winter storms, and high wind speeds.

Um, challenge accepted. There was no way we were NOT going to hike Mt. Doom!

After an amazing first night in Hobbiton, we drove roughly 3-4 hours to our next destination – Tongariro National Park. Upon checking into our hotel, the Chateau Tongariro, we learned that their shuttle service had been shut down for the season (would have been nice to know upon booking…) so we had to scramble to figure out how we were going to accomplish this hike. Because it’s a one way track, you must arrange transportation in order to complete the entire hike. After calling many different places (who also laughed at us on the phone about doing the hike in these winter conditions), we decided to book a last minute guided hike with Adrift Tongariro, which ended up being the best decision we made on this entire trip. Not only did they provide us with transportation, they also gave us equipment (crampons, ice picks, extra gloves and socks, etc) to prepare us for the arduous adventure ahead of us.

A little more about the hike – here’s a basic map of the trail which includes the names of the stops/places I will be referencing:

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And here are the changes in altitude that we faced:

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…….WOOF.

We set off early in the morning with the group to the Mangatepopo Car Park where we were dropped off. We had 2 guides with us, and there were a total of 6 people in this group. We were the only Americans, oddly enough. (There was a smaller group with us doing just half of the hike, but they left early due to bad weather).

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Sign marking the start of the trail

The weather was foggy and chilly, but not too cold. Unfortunately we couldn’t see much of the beginning. The first 1-2ish hours of the hike were easy, flat, and enjoyable. As you can see in my selfie below, I am all smiles and completely unaware of the hell we were about to face. The photo on the right shows the point in which the guide said “and here’s where you are supposed to see Mt. Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom!” – but of course, the fog covered everything up.

 

Here’s an image from Google of what we were supposed to be seeing:

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Source

Seriously, it was a world’s difference. As the weather forecast predicted, it began to snow. Still we were optimistic, and thoroughly enjoying everyone’s company.

 

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I made a comment about how much fun I was having despite the weather. Our guide, Nigel, snorted at me and said “Just wait…”

We made it to the Soda Springs point where we had a quick bathroom break and a snack. At this point our guides warned us that we were about to face the one of the steepest parts of the trail – The Devil’s Staircase.

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Pre-Devil’s Staircase, still happy and enjoying the hike

At this point I am thinking to myself – ooooooo, steps! Not that bad, I can do it! Sure it hurts – but it’s good for me!

Oddly enough, that mentality helped. We made it to the top of the staircase. I was fatigued, but my spirit wasn’t broken. However, the rest of the hike from here on out was an absolute nightmare.

Here was supposed to be our “rewarding view” of the South Crater:

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South Crater? Mt. Ngauruhoe? Anyone?
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Friendly sign warning us to be careful – notice how it’s covered in ice.

At this point, the winds picked up to 60km/hr. The snow plummeted down. The cold crept into our bones, and if we stopped moving you could feel your inner temperature drop. It was NOT fun anymore. The half day people turned around and left, and our more ambitious guides encouraged us to keep going – perhaps we could get through this, if not we would be turning around. Thus began our trek up the Red Crater – and at the point where we realized there was no turning back.

Here’s what our view was supposed to look like (Source). You can Mt. Ngauruhoe from a different viewpoint (second photo), and the first picture shows a steep climb assisted with CHAINS.

 

Here were our views:

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I don’t have pictures of the uphill-torture-chain climb because I was too focused on not slipping and falling hundreds of feet to my death. At this point, I was on the verge of losing my sanity and strength. My legs were jello, the wind was blowing on my face at tremendous speeds, and it took everything I had to keep moving one foot in front of the other. I wanted to hike Mt Doom –  and it was hell alright. Be careful what you wish for.

Alas, we did it! We made it to the top of the Red Crater! As you can see, our view was pathetic, and I was DONE. Words can’t even describe how I was feeling, so here’s the most unflattering photo of me for you to truly understand my misery.

 

If you scroll up to see the Altitude Changes photo I posted earlier, be sure to look at the downhill descent from Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes. WOOF. Again, I don’t have any pictures – the Australian girl and I fell on our asses the entire way down. Our guides, with their cheeky New Zealand sense of humor, laughed at our pathetic-ness and congratulated us on completing the worst part of the hike. We then stopped for lunch at the Emerald Lakes – once again, here’s a normal view vs our view:

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Source

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Our guides told us to eat our lunch quickly or else we would freeze (we did), and off we went to complete the hike.

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The smiles have returned, but still cold and miserable

We walked by the Blue Lake, which was large and blue.

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From here on out, the rest of the hike was a fairly easy descent. At this point we could walk and talk without feeling like death was approaching us, and the weather slowly started to clear up.

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Sun began to peak through
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What’s this, another lake and….grass?
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Amazing views all around

Not even another hour passed before we hiked with this view:

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Are you kidding me?!

It was unreal. We start peeling off our layers (which were already drenched from being iced over and covered in sweat) and kept admiring the beauty before us. It started to rain on us – when you read online about New Zealand’s unpredictable and insane weather, it’s hard to truly believe it until you put yourself out in the elements for 11 miles of torture.

My last two photos below show the final 1.5 hours of the hike – a boring rainforest. Yes, I included a blurry photo because it was the only “rainforest” photo I took. We were OVER IT and completely ready to go home.

 

Besides the marathon I ran in 2014, this was one of the most physically demanding adventures I’ve ever done. I sometimes wonder if it would have been different without the insane amount of snow and wind we experienced. We didn’t see a single soul  the entire time – our guides believe that we were the only 8 people that hiked the trail that day.

On our drive back to our hotel, we experienced a tiny miracle.

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Mount Doom!

The skies cleared, and we were able to finally see Mt. Ngauruhoe.

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Did we seriously just hike that entire thing?!
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“I came, I saw, I conquered” – Julius Caesar

We were elated. It was an odd sort of feeling – exhausted, but smiling from ear to ear. Starving, but fulfilled. Mentally beat up, but incredibly proud. Not only did we “hike Mount Doom,” but we learned so much about the importance of this land to the Maori people, and gained a true appreciation for this country.

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