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Tongariro Alpine Crossing, chasing Mt. Doom

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Everyone I had met in New Zealand, who had tried to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the last thirty days, either had to cancel because of bad weather or had to turn back midway because of sudden change in weather. Usually this time of the year, you need a guide and proper alpine equipment to go to the crossing. But I was in luck as the winter was late this year.

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Even if the winter is late, the weather is still very unpredictable and usually poor this time of the year. I just arrived to Taupo, and my plan was to go to Turangi first and go to the alpine crossing from there. This however was not to be. I went to check the weather forecast for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which basically said that tomorrow the weather would be good, but then it would get a lot worse. So it was basically tomorrow or never. So the next morning I caught my ride for the crossing at 6 am with an Argentinian/Scottish couple.

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Now, I was under no disillusion about how bad it could get up there. Last week the rescue service had to be called in twice to save some unprepared hikers. I had bought myself a thermal layer, hat and gloves, which I could use for skiing, and besides I could actually give them to my parents in a few weeks so I wouldn’t have to carry them around for the rest of the year. I still had to rent a waterproof jacket to replace one I had lost earlier. So I was prepared, with about a ton of chocolate of course. Never go hiking with out chocolate.

It was freezing as we got out of our bus and started making our way on the almost 20 km hike. There was about 8 hours of daylight and the hike normally takes about 6 to 7 hours, so there wasn’t much extra time.

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The first part was walking up to Soda Springs. The frozen ground glittering in the first rays of light, as the sun finally conquered the mountains that had been holding it back the first part of the morning. The sun light only made the ground look colder.

The first few hours we walked directly towards Mount Ngauruhoe, or Mount Doom as it is known these days after Lord of The Rings. Yes, Mt. Doom located deep in the heart of Mordor, the very mountain Frodo had to go to, to destroy the One Ring. But as we got closer and actually started climbing upwards on what was known as hells staircase, we steered a little to the left, keeping the mountain on our right.

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Hells staircase proved to be exactly that. Endless amount of stairs heading up. As we reached higher altitude, I first lost the jacket, then my fleece, and finally just before reaching the top, I was down to just my t-shirt. And I wasn’t the only one. Once the staircase ended, I was quickly back with my thermal layer and the fleece.

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Normally you could do a detour to Mount Doom, but that takes about three hours, which I didn’t have. And besides, after Hells staircase, I wasn’t too keen on actually climbing Mt. Doom, but thankfully I had the great excuse of limited daylight.

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After Hells staircase there was a flat bit, where I met some Canadian wine makers (I did not know that they make wine in Canada), before we reached another climb, which was also the Point of No Return for the hike. This was where you should really turn back if you didn’t think you’d make it in time, or if the weather was turning bad. After this no matter what happened, you would have no choice but to go forward. It was freezing, at this point I was really happy that I had purchased the gloves and the hat I had been debating earlier.

After the climb, as I didn’t have any elven bread with me, I had a ham and avocado sandwich for lunch before continuing. Now we were reaching the highest point of the crossing, basically walking on top of a mountain. A few meters wide ledge, with drop on both sides. Amazing views, this is what alpine crossings are about.

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We enjoyed the views for a while, before we reached a cloud cutting us off from the impressive views; still, there was enough visibility that you wouldn’t walk off the edge. It’s easy to see how this would be dangerous in really bad weather.

We started coming down the mountain, with what should had been an awesome view of the Emerald Lakes below, but because of the clouds, we only got a shimmer of the blue, before we actually reached them. But still, they were impressive.

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We had maybe half an hour of clear visibility after we reached the Emerald Lakes; enough to enjoy the views. After we had crossed the lakes, we entered yet another cloud. We had maybe 20 meter visibility, which was just enough as the tiny sign posts were about 10 meters a part. The path wasn’t obvious, so even now it was sometimes difficult grasp where the path was leading to. So it would be easy to miss them if the weather got any worse.

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After a few hours walking in poor visibility I reached the Ketetahi hut and had a break. It was still six kilometers left, but it was downhill and the cloud started to thin out as we descended, giving us a magnificent view of lakes resting in the untouched lush forests below.

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Finally we actually reached the forest, walking the last few kilometers beside streams and small waterfalls.

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Awesome hike, definitely the best one day hike I have ever done. Not too challenging because you don’t have to carry camping gear or anything. But the weather is very unpredictable so you will have to be well prepared for the worst, and be prepared to turn back if the weather turns bad. This is especially true if doing the hike in autumn or winter. Few things to keep in mind:

  • Check the weather forecast the previous day, and again in the morning
  • Be prepared to turn back if the weather gets bad
  • Have good hiking shoes; the terrain is sometimes very rough and in the winter it can also be very slippery
  • Have proper clothing, it can be very cold and windy, and it can start raining any time
  • Have enough to drink, there is no drinking water anywhere on the 20 km hike
  • And make sure to bring your camera

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3 Comments

  1. Nice post. You were very brave doing the walk in winter! I went in the middle of summer and still needed a hat and gloves for parts.

    • Thanks. Yeah, I got really lucky with the weather thankfully!

  2. Thank you Jarmo. We will be travelling to NZ in June 2014 and were very keen to do the Tongariro Crossing. Your post has given me a much clearer idea of what we may or may not be capable of. Loved the photos too!

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