Challenge and Reward at Mount Doom

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was the most challenging and rewarding hike we will do in our lives. Five days after hiking the 12-mile long track, if Beth’s toes weren’t turning different shades of purple, the whole thing could have just been a dream.

Volcanic Dangers

When Peter Jackson needed an imposing volcano for Frodo to destroy the ring in, he used Mount Ngauruhoe, one of the three volcanos in the area of the crossing. The brilliant red-rimmed volcano looms over most of the track, and steam and sulphur from the Te Maari crater hang in the air at the track’s end. 

Throughout there are a number of signs warning of the volcanic dangers, and one of the hiking rest huts is now closed because it was damaged during an eruption in 2012. 

All along the track are also the natural signs of volcanic action. Rough black volcanic rock covers the landscape. As the black volcanic rock ages, it fades to a beautiful rusty red, brown, or yellow depending on the mineral contents of the rock. The stunning lakes get their colors from sulphur and other minerals that leach into the water. Near the end we crossed a river colored gray from the dissolved minerals in the water from the nearby thermal activity.

Vertical Challenges 

Beyond these risks, the steep nature of the walk and changing weather conditions mean that 20-25 people per year leave the track by rescue helicopter. The word “alpine” was added to the name after a 2006 death due to hypothermia. When we reached the peak at Red Crater (a half-mile straight up from where we started) and began to descend, the steep slope, scree (loose rock), and wind forced us to be very careful and slow.

At this point, we were so high up and the path was so narrow, it felt like one wrong step or strong gust of wind might send us over the edge. Beth got very scared so I went in front and had her look at my feet to keep us moving through the steepest parts. Several times we had to stop and wait for the wind to die down. 

Even after cresting the summit, we still had miles to walk, and a 3/4 mile vertical drop to the car park at the end. However, the walk got much easier after the summit. The track had a very gradual slope that wound across the mountains through alpine grass and rock before reaching the last mile or so through native trees and plants.

View from the Top

Despite the difficulty and volcanic threat, the track is one of the most popular day hikes in the world. The area is a World Heritage Site because of its cultural significance and incredible natural setting. Mount Ngauruhoe features in Maori legends, and they consider the Blue Lake to be sacred. The entire area was protected in 1887 by a Maori chief to preserve its natural beauty.

From the summit you are rewarded with an incredible view of the surrounding landscape. At times it seemed like we were walking on another planet. 

Red Crater seemed like something from a movie, and the dramatic Emerald and Blue Lakes were unreal, even close up. 

Even at the end of the hike (when both Beth and I were dragging), there were breathtaking views down into the valley and over Lake Taupo.

Hiking Hints

If we hadn’t rented good hiking shoes, and poles, we would not have been able to finish the track. The rocky terrain, and very steep descent from Red Crater would have been impossible without them. 

If you don’t like heights or cliffs, I’d recommend avoiding the summit at Red Crater.  Despite the large vertical climb, you can walk from the Ketehai car park and see the Emerald and Blue Lakes and avoid the steep slopes. That side of the track is also well maintained with a number of nice walkways, and stairs. 

In the end it took us 10 hours to complete the whole hike, two more hours than most take. Despite the difficulty, and lingering pain, the incredible views and memories make me very glad that we challenged ourselves and completed this hike.