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2012-03-06

By Andrew Smith (New Zealand)

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing and summiting Mt Doom (aka Mt Ngauruhoe)

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing weaves its way through the volcanic terrain of the multi-cratered active Mt Tongariro, passing the base of Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom), which can be climbed as a side trip.  The 19.4km trek is renowned for its barren lunar-lake landscape, active volcanos, mountain springs, craters, lava flows, volcanic desert, emerald crater lakes and views that can be witnessed of the surrounding countryside from many peaks.

The weather forecast unfortunately was looking dubious at best for that week and the trip was looking very unlikely and at some point maybe terminal.  The Pocket Ranger Tongariro app helped us keep focus on Mother Nature by providing up-to-date weather reports and other seemingly important information.  A few days later the trip was back on as a small window of fine weather had been forecast.  We left that afternoon and 336.5km later we were there and checked into a local hostel late that evening.

Early the next morning, blurry eyed whilst preparing bacon and egg rolls we got confirmation that the track was open.  After throwing a few remaining bits and pieces into our daypacks we jumped into the waiting mini bus alongside other keen trekkers and were on the way.  It was a stunning morning, which upon reflection, had disguised the upcoming test of endurance.  We arrived at the Mangatepopo car park and piled out of the mini bus and proceeded towards the start of the track.

From the carpark, the track offered a gentle appetizer in the form of making its way up the Mangatepopo Valley and slowly climbing alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows.  It was a nice way to warm up and entertained conversations with many different travellers.  It seemed like quite a harsh environment with the porous surface of black lava absorbing the suns heat.  This was followed by quite a steep climb from the valley to the Mangatepopo Saddle which lies between Mount’s Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.   Generously, the climb is rewarded by ranging views of Mount Taranaki to the west.  Passing between the two Mounts, with Ngaururhoe to our right, we entered a discussion and decision making process on whether to make the additional side climb or not.  I think in a way we were drawn to the summit and somehow it was always a part of the itinerary we just didn’t realise until we were at the base looking up.

In Maori legend, the high priest, Ngatoroirangi, was caught in a blizzard while climbing Mount Ngauruhoe.  He prayed to his sisters in Hawaiki to send him fire to save him from freezing. The flames they sent south emerged first at White Island, then Rotorua and Taupo before finally bursting at Ngatoroirangi's feet. Thus, Ngatoroirangi is credited with bringing volcanic activity to Aotearoa New Zealand - not as a curse upon the land, but as a blessing.

Mt Ngauruhoe is not the highest mountain at 3000ft. (915m) above the surrounding landscape, which is 7516ft. (2,290m) above sea level, but it is a challenging climb due to the sharpe loose rock and the steep 40? incline.  We aimed for the rock ribs that punctuated the otherwise featureless scoria.  We realised pretty quickly that we needed to keep a watchful eye on rocks dislodged by other climbers ahead of us hurtling down the slope.  About half way up the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, it was quite unsettling and couple of young Canadian backpackers decided to retreat.  My friend also put this suggestion on the table and I certainly had my own shoulder voices willing me down.  It felt like I was playing that old retro arcade game where monsters pop up out of little holes and you need to whack them with a hammer however the monsters were replaced with aching legs, arms, lungs and an element of fear.  The equation was 1 step up minus 0.75 down equals 0.25 a step up and slow progress.  I kept trying to climb in bursts as though scaling a steep sand bank but this was tactic soon tamed by my depleted energy reserves.  Once we got a little higher the weather cleared and visibility was restored and we could clearly see volcanic vents all around us.  It was a gruelling 2 hours and 600 vertical metres flog up from the saddle to the crater rim.  Arriving at the rim was a terrific combination of exhaustion and exhilaration with jaw dropping 360? views that made the aches and pains temporary fade away.  What goes up must come down and the descent was steep but easier to master by taking large strides and gliding down the loose rock.  I couldn’t help but tell upward climbers that there wasn’t far to go regardless of their progress.

By now I felt like the most difficult parts of the days outing was behind us however I was soon to realise that this certainly was not the case.  From the base of Mt Ngauruhoe we were only a quarter of the way through the almost 20km track and there were several more peaks to be tackled ahead.  The track continued along a poled route across the South Crater to a ridge leading up to Red Crater.  Evidence that the Red Crater was still alive was apparent from the smell of sulphur.  From the top of the Red Crater we got nice views of Mt Tongariro.  The summit of the Red Crater is the highest point on Tongariro Alpine Crossing and was more than difficult after summiting Ngauruhoe.  From here the track descends down to three water-filled explosion craters called the Emerald Lakes.  The lakes have the most brilliant greenish colour that my friend described as gummy bear water.  The beautiful synthetic looking green is caused by minerals that have leached from the adjoining thermal area.  This turned out to be nice spot to stop for our well-deserved bacon and eggs rolls.  From the Emerald Lakes, the track crossed over the Central Crater to the Blue Lake, which didn’t profit from the volcanic minerals but offers a nice contrast and beauty.  From the Blue Lake, the track sidles around the flanks of the North Crater, descending to Ketetahi Hut.  Here we refilled our water bottles and sat down for a little while at the hut and my fatigue was mirrored in the other trampers.  As though it had been an offering to the Crossing, the enthusiasm and vibrance I had witnessed in the morning had almost vanished.  The final leg of the track then follows its way down through tussock slopes to the forest bushline.  The coll podocarp-hardwood forest provides a final contrast on the long descent to the roadend.  At two points the track passes over the tongue of a lava flow from Te Maari Crater and for a distance, travels alongside a stream polluted with minerals from the Ketetahi Springs.

After at times a never ending journey, the forest path turns a corner and you abruptly make the transition from wilderness to civilisation.  There were a few people lying around in the shade waiting for transport and others discussing the day’s adventure.  Everybody seemed to be connected with a common understanding and respect for having crossed the finish line.  It was 6PM and the side trip to the summit of Ngauruhoe had cost us our bus home, we rebooked and before we knew it we were on the return trip.  I had the most amazing feeling sat on that bus, with my head resting on the back of the seat, eyes closed and a welcome gentle breeze on my face.  I felt a real sense of euphoria and achievement that I know will overlap into other areas of my life.

To see a few photos of the trip click on the link here

http://s1241.photobucket.com/albums/gg516/Drew325/

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