Crossing Mount Doom

Published: May 25th 2010
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Mt Nguaruhoe seen from Whakapapa
So, this is the deal. You start at an altitude of about 1,100m, ascend about 500m up the Devil's Staircase, across some old lava flows, then cross a crater and ascend to another crater (except this one's red), slide down some scree to three emerald lakes, past some hot vents, up again to a big round blue lake, then zig zag your way down through grass until you reach a forest, then walk for about 7km through dense vegetation and across several streams until you reach the car park at the end. Total length is just over 19 kilometres. Not enough? Ok, then how about tacking on a 600m ascent of an active volcano. But no, there's no path... you have to scramble up loose rocks and scoria, then run back down all the way on a 35 degree slope. Sound exciting? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Tongariro Crossing.

I'd wanted to do the Crossing for a while, and my initial plan to do it after Napier had been thwarted by bad weather. The track is exposed and the local weather is notoriously changeable, so it paid to wait for a good forecast. Which is what I did, so
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Climbing the slopes of Nguarahoe
I arrived at Whakapapa Village, at the base of neighbouring Mt Ruapehu (and dominated by the somewhat incongruous Chateau Tongariro), to a fine evening with good prospects for the following day. But I couldn't have wished for the perfect day that greeted me! I was planning to do the walk alone, but I got chatting to a German couple, Stefan and Judith, over breakfast and we decided to start out together. The shuttle bus dropped us at the trailhead at Mangatepopo Hut at 7.30am, from where we started hiking through moorland to the foot of the Devil's Staircase. Near the top of the staircase we left the shadow and stepped out into the bright sunshine, and the sky was so clear of clouds that we could see Mt Taranaki, standing proud some 200km to the west, as clear as day. It was a good start, and we reached the saddle at about 9.20am.

It was at this point that a decision needed to be made... climb Mt Ngauruhoe or not. Mgauruhoe is the second highest volcano in the area, at 2,287m, but it's known for it's starring role in the Lord of the Rings movies - as Mt Doom,
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So this is roughly where Frodo threw the ring in...
home of evil Lord Sauron. It's an impressive mountain, conical and black, and with no visible route up. I decided to make the additional 2km climb, but Stefan and Judith declined, preffering instead to enjoy the 19km they already had to tackle! So I headed up with a group of other trekkers who'd decided to take advantage of the weather and try for the summit. The Rough Guide described the climb up Ngauruhoe as dispiriting but rewarding. They weren't wrong... I've never been so exhausted on a hike! Loose rocks and scree do not make for a good climbing surface - each step forward was half a step backwards, so we were continually looking for solid rocks to get some grip. We followed a ridge line almost to the top, but to reach the summit required a frantic scramble up the last 20m or so... by which time I was absolutely knackered. But then the summit was within reach, and it yielded a stunning surprise... a giant round crater, lined with red rocks, over the rim of which we could see the snowy peaks of Mt Ruapehu. Rewarding it definitely was! But we now had to get down. Not easy,
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Looking down onto the Emerald Lakes
when the ground slips away everytime you put your foot down! So forty minutes later, after a fun/scary slide/run/fall down 600m of scoria, I was back at the saddle, ready to continue on with the main walk.

From the saddle, the track crosses South Crater, then climbs up to the rim of Red Crater, a bright red and black depression with steam rising from it's walls, the highest point on the main track. From there I descended down to the vivid Emerald Lakes and stopped just above them for a bite to eat... an easy entry in my 'top ten best lunch spots of all time' list. Then it was a bit of a small slide/run down to and around the lakes, then across the North Crater and one final, brief ascent to the Blue Lake. By this point, my legs weren't very happy, and my right leg in particular was giving me grief. But it was the last bit of up, so I pushed on, rounded the lake and started the first part of descent to Ketatahi Hut.

The scenery was ever changing, and by now I'd emerged on the north side of Mt Tongariro into golden
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The view from the Blue Lake back towards Mt Ngauruhoe
tussock grass, with a fabulous view of Lake Taupo up ahead. The off-limits Ketatahi Springs steamed away to my left as I met back up with Stefan and Judith, and we completed the last leg, all downhill through grass, then bush and lastly forest, arriving at the car park a little late but in great spirits. The sun was still shining as we collapsed onto the grass, having completed the 21km in around eight and a half hours. Not super speedy (apparently people run it in three!), but why rush one of the most stunning day walks in the world? We rounded off the day with burgers and beer in front of a log fire, and then I made sure that my Facebook status let everyone know that I'd just climbed Mt Doom.

Additional photos below
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30th May 2010

All I can say is WOW! Someday, when my hair is done transforming from black to white, I am doing this! Meanwhile I will sit on my chair and read and drool. Thanks Jonathan for some of the most wonderful trips I have gone onto through your eyes and writings. Looks like u put on some lbs, your mom will be relieved.
7th June 2010

Thanks Su, I'm glad you've enjoyed reading my blog! I've still got a few more entries left, but they'll have to wait until I get home... Fiji just isn't the place for fast internet!

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