New Zealand: Hiking to Mount Doom in Tongariro National Park

17 03 2013

WitIMG_0254h the meteorologists blowing the forecasts day after day, I decide to forgo hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, fearing repeated pestilence! Tongariro National Park area forecasts were for it to improve after midday, and I simply was not going to take a risk of getting stuck out there. But Elwin took his chances, suited up and boarded the early morning shuttle to the trailhead. His path would take him directly across Mordor along the base of Mount Doom, known outside Lord of Rings fiction as Mt. Ngaurahoe.

Angelique and I would instead hike a trail stretching Whakapapa Village, on Ruapehu, to Mount Doom. This way, we would be able to turn around if squalls materialized. This day dawned exactly as yesterday, with clouds and bright sky all at once. With Elwin gone, we headed to Whakapapa Village and began our hike.

The trail wound across red tussock fields and down into tree lined creek beds. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the breeze, for now, was light. Optimistically I wore shorts, and a baseball cap, and wore a soft shell. I had a ski hat in my pack, but no serious rain gear.

Rain threatened right from the start and I could see it was snowing higher up on Ruapehu. It was predicted to gradually get better during the day. But I just didn’t trust. Angelique was very positive and encouraging. That was good, but she didn’t have gear to withstand an alpine squall should it come, and foolishly neither did I. I had the gear at the Rainbow Motel, I just didn’t bring enough today. I kept thinking how it was summer – forcing the issue!

IMG_0257There were a few people out hiking. Including a USA geology student group of perhaps 20. Here, as elsewhere, the trail is incredibly maintained and developed. It’s been somehow graveled and sometimes has long stretches of wooden platforms.

While we can see Mt. Ruapehu, and we know where Ngauruhoe should be, it stays cloaked in clouds. There is snow on the higher slopes from yesterday’s storms. Blue sky comes and goes.

Every so often the wind would pick up and I’d get pelted with rain drops, and fear some drenching downpour might come. But then, it’d pass by and we could see down into the valleys for miles. When the wind did build sometimes I got very chilled.

As I was still nursing plantar fasciitis my pace was inhibited and it wasn’t long before Angelique pulled far ahead. After 90 minutes I reached the top of a rise and when I got there, I could see all the way to Mount Doom. And, Angelique probably a half mile ahead! I knew with my foot pain I probably shouldn’t keep going. But I worried for her – she wasn’t dressed right, should a real drencher pass through! She was too far for yelling. Then something happened that nailed the point home.


Waiting for Mount Doom…

The wind built, and it started sleeting. My baseball wasn’t enough. The wind blowing on my forehead in between my hat and glasses made my skin feel numb. Shit! I thought. Reluctantly I started back…feeling just wrong. And in disbelief that it’s SUMMER! I was thinking, I might as well be on Mt. Hood, Oregon right now! It was so true. Sleet falling in sheets all around. Mount Doom would not show itself.

Another hiker similarly dressed passes and pauses – he starts putting on the additional leggings he has in his pack. I thought to myself, I am a guide and I KNOW BETTER! I have been in the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Adirondacks, the Rockies and Cascades. What was I thinking? Baaahhh!

Then the squall passes and it warms up a bit. Maybe I dodged a bullet!

I pause to have some water and a power bar from my pack. It’s really beautiful up here. Then I notice my ski hat! It was in there all this time and would have made a difference. But I forgot about it. Well, I’m wearing it now!

As I sit replenishing my energy, something wonderful happens. It is the first time Mount Ngaurahoe appears in 100% full glory. Wow! It really is a perfect cone.


So beautiful, draped in a fresh blanket of snow. I’m completely taken by the sight!

Then Angelique appears…and wonders what happened? She seems just fine – I just say my foot plus lack of gear made me rethink. But she’d wanted to press on! I felt guilty and maybe unsure. But we started back. It was on the way back I knew I really needed to turn around.

I was still experiencing foot pain, so, sadly this was today’s limit. I don’t understand, as I was able to go six hours in Abel Tasman National Park – yes with some pain, but today was worse. Pretty frustrating.

I was glad, though, to catch a glimpse of that mountain. Wow.

Back at the Rainbow Motel we find Elwin has already returned, and he says it was the best part of the trip so far. Yes, he had to hike through a foot of snow in spots, but it was so incredible to be up close to so many volcanic features. It was a real black Mordor up there, without living things – just a volcanic wasteland. There were amazing blue lakes, but also steaming fumeroles. Just like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I hope to get his pictures!

Well, our next destination will be Rotorua and the geysers in that area…



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