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…

Tongariro National Park and Mt. Ruapehu Serve Up Pestilence from Above and Below

13 03 2013

Mt. Ruapehu

Tops on our bucket list for New Zealand’s North Island was Tongariro National Park. New Zealand’s oldest national park is a high altitude volcanic wonder. Inside its borders is 9,177 ft Mt. Ruapehu, the country’s largest and most active volcano. New Zealand’s largest ski area, Whakapapa, lies on its slopes. Plus 7,513 Mt. Ngauruhoe, a perfect cone with a blackened, smoking plateau beneath – which was filmed as Mordor and Mt. Doom for the Lord of the Rings movies. Tongariro lies under the other two and is composed of multiple cones.

Model of the three volcanoes

Model of the three volcanoes

Rained out in Wellington, we hoped the improving weather forecast for the park would turn out to be true. We stayed at the Rainbow Motel in Tokaanu, on the southern shores of Lake Taupo – 40 minutes from the park.

The entire region sits directly on top of clashing of the Australasian and Pacific Tectonic Plates, and thus is full of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, calderas, and endures the occasional earthquake. Our accommodation at the Rainbow Motel had two single rooms plus a bed and couch in the living room, with kitchenette facilities. While the bed was positively awfully unsupportive, the Rainbow Motel has one perk which served us marvelously. Sitting on top of a geothermal area, it sported hot spring baths!

Often lauded as New Zealand’s greatest hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was a must-do. This challenging all-day hike climbs in between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and takes hikers directly into Mordor! It is full of blackened fields, sapphire volcanic lakes and steaming, stinking fumeroles. Elwin and I were itching to get on it. It is not possible to get to the trailhead by your own car. You must ride a bus which takes hikers inside. The hike is supposed to be one-way. Hikers meet the bus at the other end of the crossing.

This day we planned to hike the slopes of Ruapehu – taking a chairlift to a high trailhead. We drove up to Whakapapa Village, which is the base area for hikes on Ruapehu. But today hiking was not to be. Completely at odds with the meteorologists forecast, we find everything closed due to wind, rain, snow, and even more!

Wind/rain/volcanic activity conspire to ruin our day!

Wind/rain/volcanic activity conspire to ruin our day!

In fact the Ruapehu volcano itself was adding its mischief to ruin our day…throwing threats of eruption and lahars at us! NO hiking today. With 70 kph winds, possible eruptions, and lahars, the chairlift was closed as were most of the trails!


So, sulking, we headed back to Tokaanu to figure out what to do. On the road we see a sign for hot springs.

With a day to fill, we had nothing to lose! So we checked out the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. We weren’t interested in soaking in the pay-to-soak part of the park.

However, there is a trout stream and free walk amongst very interesting hot springs, thermal pools and plopping mud pots.

If you recall the Lord of the Rings movie “The Two Towers,” the scene of the “Dead Marshes,” where Frodo is advised “Don’t look at the lights!” in the water, you know what it’s like here. There are wooden walkways meandering amongst completely transparent steaming pools which tempt one to look deeply. So deeply you feel drawn in!

Trout like cold water. Interestingly there is a cold water stream running right through the area, and it’s choked with rainbow trout! We walk a bridge across and 4-5 pound trout swim beneath.

Now what to do? Well, we are very close to Lake Taupo. So we choose to hike a ways along its shores.

Lake Taupo is another geologic wonder. This lake is a caldera formed by one of the largest eruptions on Earth in the past 25,000 years. I kept thinking about another caldera, Crater Lake in Oregon. And one of the largest eruptions in human history, Tambora Indonesia. And Lake Tahoe.

For comparison, let’s look at surface area. Lake Taupo=238 square miles, Crater Lake=21 square miles, Lake Tahoe=192 square miles. Depth: Taupo=616 ft, Crater Lake=1,949 ft, Lake Tahoe=1,645 ft. Volume: Lake Taupo=14 cubic miles, Crater Lake=4.5 cubic miles, Lake Tahoe=93 cubic miles. So although Lake Taupo has the largest surface area, Lake Tahoe dwarfs Lake Taupo in total volume. Lake Tahoe is big AND deep!

Everybody likes volcano eruption comparisons. You probably have heard of Mt. Mazama, which blew up to make Crater Lake. Or, Tambora. Or, Krakatoa. But you might never have heard of Taupo. Let’s see: Tambora ejected 38 cubic miles of matter, and is the largest eruption in recorded history. Krakatoa, the loudest in recorded history, ejected 13 cubic miles. Mt. Mazama, 93. But Taupo’s Oruani eruption ejected 330 cubic miles of matter!  The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a 1 – 8 scale with 8 the highest. Krakatoa is 6, Tambora is 7 and Taupo is 8. Why have you not heard of it? Because it was before human history, 26,500 years ago. So, this entire region of New Zealand’s North Island seethes with the earth’s violence!

All along its shores are feather light rocks. Can you guess what type?

If you guessed pumice you are right. Pumice is ejected by volcanoes and is full of air pockets from the gas. Back at the Rainbow Motel, we soaked ourselves in the on site thermal baths. That made for a relaxing day, despite the weather. We’re crossing our fingers for a hike tomorrow.