Tongariro Alpine Crossing supersized: climbing three active volcanoes

Warning cries of “rock” reverberate around the mountain. A boulder big enough to take out anyone in its path crashes dangerously down the steep slope. Two hikers traversing the black scree freeze like rabbits in the headlights, only for the rock to mercifully bounce to their side. “Wow, that was close, we were nearly goners there”, says one of the friendly Kiwis, laughing off his near-death experience. Hiking through the volcanic heartland of New Zealand’s North Island is living up to its perilous reputation.

I have just two days to experience the wonders of the Tongariro National Park and – a sucker for challenges – set my sights on the summits of three active volcanoes. Mt Ngauruhoe is the first on my list.
The 2,287m peak is just how a child would draw a volcano – conical with a single vent and perfectly symmetrical slopes. This striking appearance earned it the starring role as Mt Doom in Hollywood blockbuster Lord of the Rings and is, perhaps, why so many hikers are attempting the tricky climb and dislodging rocks from above.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Two hikers with Mt Ngauruhoe in the distance

Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Climbing Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom)

My day begins painfully early at 5.50am in adventure town Taupo with a shuttle bus ride to the Mangatepopo Road starting point. I am taking on the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km route often billed as New Zealand’s best day walk. Steaming fumaroles, bizarre rock formations, moon-like basins and brilliantly colourful lakes are but a few of the highlights. And then there’s the added thrill of tramping – the Kiwi word for trekking – through an active volcanic landscape where eruptions are a very real possibility. In 2012 Mt Tongariro – the second volcano on my hit list – emitted a couple of powerful blasts from its northern crater, leading to a partial closure of the famous crossing.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Walkers snaking along the Tongariro Crossing path

The first few kilometres of my hike are uneventful, with the scenery shrouded in fog and my attempts to escape the chatty crowds of gap-year travellers largely unsuccessful. Taking the path for the optional two to three hour side trip to Ngauruhoe however marks a sudden change in the drama levels. Impossibly steep scree slopes of dark volcanic rock stand between me and the crater summit. Every two steps up result in a frustrating slide of at least one step down as the loose, unstable surface gives way. The going is tough and there is the added challenge of scuttling left or right to ensure rocks let loose by tramper boots further up don’t hit me in the face. It feels a bit like I’m a participant in a retro computer game, dodging this way and that to avoid bullets from alien spaceships above.

From waterfalls and mountains to rainforests and beaches, read more about my Kiwi backpacking experience here

Gradually I edge my way higher and higher, finally emerging above the clouds and glimpsing for the first time Ngauruhoe in all its ethereal glory. Patches of red and white rock seem to flow out of the crater, as if spewed out of the mountain, and steam pours skywards out of vents in a visual reminder of the smoking, smouldering activity below the surface. I’m no fantasist but it is easy to imagine Frodo struggling up this imposing peak. But the sight of other trampers at the summit gives me hope and – with aching calves and heaving lungs – I eventually conquer the scree treadmill of Mt Doom.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Clouds circle around the base of Mt Ngauruhoe

One volcano down, two to go, I think as I circle the crater summit, feasting on views of the snowy top of Mt Ruapehu (my third target) to the south and a glorious cloud inversion across the national park. Peering into the crater is a little underwhelming – no bubbling lake of molten lava or jets of smoke, like I’d envisioned. But, having read that the national park’s youngest volcano erupted at least once every nine years up until 1975 including an 11-month, six million cu metre lava disgorgement in 1954, mean the sight is still dramatic and unnerving.

My next task is the steep climb down and I face a choice of two strategies. A slow, knee-destroying but sensible descent one carefully placed step at a time, or a reckless but fun session of scree skiing. I go for the second option, letting gravity and the slide of the rocks below my feet carry me downwards in a blur. Fifteen minutes later – compared to the 90 minute climb – I’m off Ngauruhoe, with my boots full of dust and a smile on my face.

The next section across the other-worldly landscapes of the South and Red Craters however showcases the worst of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. With its must-do status – it is listed in Lonely Planet’s top 20 for New Zealand – the walk attracts about 70,000 trampers a year. This easily makes it one of the country’s most popular hikes, meaning big crowds and, on occasion, disrespectful visitors. I witness an American backpacker get completely naked for an alpine desert selfie, presumably for his next I’m-such-a-crazy-guy Facebook profile picture, as well as a group of French travellers blasting out dance tunes on a portable speaker. Credit to the Department of Conservation ranger who threatens the latter with a fine if they don’t turn it off – but these experiences still spoil the sense of wilderness walking somewhat. Part of me wishes I’d opted for the relative solitude of the four-day Tongariro Northern Circuit – one of New Zealand’s nine ‘great walks’. I completed it a decade ago in 2006, aged 22, and have fond memories of hiking alone in the alpine herb fields, forests and desert-like plateaux – but, alas, I don’t have the time on this trip.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Unwelcome crowds of hikers

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

One hiker has had enough

Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Climbing Mt Tongariro

I try to not let my fellow trampers’ indiscretions ruin the walk and, after reaching the crossing’s high point at Red Crater, head on my second side trip for the day to the summit of Tongariro. The 1,967m mountain, like Ruapehu, was shaped by a mixture of eruptions and glacial action in the last ice age, and has multiple vents. It is an easy climb on a well-marked path and I soon reach the summit – two down, one to go. But my focus is not on the understated Tongariro. The path provides a perfect vantage point to look back at Ngauruhoe and I can’t keep my eyes off it. As clouds sweep up the valley and surround the base of the volcano, it is easy to see why it is deemed “tapu” (sacred) in Maori culture. In fact, the whole area is so sacred to the indigenous population that in 1887 Te Heuheu Tukino IV (Horonuku), then the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, gifted the peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and part of Ruapehu to the people of New Zealand – a pioneering move that led to the creation of the national park.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Gazing at Mt Ngauruhoe from Mt Tongariro

The remainder of the crossing is a race against time to reach Ketetahi Road for my 5.30pm shuttle bus. I get into a rhythm, striding past the strangely-coloured Emerald Lakes and the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Blue Lake, before slowly descending through golden tussock covered slopes to my destination. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is done and dusted – but the real challenge lies ahead.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The beautiful Emerald Lakes

Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Climbing Mt Ruapehu (and failing!)

A night in nearby Whakapapa helps recharge my batteries and I wake early with one thing on my mind – Ruapehu. The last volcano summit will be the most difficult. At 2,672m, it is the largest mountain in the North Island. There is no marked route to the top, meaning precise navigation is required, and, in winter at least, ice axes and crampons are a must. Perennial snow patches, gale force winds, white-outs and changeable weather can add to the danger levels even in summer. But peering into the crater lake is something I desperately want to experience.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

A hiker with the snow-capped Mt Ruapehu in the background

The volcano Gods however conspire against me. A storm is brewing and local mountain guides advise me against the climb, warning of adverse conditions and the prospect of no views during the seven hour return hike. I deliberate for ages, weighing up the pros and cons in my head. Are they being over cautious? I don’t want to fail – maybe I should just go for it? But perhaps it’s best to listen to the experts?

In the end I take the safe option. I put my hiking boots away and instead pass the time by riding the chair lift up Ruapehu to New Zealand’s highest café. As I sip on a latte the ominous sight of dark, menacing clouds circling around the summit put my worried mind at rest that I have made the right decision. I picture my friend and adventure companion Joe who reached the summit last year. He described it as a dream come true to peer down into the crater. I feel bitterly disappointed to have missed out.
My three volcano challenge has, technically, been a failure, my goals unreached and hopes unfulfilled.
Ruapehu has eluded me. But I console myself that at least I now have a reason to return to the area. My mood begins to lift and I leave the cafe feeling excited about coming back to finish what I started on my next volcanic adventure in the rumbling, smouldering Tongariro National Park.

I originally wrote this feature for the awesome Adventure Travel magazine – check it out online.