Our group of eight completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at the close of summer, and made a snap decision to climb an imposing mountain.
I traveled with the following people:
- Clemens – from Austria, studying business in Scotland, an experienced landscape photographer who took plenty of photos on this trip in his own unique style
- Leo – from Germany, who brought his drone to take aerial footage of the waterfall and the hike itself
- Reed – from San Diego
- George – from Massachusetts
- David – from Toronto
- Emma – from Cape Cod
- Kelli – from Vermont
February 23, 2018 – Friday
We departed Auckland in two cars at 10:30am for a more or less continuous drive down to the Tongariro area. We first visited the Taranaki Falls loop track, and after a quick photo stop on the roadside we stayed the night at an incredible AirBnB named the Kakahi Adventure Lodge.
The drive south was uneventful – the most memorable part was almost skidding off the road after turning a gravel corner at full speed near the lodge. We also received word that another group of people from our university accommodation would be on the trail on Saturday.
After arriving at the lodge, we found many of the rooms including the bathroom locked – we spent the next 30 minutes looking for additional keys hidden away in drawers and trying to unlock the remaining rooms. It almost seemed like an escape room – while a frustrating endeavor, it was pretty fun too. We finished by late afternoon and locked up the place again to drive to the Taranaki Falls loop track – a side attraction we hoped to visit while in the area.
The name of this track led to some confusion at first. I personally didn’t use my camera in this area. We walked to the waterfall and took a quick dip in the freezing pool at its base.
As sunset approached, our car decided to stop at the roadside for photos. By this point, the other car was ahead of us and likely waiting at the lodge – we held the key.
We decided we would tell them that we needed an oil change, or that the car broke down, or something like that – however, we arrived to find that they had already occupied themselves with exploring the lodge, and had found a shed with a record player and a huge amount of 70’s era posters, items and other memorabilia.
After dinner (spaghetti bolognese), we ended up singing Sweet Caroline and watching the stars, but called it a night soon after as we had an early start the next morning.
February 24, 2018 – Saturday
Feeling a little worse for the wear after the night’s antics, we began our hike at 7:30am. A few hours later, six of us made a snap decision to attempt an ascent of the nearby Mt. Ngauruhoe. We completed our hike before sunset and celebrated at the lodge that night, although we were too tired to stay up for long.
The trail is a one-way hike, starting and ending at different locations. The most common way to manage this is to park one’s car at the end of the trail, and take a shuttle bus to the trailhead. We woke up bright and early and arrived at the parking lot at about 6:30am. It was still dark and fairly cold – we layered up accordingly.
The shuttle picked us up at 7am, and we arrived at the trailhead and began our hike at about 7:15am.
The Devil’s Staircase
The first hour of the hike was relatively easy. At this point, there were hundreds of people on the trail, which we were not enthused about – however, we found the other group we had been expecting, and our groups merged for the time being. At around the same time, the day broke and we quickly shed all of the layers we put on earlier while waiting for the shuttle.
The track soon lead into a section known as the Devil’s Staircase – a 300m ascent of significantly steeper grade, ending at a saddle between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe – known to pretty much everyone outside New Zealand as Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings.
This part of the trail was still for the most part well paved, and proved to be a suitable warmup for the next part of our day. As we reached the saddle, we stopped at a boulder – we could see iron stakes driven into the rocks to our right (the trail up Mt. Ngauruhoe used to be marked).
Two members of our group already knew they wanted to climb the mountain. They now had to convince the rest of the group to join them – a lot of us liked the idea earlier, but seeing the mountain first hand raised some serious doubts as to our ability to actually climb it.
After a 10-minute conference they managed to convince four more – Reed, Leo, David and myself – to join them, and suddenly their idea became our journey. The remaining two stayed with the other group, and continued with the crossing – we would eventually find them waiting at the end of the trail for us.
And so, we climbed. And climbed some more. It started off steep, and became steeper – before we knew it, we were climbing loose gravel on a 40 degree slope. It wasn’t easy going – with every step, one’s foot would slide down a few inches in the gravel. Needless to say, we stopped multiple times for breaks – rest soothed tired legs and gave us the energy to continue onward.
About 1 hour into the ascent, we made our way to a rocky ridge to our left – this provided us with much more stable footing as well as handholds. Near the summit, the rocks turned red – we were to complete the climb about 15 minutes later. By then, it was 12:40pm – we had made a 600m ascent from the saddle in two hours. We stayed for about an hour and then started our descent.
I find traveling downhill on steep gravel slopes to be terrifying – to this day, I still struggle with it. I watched just about everyone else on the mountain march down without a care in the world (we even saw someone run down the mountain at full speed) – meanwhile, I was trying desperately not to slip and fall.
Eventually, and far behind my companions, I made it back to the main trail – 4 hours had passed since we started up the mountain.
The detour we took proved to be to our advantage – 4 hours behind the majority of the crowd, we returned to an empty trail, save for the occasional runner or hiker coming the other way. The large, flat crater we saw from the summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe earlier became our next destination, and a welcome respite from the toils of the morning.
However, the mountain had taken its toll on us. On the next large uphill section – a 200m ascent to the peak of the main crossing – some of us (myself included) were visibly struggling.
On the way down from the peak of the crossing, we passed the beautiful Emerald Lakes – the site of many an Instagram photo. After another short climb, we passed another lake – it was here that we realized that we had completely run out of water, and we still had 3 hours of walking ahead of us. The lake water – being contaminated by the volcanic environment – wasn’t potable.
Grass and Jungle
Soon, the views opened up. In the far distance, the parking lot with our car became visible – behind forests, a hut and a winding trail.
This was without a doubt the easiest part of the crossing – the track was well formed, wide and for the most part a gently sloping downhill all the way to the parking lot. There was to be no more climbing.
This was also, however, the most frustrating part of the crossing – having run out of water, and having been worn down from hours of climbing, we all wanted to just get out of the wilderness and back to the car. The track did not go directly to the hut, but wound its way down the mountain in wide loops.
By this point, the two people who went ahead had already reached the car and would be returning from the supermarket soon – we had hoped they had water.
At the hut, it turned out we were only halfway from where we first saw the parking lot – and it did not look any closer. Soon, the track descended into rainforest – this was beautiful trail, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t appreciate it more due to the circumstances.
As we approached an area with some benches, we began to think that we were near the end, when we saw a sign telling us we were, again, only halfway from the hut to the parking lot. Our frustration came to a head at this point and some of us just ran the remainder of the track to the car, which at that point was waiting for us in the parking lot. There was no water in the car, only beer – we drank it anyway.
We returned, re-hydrated and had more spaghetti for dinner. After that, we celebrated our successful hike with a few more beers – but we were tired from the day’s events, and went to sleep early.
February 25, 2018 – Sunday
We returned to Auckland, leaving in the late morning and arriving back home in the late afternoon.