| Tongariro National Park - North Island, New Zealand
The objective for this trip was the Tongariro Crossing, as well as other sections of the Tongariro Northern Circuit and we had goals to climb Mount Ngauruhoe (pronounced “Nara-Hoe-ee”) and Mount Ruapehu, two still-active volcanoes in the area. Doing my best to manage my expectations, climbing the latter two peaks would be contingent upon appropriate conditions, weather and state of alert on both peaks given the fairly recent eruptions.
This trip was a long time in the making. I had it planned seven years ago, right after I turned around the first time on Tongariro by hurricane category 1 winds, hail and then a snowstorm (oddly similar to my experience in Tasmania on Cradle Mountain). I was determined to come back and finish this.
With the exception of the ample wildlife in Tasmania, the two regions are quite similar in climate, especially rainfall and the unpredictability of the weather, the sharing of certain flora and topography. Although the mountains of Tasmania have similar history, the volcanoes of New Zealand are still rather young and active and the North Island in particular has at its core an active volcanic-geothermal region, which was our destination. It’s their youth that make them exciting. What better way to spend a holiday than hiking all day, climbing up to the summit of a volcano and peering into the still active, smoking crater? The chance to spot the elusive Kiwi was another reason to return!
Tongariro National Park is a special place. A sacred place for the Maori, Tongariro is the spiritual heart of the North Island. Three volcanoes form the core of the park: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, with most considering Ngauruhoe part of the Tongariro massif despite their distance apart, hinting at the huge dimensions of the latter.
The land here seems quiet and dormant as you walk in silence across the spartan volcanic plateau in an early morning mist. At times, though this solitude is shattered as the raw eruptive power of Mother Nature reminds one of the epic forces of creation that formed this landscape. Tongariro has a myriad of personalities which seem to change by the hour.
A Park Gifted to a Nation
Mountains have a special importance to the Maori people. A particular mountain provides a source for their strength, their spirit and their mana. They look upon such a grand peak with pride, its majesty commanding respect and is linked to their very existence and identity. I think many climbers can identify with them on this level.
Because of land disputes and courtroom battles at the time when Europeans were increasing in numbers (mid 1800’s), the local Maori tribes were in danger of losing this land forever to the ever increasing settlers aiming to develop the land for sheep grazing. Due to the revered nature of these mountains and uncertain political environment involving land ownership, the then-chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, gifted these mountains and surrounding area to the nation and people of New Zealand as a way to preserve them into perpetuity for his tribe’s descendants. Tongariro in 1887, thus became the first national park in New Zealand.
The Tongariro Crossing
We started and hiked this in the direction from the Mangatepopo Road to the Ketetahi Hut for those familiar with the area. Unless you have two cars and two drivers, a shuttle is the way to go here. We had a shuttle drop us off in the morning to head out on our own and would pick it up at the end of the day assuming we didn’t miss the bus, in which case it would be a really long day. Total one way distance including the ascent of the peaks was roughly 16-17 miles, with 5,200ft elevation gain with the ups and downs. Unfortunately, the first shuttle pickup was 7:00AM, which was late (and required an additional 20+ mile drive to the trailhead) and the last return was 4:30pm, so we needed to hike and climb quickly.
The first two-three miles or so are fairly flat and uneventful, some of which is over a boardwalk to start out, which similar to that in Cradle Mountain was aimed at protecting the fragile alpine plants underfoot. The weather on the morning was clear, skies blue, and winds calm, much better than the evening before when all summits were hidden behind a thick cloak of cloud cover. Given the inherent volatility of the weather here, I figured we should quickly seize this opportunity and get going asap.
Ngauruhoe is in full view the entire time along this initial expanse and this would be the first mountain we would climb.
Mt. Ngauruhoe (2291M or 7516ft)
Mt. Ngauruhoe is a beautiful symmetrical stratovolcano sitting across the valley from Mt. Tongariro. Ngauruhoe is also one of the most active volcanoes in the country, having erupted nearly 50 times in the last century, the most recent eruption being 1977. After checking with the local Rangers and Geologist, it currently seemed safe to ascend, despite a spate of small earthquakes in the area recently.
Mt. Ngauruhoe can be reached from the main trail of the Crossing track, which was our plan. Branching off of the main track that starts at the end of the Mangatepopo road, we came up to the area where the turn off is fairly quickly. There is no trail or marked route from this point on, so it’s all dead reckoning to the top along whatever path you can safely negotiate. From the turnoff, it was over 2,000ft climb to the summit.
Depending on what perspective you view it, Ngauruhoe can take on quite an ominous appearance with its jet black slopes, bright red crater rocks, steaming fumaroles, smoking crater and depending on the season, snow filled narrow couloirs defining its shape.
It is a very photogenic volcano and when the weather is clear, has a commanding view across the valley. Here is a shot of Ngauruhoe that I took from the northern slopes of Ruapehu; a classically formed, sharp looking and well defined cone. Notice nothing growing anywhere near it.
From a distance, its slopes seem smooth and that any ascent should be straightforward. This is not the case. The climbing here was steep, travels up gravelly scree and sharp volcanic rock in places and frankly was not pleasant, but was really cool to be here doing it! When on the loose sections, it was usually one step up, half a step sliding back down with gravel getting in your shoes. Trekking poles sunk in the sand in places, though were very helpful for balance. At times, the slope angle was over 40 degrees and when climbing on the rockier portions, the angle was higher, though was actually easier.
At times, there were rock walls that needed to be surmounted to continue up. Unlike many other mountain climbs, the elevation gain was relentless, never letting up or leveling out until the top. There were not too many unique and revealing features on the steep flanks of Ngauruhoe and I was a bit concerned that the increasing clouds would bring a white out on the descent which could complicate route-finding even further getting back down.
Taking it step by step, the ascent was not all that difficult but you needed to be wary of selecting the best options for each next step or else you’d be blocked out with unpleasant terrain and need to backtrack to start again.
Our fingers crossed, we continued up, not really sure which way to go to the “summit” and played it by ear. As we climbed higher, the loose sand gave way to more solid, but sharp jagged rock which needed to be climbed. Towards the top, there were some easier spots which appeared to switchback and gave a nice reprieve from the arduous ascent up until then. Thankfully, there were no altitude related concerns since it was a relative low peak, but it certainly got my heart rate going.
Soon we were at a junction where I saw two peaks (one on either side of the crater), I figured I’d aim for the nearest one first, still unsure which was the summit proper.
This near point was on the rim of the crater. The below pic is peering right into the crater; for scale, there are three people on the distant rim towards the center left of the photo. The snowcapped peak in the middle showing its summit is Mt Ruapehu to the south.
As we feared, clouds starting moving in with force, whiting out the landscape to the northwest, an area we'd have to walk through to go down. I assumed we’d be going down nearly blind, so I was making mental notes of landmarks at varying distances, hoping this would help getting down to the target junction where we'd pick up the trail. These clouds I should add, for those considering this trip, came in very fast. There wasn’t a cloud in the entire sky all morning, even by 10:00AM, then with less than half an hour, near white out conditions prevailed from midway down the mountain.
After spending some time admiring the crater and fire engine red rock, I walked to a saddle east of the crater to view the other side and assumed the other high point was the “summit” or I should say what remains of the summit. Summits of volcanoes are temporary.
As we neared the true “summit”, we passed a very active steam vent, from which sulphur fumes spewed out across the ridgeline, evidencing this mountains life beneath where we stood. Strangely, it smelled like a combination of sulphur and fish. Another climber stood atop the steam vent to warm up – I can’t say that I would have recommended this, though it made for a dramatic photo.
The view from the summit was awesome. To the south, Mt. Ruapehu, another active volcano and oddly, the location of a popular ski resort in winter, was clearly visible. The two lakes in the photo I believe are the Tama lakes.
On and near the summit, the rocks and the ground were noticeably warmer than those lower down, presumably from the geothermal activity deeper down. Standing on the summit, thoughts of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens consumed me as I replayed those images of explosion-driven ash clouds and imagined voluminous, superheated pyroclastic flows engulfing the mountainside as we climbed down...
Below is a shot of the connecting ridge circumnavigating the crater.
After spending a few minutes on top taking it all in, we were cognizant of the incoming weather and felt we should get down. As suspected, clouds were low and moving across the eastern flanks of Ngauruhoe quickly. I did my best to aim for a couple of rock formations I remembered on the way up and soon we were down a good 500ft where visibility improved to about 150 feet or so.
The noises I heard a few minutes earlier in whiteness were actually a group of people making their way down the steep slopes, occasionally falling and sliding enroute.
See image below which shows several of these folks precariously positioned on the slope on their way down. This was actually a guided group, like many of the groups on the mountain today. The guy lying on the ground actually was running uncontrollably and fell down due to the steepness. Don’t run here or else when you fall face first into the gravel, the pumice will rip the skin from your face. This photo still doesn’t do justice to the steepness of this peak.
This is where your scree skiing and heel plunging skills will come in handy! When the rocky portions appear again, it was a bit more painful going down and consequences of falling were a bit more severe. Rockfall here was common with all sorts of boulders coming rolling past us. So, one needs to stay alert for what is up above and what you might inadvertently dislodge down the slopes below. I saw a couple of widowmakers careen past.
Back at the turnoff for the Track to Ketetahi, we didn’t quite get back to the exact turnoff, but were close enough. From this section, the clouds were behind us and hopefully going to stay there, but the skies were definitely looking whiter now. In the photo below, the track picks up right by my pack at the bottom then crosses that wide plateau from left to right, then across the distant peaks on the right, beyond which lies Red Crater.
From here, we continued on the Crossing and walked across the valley enroute to the rocky climb up to “Red Crater” which took another 90 minutes or to get up the top, which was the high point on the track not including the summits. True to its name, the sands and rock were even a deeper red than the crater of Ngauruhoe, thanks to oxidized iron in the rocks.
The view from here however was worth the climb as finally, the Emerald lakes were in clear view and visibility was great. When I attempted this the first time a few years back, this was about as far as I had gotten and visibility back then was about 30 feet in horizontal rain and snow, so, I never even got to see the crater nor the lakes, so this was indeed a treat! These were really stunning and the colors were magnificent.. In attempting to describe the teal colored lakes, surrounded by the volcanic terrain, steaming vents, nearby peaks and distant highlands, I become prone to hyperbole.
Behind the lakes were more smoking fumaroles and steam vents to liven up the scene.
Descending off Red Crater, you’re faced with more steep, loose sand and scree. We continued the walk towards the Ketetahi exit where we would encounter somewhat flatter terrain, but no less beautiful. As we descended the slopes of Tongariro, we were met again with rolling slopes covered in tussock grass and a myriad of alpine plants.
Turning around a corner another mile or so in, we got a strong whiff of sulphur again, which upon rounding the bend, saw the hillside full of steaming and smoking vents. This was the Ketetahi area on distant flank of Tongariro, near which a hut was built to frame the northern end of the larger Circuit Loop. This was apparently private land, so we didn’t venture further to investigate.
We were planning on continuing all the way to Ketetahi parking lot to exit. Following this direction we descended another thousand feet into a lower beech and fern forest literally right until we walked out into the parking lot.
It took several years, but I finally finished this! Well worth the trip and I’d heartily recommend visiting this region…just plan on a few backup days with the weather.
Mt Ruapehu (2797M or 9176ft)
Mt Ruapehu is the largest volcano in New Zealand and one of its most active. The last eruptions took place in 2006 and 2007, with large explosive eruptions in 1995-1996. This mountain has also given rise to large destructive lahars, the paths of which can be seen down the slopes. Its summit and upper flanks also hold the only glaciers in the North Island.
Ruapehu is a well-known ski destination and much to our surprise there were the numerous ski huts built on recent lava flows near the summit. Talk about living on borrowed time. Reminded me of the houses that were built on Kilauea, which were later consumed by lava. Several recent lahars had completely covered several of these skiing areas. The initial plan was to climb this the next day after we finished the Tongariro Track.
Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and those clouds just kept coming in and blanketed the region overnight and into the next day. Visibility was back down to 50ft in the morning. Given the difficult navigation that was expected even in good weather, we set out to climb Mt Ruapehu the day after instead hoping the weather would improve.
We waited and hiked the southern section of the Tongariro Circuit in the meantime (which unfortunately had very little visibility also). There were some interesting wildflowers and plant life along the track though. See pic below, which sums up visibility for the day.
This massive volcano is an impressive peak, when you can actually see it. The first time I was here, I waited six days and the clouds never lifted and I never saw it - I didn’t even know where it was. Mt Ruapehu is located about 20k as the crow flies from the start of the Tongariro Track and about 40k by road and right up the road from the Tongariro Chateau.
You can imagine my elation when the next day I saw this! (see image below) Clouds lifting, mighty Ruapehu was right there, its snow draped sides in full view! Listening to the weather and chatting with the Ranger, it seemed we had a window between the current front moving out and before a new, larger one would move in later that night.
We quickly got in the car and drove up through the lava fields to the high parking lot and after deliberating about the weather forecast, packed up final gear and started out.
As the image demonstrates, there was a lot snow left on the mountain. I was hoping there would be enough snow to warrant and provide a snow ascent to the top and fortunately I would be in luck. My ice axe and crampons went into the pack and we were off.
After speaking with the Ranger, there was some concern of waterfall holes in the ice/snowpack and crevasse risk in the snowfields. Avalanche risk was deemed low, despite that the upper slope angles would be in the mid-30s/low 40 degree ranges and volcanic alert status was low, though the temperatures in Crater Lake had been rising lately indicative of activity in the near future. Given these conditions, I figured we’d play it by ear and see the terrain and turn back if not comfortable. We topped off our water bottles and headed up. It was quite cold here, hovering around freezing. Skies seemed to be clearing though with some blue peeking through.
There is no marked route on Ruapehu and again, no true singular summit any longer, but multiple summit points around the crater rim. Most people climb to the Crater Lake and call that a summit or possibly one of the other three peaks along its long ridge. I figure I’d make the call if and once we got to the summit ridge and see what lay ahead. Most people climbing today were using a Guide. We opted not to use one and went by ourselves, agreeing to get down if weather moved in. This peak is far less popular then the Tongariro Circuit. It was nice to get some solitude.
The “route” to use the term loosely, starts from the end of the ski tow/ski lifts and is a scramble all the way to snowline, which today was about 750ft in vertical gain over ~ 1.5-2 miles. The rock was all solid, but all steep and like climbing through the boulderfield on Longs Peak, with more rounded boulders. There was an occasional harder move, but mostly Class 2/2+ terrain for now.
Climbing higher, we soon were met with a view of Ngauruhoe to the north peeking out of the rocky landscape. Vast snowfields lay ahead of us. Another party of four from Europe was there as well.
As I expected, there were some crevasses that had opened up along the west face which seemed to go in the direction towards Crater Lake.
They didn’t seem to bother the other folks at all and after looking briefly down at them, they all crossed right above them without being too concerned. None of them had an ice axe or crampons. In that pic, the way to the Lake was up to the right to the right top corner of the photo, where the snow steepens and is mixed with rock outcroppings. I was nervous for them and took a visual note of where they were should they need to be rescued later in the day.
Here is a closer shot of the Crevasse openings. There were other openings not seen in this photo.
Call me too conservative, but I opted to turn left here and climb up the steeper, though
seemingly safer slope to the east. I donned my crampons and took out my axe and started climbing. The snow was in great shape to climb and I felt I made the right decision, as I would not have been comfortable on the other route given those hazards. This climb was an awesome workout and was roughly 2,000 vertical feet of solid snow climbing. I began to warm up and soon was down to one layer as the sun rose higher. Nobody else was climbing up this slope today, it was like my own private mountain.
As the sky cleared and visibility improved, I needed to stop and take a photo break, as the views of Ngauruhoe were just stunning as its summit cone began to peek through the clouds. I can’t believe I stood on top of that just a day and a half earlier! Some streaks of snow remained on its southern flanks. Mt. Tongariro is the lower, distant peak behind it with the Tongariro Crossing traversing the saddle/valley between the two. The summit of Mount Taranaki, another volcano some 80 miles distant was also visible from here (though not in this photo).
I continued up the great snow and after a short while, topped out on the summit ridge, which had intermittent snow and mixed rock. On the inside of the crater, the ridges were all heavily corniced, so care had to be taken to walk well behind these. Walking a bit further I topped out on “A” high point and was greeted with a white wonderland from the crater plateau inside. I continued walking until I reached a another high point.
Glaciers and Snowfields covered the mountain and colored the crater's interior marshmallow white with occasional ash-stained snow seen in spots. What a magnificent place. The high point or true summit is towards the left in the image below.
This place was amazing.
As it was getting late and given the volatility of the weather here, we opted to head down this magnificent peak. Descending this was again a sand and scree fest, with plunge stepping the best way in the softer areas, and extreme care needed in the rocky spots. I fell in one spot and nearly ripped the entire left leg off my pants from the sharp terrain. Care also had to be taken not to trigger any landslides.
Towards the bottom, there was a great spot to glissade with a clean rock-free run out. It wasn’t super steep, so I put my snow pants on so I’d have less friction and let loose. I got down over twelve hundred feet in two minutes!
To finish off the day, we stopped at the café near the ski lifts at the base and had a couple of famous New Zealand meat pies (which apparently is the highest café in the country).
The primeval looking forests at lower elevations down below are similar to Tasmania, but richer in Tree ferns and southern beech and are an absolute pleasure to walk through. Again,
I fully expected a Tyrannosaur to run out of the ancient looking woods.
Unfortunately, we spotted no Kiwi birds in any of our evening searches, though we might possibly have heard one…until next time.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):