Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Six months ago, Hubby and I visited New Zealand, for the second time in our lives.  This trip was far different from the first–when we traveled with three children under the age of 10.  This was a trip for the two of us, notwithstanding the fact that our daughter is living there now.

Now, of course we had a long “to do” list–for months we had been listening to our daughter tell us about all the terrific things she was doing and what we needed to see and do in the two short weeks we had to cram everything into.

~our daughter at the Tongariro Crossing~


One thing at the top of the list was hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a rigorous hike across an active volcanic area, at the foot of Mount Doom.  Everything we read told us that we needed to be in good shape–really good shape–to successfully complete this hike without a heart attack, stroke or complete collapse.  I joined a gym, and Hubby took up walking miles everyday, for months before the trip.

We picked up an added incentive that we had to do this on our very first night in Auckland.  Our hosts at our B&B in Auckland, Devonport–the Admiral’s Landing–had hiked the crossing for their 50th wedding anniversary, only a few months before.  If Joy and Howard could do this, so could we!

So, fully prepared and with extra incentive, we booked a hostel in Taupo for two nights, giving ourselves one day and only one day, to be able to make the crossing.  Everyone, including our daughter, recommends that hikers book with an expedition service, which provides transportation to the National Park, to the starting point, and pickup on the opposite side of the mountain at the finish line.  These services monitor the weather on the mountain and make a decision as to whether to take hikers to the park–at about 5 am.  (They also keep track of their customers, making sure that each person they transport gets back safely or they call Search and Rescue–a service that provides a lot of peace of mind.)

With these conditions, obviously we had one and only one chance, and it might be iffy, to make the crossing.  We booked our transportation through the hostel, and were given a phone number to call at 5 am to see if it was a go.  The weather was iffy, cool, possible rain.  The real weather problem on the crossing is wind–after all, it goes across a mountaintop.  The 5 am phone call told us that yes, the expedition was a go.  We packed sandwiches, water, hats, etc., inside waterproof bags, dressed carefully in layers, and headed out to meet the bus, along with a half dozen other guests of the hostel, at 5:45 am.

We arrived at the drop off point at about 7:30 am.  The weather was cool and cloudy, not quite raw, and this was at the base of the mountain.  The tour guide informed several potential hikers that they were seriously not dressed to hike in an alpine environment, temperatures at about freezing at the summit–these young ladies wore gym shorts and t-shirts, and not much else.  Hubby did not pack even a rain parka–what was he thinking??–but the expedition service could help.  He could rent a parka for a few dollars.  He did.  (He also did not pack a hat–but he bought one the evening before.)

We set off at about 8 am.

~yipes!  almost twenty kilometers!~

There was at least one point in the morning that we thought the weather might clear.

~that white sliver in the distance is the shed roof at our starting point~

There was no such luck.  Not only was it cloudy and foggy–it actually started to sleet when we got near the summit.

~there were places where we didn’t see much of a view!~

We did have lots of company; the hike was a odd combination of meeting a very personal singular goal, with many similarly motivated fellow travelers along the way.

~all the hikers had a common goal–make it across~

Our fellow hikers were such a varied group–from the happy-go-lucky college aged hikers, to the elderly Japanese and Korean tourists, to the New Zealand dairy farmers (husband and wife) who make the hike regularly, to the young French mother with 3 small boys, including one she carried on her back.  My hat really goes off to that mother.  She plugged onward and upward, as her two older boys–they looked like they were about 5 and 7 years old–hiked the mountain three times–twice forward and once back as they went back and forth, running ahead of her, and doubling back to go back to her.  Since we did not hear that anyone was lost on the mountain, we assume everyone made it back safely.

To be very honest, we barely could see the beautiful lakes in the photo at the top, though the thick fog.  At one point, crossing one of the craters, we could not see the next trail marker ahead of us, and the markers were only about 30 feet apart.  On the other hand, by that point in the hike, we were more focused on the challenge at hand, and less on the view we could not see, as we stopped to catch our breath every thirty seconds or so.

We stopped briefly at a flat area, where we could sit on a rock and have something to eat and a drink of water.  The rocks were wet, even though they were warm–after all this is an active volcano–and it was windy, sleeting and drizzling.  We did not stay too long, just long enough to grab a bite or two of sandwich, and a swig of water.

~that last push to the top was the most trying part of the hike–slippery, steep, and nothing to hold on to~

When we finally reached the very top–the crest–of the crossing, and started down through the gravelly scree, I reached out my hand, in the cold and sleet, to steady myself against the rocky ledge next to me.  It was the very rim of the volcano and it was hot!  The incongruous juxtaposition of the cold sleet and fog against the rough warm dry rock will stay with me for the rest of my life.

From there it was down, down, down.  The scree was slippery and wet, and our feet just slipped out from under us.  Some people were running down the slope in a zig-zag, a barely controlled rush to the bottom, with the prayer that they didn’t take someone else out along the way.  It worked best for us to go slower, to step heel first and let our heel settle through the scree to a solid spot.  This downhill hike was almost as hard as the uphill side, straining our knees and legs trying to maintain our balance as the ground literally slipped away.

Eventually we reached a more even trail, some ups and some downs, but marked and groomed and constructed.  The heat was out of the rock, the vegetation growing along the trail again, the ground mere dirt and not volcanic scree.  Unfortunately for us, the sky, the fog, never really cleared up.  We warmed up as we hiked, coming into a forest at the lower levels of the mountain which was not so foggy.

~this tropical rainforest at the base of the volcano is so far removed from the harsh, rugged, and rocky summit that it is hard to believe it was all part of the same hike~ 

The recent heavy rains had washed out parts of the lower trail, and the danger of flash floods was not over at the time we hiked.  Signs warned of the danger of the floods coming down the mountain.

~flash floods are a hazard on the lower parts of the mountain~ 

Six hours and 30 minutes after we started out on the other side of the volcano, we arrived at the end point of the crossing, found our expedition representatives and checked in.  Several others hikers also checked in and joined us in crashing on the return bus.  We compared notes, including how far our smart phones told us we had hiked and how many feet or meters we had climbed.  I know I moved as little as possible, every move was an effort!

The personal satisfaction we felt that day at completing the crossing was mirrored by the muscle soreness we felt the next day, and for a few more days to come.  But it was all worth it, and next time–we will do it again.  Hopefully with better weather!


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