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The ULTIMATE Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Jordan’s parents (Russell and Jeanette) arrived last week from Canada so for our first weekend together we decided to plan the ULTIMATE Tongariro Alpine Crossing to give them a taste of New Zealand’s amazing walks. Wanting to spread the experience over 2 days (as opposed to the standard day walk), we booked the Oturere Hut on the Tongariro Northern Circuit for the night and planned to summit Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings) the next day.

Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

We even added a 5th member to the ‘Utlimate’ team when we met up with travel blogger, Liz Carlson from Young Adventuress. When her blog post “Me speak Kiwi One Day” went viral a couple weeks ago we reached out to see if she wanted to meet up as we had such a similar story of moving to New Zealand. We met at the Maranui Café where we swapped travel stories and when she mentioned she was hoping to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we invited her to join us in a few weeks when we were planning the trip with Jordan’s parents. She immediately jumped on board and was excited for the adventure!

Jordan’s parents decided to head up towards Tongariro before us and it was no surprise when we got a message that they had already managed to meet Liz. Russell was having a glass of wine in the lounge when he started chatting with Liz. Russell mentioned he was going up with his son and girlfriend and after Liz said she was meeting 2 Canadians and their parents to do the crossing, Russell said “I think we’re talking about the same people! – Do you…blog?”, they both laughed at the coincidence – this place is really such a small town.

The next day we were up and ready to tackle the mountain, filled with energy and anticipation. To avoid the bus loads of tourists who were doing the 1 day crossing, we decided to start from the other entrance in hopes of avoiding the crowds. Luckily it was a beautiful day with no volcano warning signs so we started up the track.

Luckily the Volcanic Risk was ‘Normal’

The beginning of the climb wound through the beautiful New Zealand bush before opening up to the volcanic scrub land at the base of Tongariro. Steam could be seen pouring from the side of the mountain, filling the air with the smell of sulphur. Signs along the track warning of volcanic activity in the area reminded you that you are tramping through a fairly active area.

Liz and I excited for the day ahead

After a 2.5hr uphill climb, we reached the Ketetahi day hut where we stopped for lunch. Poor Russell was struggling at the beginning but managed to power his way up to meet us. He had the sandwiches in his bag so we were happy to see him reach the hut just as much as he was.

Enjoying some lunch at the Ketetahi Day Hut

With some fuel in us we pushed up the rest of the ascent, passing hundreds of tourists coming the other way down the mountain. We had much larger packs than the day hikers so it made for a tight squeeze on the path, but most were courteous and let us pass. Quite a few looked confused wondering first why we were going the ‘wrong’ way, and second why our packs were so large. As we climbed higher the view of the valley below and Lake Taupo in the distance was crystal clear.

Steaming vents pouring sulphur smell into the air with a view of Lake Taupo

As we reached the highest peak for the day, the beautiful Blue Lake came into view. The striking color of the lake stood out against the reds and browns of the volcanic soil. Although it looked tempting to jump into, it is a cold acidic lake which is ‘Tapu’, or sacred, therefore disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores.

Jordan & I are Blue Lake

This was also the first time we were able to get a good view of Tongariro and Mount Doom (although it was still mostly covered in clouds). You could also see the remnants of the old lava flows that spread across the Centre Crater.

Old lava flows into Center Crater

Happy to be on flat ground again, we walked along the volcanic plains before veering off the Alpine Crossing track and headed towards the Oturere Hut on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. We passed the first of the beautiful Emerald Lakes and began our decent into Mordor!

Jordan (with his badass Mountaineering glasses) at Emerald Lake

Our first section was a steep, rugged decent down into the barren volcanic wasteland. Although it was a beautiful day, the clouds had formed around Mt Doom, masking its magnificence. As we made the journey towards the hut, we hoped for clearer skies the next day.

Descending into Mordor
By now we had been walking for over 5 hours so the march across the Mordor fields towards the hut felt like an eternity. Jordan kept saying “it’s just over the next hill” and as we passed each one, our feet got heavier and heavier. FINALLY the hut came into view as Russell threw his walking poles in the air to signal “WE MADE IT!” Our steps immediately quickened as we raced towards our safe haven.
Oturere Hut along the volcanic plains

The Oturere Hut was much smaller than the huts we’ve stayed in before as most of the bunks were out in the common area, however we managed to snag the 5 top bunks.As soon as the packs were off, Russell beelined it for the wine and said “Let’s go have a glass on the ridge outside” So we filled our cups (it is SO worth carrying the weight) and headed towards the ridge overlooking the valley below to enjoy a cup of vino.

Enjoying a cup of vino & the view

After soaking up the view (and the wine) we headed back to the hut for dinner. Our JetBoil came in handy yet again as we cooked up some freeze dried meals and Ramen noodles for everyone! With full belly’s we decided to head back to the ridge line to watch the sun set while Jordan took off to the waterfall below to get some great photos (despite Jeanette’s pleas to not venture into the ravine after a couple glasses of wine)

Double waterfall

Before we knew it, the sun was down so we all crawled into bed, exhausted from the fun day we had. Overall everyone had a decent sleep thanks to our ear plugs as there was quite the melody of snoring going on all night! One of the downsides of sleeping in such close quarters.

Oturere Hut with Mt Doom in the distance

As usual, Jordan was up early to catch the sunrise with his camera, and we were thankful he woke us up to witness the beautiful scene. As the sun was coming up over the ridge it illuminated Mt Doom while the moon slowly fell behind the mountain – it almost looked like it was on FIRE!

Firing sunrise on Mt Doom

Itching to get on the track and reach the summit before the clouds rolled in, we set off around 7:30am back towards the Alpine Crossing along the desert. This time the walk out felt much faster as we weren’t desperately looking for the hut, however the hike back up the knarley ridge made for a challenging first morning feat!

Jeanette making her way out of the volcanic wasteland

With no one around, and the clear blue sky, the emerald lakes were beaming with color. The minerals in the surrounding rock cause this beautiful color – it almost looks radioactive!

Emerald Lakes

As Jordan, Liz and I took a detour up the one side of the lakes, we were rewarded with the most spectacular view! Hard to believe places like this actually exist!

Enjoying the beautiful view of Emerald Lake

We met up with Russell and Jeanette on the main track and headed up the steep loose gravel, passing the three Emerald lakes towards Red Crater.

Russell & Liz climbing past the three Emerald Lakes

A good intro into what the summit to Mt Doom was going to be, everyone dug deep to power up the steep hill. It was worth the climb though as the view was amazing of the magnificent Red Crater with Mt Doom lurking in the distance.

Vibrant Red Crater with Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe) in the distance

By now, the sea of tourist began to descend down the mountain, with a few stopping to confirm they were going in the right direction (as they saw us ‘swimming upstream’). We made our last flat walk along the South Crater before veering off towards the detour to summit Mt Doom.

Russell & Jeanette at the top of Red Crater

Everyone was keen to summit, but with Mt Doom in sight, the climb was looking quite daunting.I told Jeanette they didn’t have to succumb to Jordan’s peer pressure, but unfortunately he heard me which made him that much more determined to get everyone up the mountain!

Heading up the old lava flows towards the top of Mt Doom

After stashing our packs, and with everyone ready to tackle the climb, we heading up the unmarked path towards the top. It reminded me of a smaller Mount Taranaki summit with it’s scree fields and jagged rocky ridge on the climb up. It was by no means an easy feat, and with everyone clinging to the to their poles or rocky ledge with death grips, we slowly made our way up.

Me, Jeanette, Liz & Russell making our way up the steep mountain

I am always amazed that Jordan can carrying the camera and glidecam (and even the backpack full of water and food for everyone) up these steep mountains without breaking a sweat! The photos just don’t give it justice for just how steep this was!

Jordan with camera & glidecam in hand heading up Mt Doom

Past the rocky ridge line we were back into the rocky scree for the last 50m to the top. As we each reached the summit we cheered and high-fived as we celebrated this amazing accomplishment! Surprisingly there wasn’t much room at the top with only a ~5 foot ring around the crater. The inside the crater was striking red rock with a mural of colors that was mesmerizing to stare at.

‘The Fellowship’ at the top of Mt Doom!

The view towards Lake Taupo and Tongariro was also spectacular as you could see for miles and miles!

View of Tongariro Valley below with Lake Taupo in the distance

After grabbing a quick lunch, we even rein-acted the last scene of the Lord of the Ring series where The One Ring was destroyed in Mt Doom. Luckily Jeanette’s wedding ring on her necklace chain had a striking resemblance to The One Ring! (don’t worry we didn’t ACTUALLY throw it in) I have a feeling someone could have a pretty good business selling rings at the start of The Alpine Crossing for folks who want to re-enact that scene as well!

The Ring being ‘destroyed’ in Mt Doom

Luckily the way down was much easier than the calculated climb up. With a scree field all the way down the right side of the mountain, we set off with our poles in hand and flew down the mountain – scree ski style!

Jeanette & I ‘scree skiing’ down the mountain

Although we still managed to take a few tumbles, it was much easier to manoeuvre with poles and a history of skiing. Unfortunately poor Liz didn’t have either so she struggled a bit more coming down the hill, but picked herself up after each fall and made it down safe-n-sound!

Tired and in desperate need of water, we took off for the last leg of our journey. With the hope of the last hut not far away, we headed down Devil’s Staircase towards the carpark. With the afternoon heat cooking us in the volcano valley, we grew desperate for any sign of drinking water. Finally after crossing a series of board walks over delicious looking orange rivers, we made it to the hut, nearly delirious from dehydration.

Orange River full of minerals from the volcano

Soothed by the cool refreshing water, we felt energized to hit the last mile to the carpark. After a nearly 10hr day I don’t think I was ever so happy to see a parking lot in my life! Off came the boots and pack as we breathed a sigh a relief to be back after such an amazing day! We couldn’t have had more beautiful weather to complete the ULTIMATE Tongariro Alpine Crossing!

Be sure to check out Liz’s blog on her adventure tackling Mt Doom on Young Adventuress.

Check out Episode 29 – The ULTIMATE Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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