Jordan and I have really enjoyed getting into mountaineering. Being immersed in snow-capped mountains just feels at home to us and as we build our experience and training, we continue to look for more ways to challenge ourselves and tackle some of the adventures on our ‘alpine bucketlist’. Camping on the three highest peaks on the North Island is one of those items and having completed Ruapehu a few weekends before, we had to choose between Mt Taranaki or Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom from the Lord of the Rings series) for the next weekend adventure.
While we initially contemplated Mt Taranaki, with the weather looking increasingly unpredictable, we decided the best alternative would be to camp on Mt Ngauruhoe. We had tackled the summit the summer before with Jordan’s parents and our friend Liz from Young Adventuress during our extended overnight adventure on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, however this time we planned to camp at the top during full on winter!
Following some research online it appeared this was not a feat many seemed to want to take on. Not surprising as the 2-3 hour climb up the steep icy mountain with heavy packs in unpredictable weather isn’t something most people should try unless they are prepared both mentally, physically and with the right gear and experience.
Despite attempts to get a few others to join us, the closest we got was our friends Richard and Sophie to join us for the day to climb up to the crater, however they would be ski touring and would ski down before sunset to stay in the village below.
After driving up on Friday after work, we stayed in our car at the Mangahuia DOC campground just 20mins from the start of the track at the Mangatepopo Car Park. I just love these $6pp DOC campsites around New Zealand! If you’ve got a car/van you can sleep in it saves so much money, especially if you’re getting there late and then up early.
The next morning we got our gear ready and met up with Richard and Sophie at 8:30am to get a start on the track. The weather was calling for some low clouds in the morning but was expected to burn off by midday. At this point we could barely see Mt Ngauruhoe poking out of the clouds but set off along the track hoping it would clear.
Walking through the mars-like, volcanic terrain it felt like we were on another planet! The first hour and a half traced along flowing rivers and over boardwalks during the steady climb to the base of Mt Ngauruhoe. Surprisingly we didn’t need to put crampons on until we got to the base, but there were definitely a few missed steps and slippery sections along the way trying to climb with such a heavy pack.
Once we reached the turn off to the summit we decided to turn on our GPS tracking app so we had our route recorded should we need it the next day. A great alternative to an expensive GPS system, the New Zealand Topo Maps has a FREE and ~$10 PRO version that works just as good as a GPS system. Only downside is the limitation of your phone’s battery life so we used it sparingly.
At an elevation of ~1600m we had a nearly 700m climb straight up to the top of the crater. With visibility pretty poor we used the ridgeline on our left as a reference as we zig zagged back and forth up the mountain. I’m not going to lie – it was a pretty grueling 3 hours. While I enjoyed the climb on snow much more than the frustrating scree in the summer, with the 20kg+ pack (which everyone usually leaves behind) it made for a slow and calf burning struggle.
There were moments when I didn’t know if I would make it. But determination kept me focused and when we started to reach the 2,000m mark we began to break through the low clouds and blue skies could be seen above! A few other groups had gone up the other side of the ridge and were crossing up ahead of us. What was a bit unnerving was the small boulders that were getting dislodged and rocketing down the mountain towards us every few minutes requiring us to keep our heads up and yell ‘ROCK!!!’ if we saw some come flying by. I’m not sure whether it was the people ahead of us knocking them loose, or whether it was the sun melting the snow away and sending them off down the mountain.
Richard and Sophie had been behind us as we climbed, skis and skins on making the careful assent. I have no idea how they managed to do it on such hard, steep ice but they have quite a bit of ski touring experience so they made it look pretty easy.
Reaching a small rock bed we took a quick snack break and let us legs relax for a minute before we made the final 100m climb. From here we would need to traverse to the left to get over the ridgeline to the top of the crater. With huge chunks of ice, it made for a precarious last stretch, so much so Richard and Sophie opted to take off their skis and carry them to the top.
Seeing the summit crater in winter was well worth the difficult 3 hours. It was coated in this beautiful layer of ice and snow that was much different from the vibrant red and black volcanic rock in the summer. In the distance you could see Mt Ruapehu looking mighty fine perched above the clouds. We decided to drop the packs and explore the crater rim so we took off to climb the icy bulbs along the edge.
Jordan was wishing we had our ropes as it looks like the perfect place to set up a few top ropes for some epic ice climbing! Except for the fact that this is an active volcano which was evident when I noticed a few spots that had no snow due to the hot steam emerging from deep inside the crater. That didn’t seem to phase him though as he continued to evaluate the best location to enter for a future adventure.
As we came around the far side, there were some huge melted areas as pits were forming under the thin layer of ice. We stepped cautiously through this section, careful to not fall through to the volcanic chambers below.
With the wind picking up and the clouds starting to move in, Richard and Sophie began to get ready to ski down. Jordan and I walked down ~50m to a small plateau just below the crater and dropped our packs as we watched them ski down the icy slopes.
It was just after 3pm and with just over 2 hours of sunlight left we decided to look for the best place to pitch our tent. Although we had initially hoped to camp just off the edge for a good view of sunset, with the clouds surrounding us it didn’t look like we were going to have much of a sunset to see. So we opted to go further back into a more sheltered and flat area to start digging our tent platform.
Since we were still on a bit of a slope, it took us over an hour to dig through the ice to make a flat section with a strong wind wall around us. Once we got our tent up, I started the cooking while Jordan continued to build up our walls. Luckily it was much warmer than when we camped on Mt Ruapehu so it was a lot less miserable sitting by the Jetboil waiting for our melted snow to boil. Also learning from our last trip, we kept the bottles of fuel inside our jackets until just before we used them as the cold temperatures had an impact on boiling time. I also used my gloves as insulation to keep the snow on the ground from cooling the fuel too quickly. It wasn’t long before we had a delicious bowl of sweet-n-sour pork with a cup of Milo to wash it down. YUM!
With sun starting to go down, the clouds continued to close in and our visibility dropped even further. It felt a bit weird being the only ones up on the mountain. Usually there was at least another party not too far when we’ve been out camping, but this time we felt very alone.
Jordan took over the Jetboil management and continued to melt water for our water bottles while I jumped in the tent to set up our beds. It’s amazing how cozy a small little tent can be when you’re sheltered from the cold. Just before dark Jordan jumped in the tent as well and by 6pm we were cuddled up in our sleeping bags listening to the wind as it rocked our little tent.
It’s great getting to go to bed early after a long tough day on the track, but when your mind in racing at the array of scenarios that could unfold in an environment like this – you don’t end up getting much sleep. The strong winds were relentless all night as it bashed against our tent. It felt like at any moment we would be blown right off the mountain. And with the hissing sound of the active vent not far from our tent, I had visions of having to run for our lives due to an eruption from the active volcano we were sleeping on. So many times I contemplated in my head whether I would take the time to put on my boots and crampons or whether I would just run as fast as I could for survival. I don’t usually get worked up over this kind of stuff, but this time it felt very different as we waited for morning to come.
As soon as we had first light, Jordan popped his head outside of the tent and was surprised to see pretty much zero visibility and a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. Boy had the weatherman got it wrong this weekend! We were expecting a bit of cloud yesterday morning, but not the conditions we were facing today.
From here on out I don’t have any photos to share as we were pretty much focused on survival. We packed up as quickly as we could and were off just after 7am wanting to get down and off the mountain before the winds picked up even further. Being at the top of Mt Ngauruhoe with less than a metre visibility and high winds is not a place you want to be. I reached for Jordan’s hand as we carefully walked, step by step trying to retrace our steps from memory.
Our route we had captured on the GPS came in handy as we used it to navigate our way back across and down the slope we had ascended the day before. It really changes your perspective when you can’t see anything but white around you. Even though it was a fairly straight forward decent, it was quite scary not being able to see so I put all my energy and focus into every careful foot placement. One foot, now the the other. One foot, now the other. Your life is dependant on the spikes of your crampons locking into the icy, as any false move and it’s a 700m slide down a steep face that would be difficult to self arrest.
In just over an hour we made it to the bottom and back onto the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track. The sense of relief was overwhelming as we high fived each other on surviving that ordeal! Walking back to the carpark the terrain looked much different as the fresh blanket of snow covered much of the rocky terrain we had seen the day before. As we passed a few parties on the guided crossing walk, many were astounded to hear we had just come DOWN the mountain from camping overnight. Pretty cool feeling to see their reactions and the many ‘I’m so jealous’ responses we got to our adventure.
Looking back now this was one of the highlights of the winter as it was a good learning experience in having to deal with unexpected weather conditions and how to problem solve our way through it to safety. I wouldn’t recommend this adventure unless you have the proper experience, gear and guts, but if you’re up for it, it’s definitely one to remember!