Conquering the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

On April 19, my friend and I finished the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is considered one of the best day hikes in the world. It consists of a 19.4km rugged track that goes through steep volcanic terrain, desert land, tussock grasslands and a native forest. It is also a world heritage site, located at the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island.

The map here shows the full track that passes through three active volcanoes: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Of the three, Mount Ngauruhoe is the most famous, standing in for Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It takes an additional 2-3 hours of climbing an unmarked, steep scree slope to reach the summit of Ngauruhoe, where the view is absolutely breath-taking. We gave this a miss because the trail itself was daunting enough to make us doubt how we’ll emerge from the other end.

The hike was simultaneously the best and the worst thing I have done in my life to date. It made me push limits that I didn’t know was possible. It was strenuous, painful, frustrating, scary and overwhelmingly beautiful — all at once — and I’ll probably do it again in a heartbeat.

This is how the day turned out for us:

Mangatepopo carpark to Soda Springs

We were picked up from our accommodation at 7 a.m. by a lovely lady named Tracy; she and her husband run a shuttle service, National Park Shuttles, that takes people to the Mangatepopo carpark. The trek can be attempted either from there or from the Ketetahi carpark, but because the former is at a higher altitude most people prefer to start from there.
The carpark also had those portable toilets, which were important because their availability throughout the track was scarce.

We set off through the grasslands on a broad, marked pathway and the path progressively rose higher. About 20 minutes into the hike, we came across a side-track that led to the Mangatepopo Hut, where people who do the three-day Tongariro Northern Circuit tend to stay during nightfall. Further ahead, the track became steeper as we walked up the valley along the edges, following the Mangatepopo stream.

Wanting to pace myself for the rest of the trek, I walked a lot slower than I should have on this leg; on hindsight, this was a terrible idea because the track only gets more, and more, difficult, where you do need to slow down to catch your breath. It’s best to brisk walk this leg and attempt to reach Soda Springs under 45 minutes.

At the end of the leg, we paused for a break — many hikers choose this spot to hydrate and replenish their energy before continuing to the next leg. There’s a side-track that leads to a waterfall which we opted to miss. While resting, I saw an enthusiastic climber whiz past us, with the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack blaring loudly from her phone. That was a beautiful moment because you can always count on Tolkien fans to go all out when in Middle Earth.

The next leg of the track was the beginning of a hellish nightmare. They even had a sign urging everyone to strongly reconsider if they wanted to carry on because of the increasing levels of difficulty.

Soda Springs to South Crater

From Soda Springs, we climbed a very steep track known as the Devil’s Staircase that took us from 1400 to 1600 meters above sea level.

The track narrowed into a pathway made from hardened ancient, and modern, lava that snaked around the mountain, elevating us toward the South Crater. In between the pathways were stairs, anywhere between 6 to 15 steep steps at a time. This went on for more than an hour and felt like a never-ending route, made more stressful by the fact that it was about 9:30 a.m. and more people had begun to arrive on the track. The fitter ones (read: Germans) rushed past us, which meant every 10-minutes or so you had to step aside, while managing not to fall off the edges, to let them pass through.

This is where I truly began to understand how much I had overestimated my level of fitness, despite the prep work I did at the gym for months.

The view was worth the exertion from the climb; you could see across the countryside, around and beyond the mountains, and it’s well worth taking several moments to pause and appreciate. This is also where you get a clear glimpse of Mount Ngauruhoe. That morning, the sky was clear and Mount Doom looked beautiful.

After struggling for more than an hour, I finally made it up to the South Crater — a glorious stretch of FLAT LAND that resembled the surface of the moon: it was bland, desolate and empty. But also, beautiful. Walking along the South Crater was a joy because by then my feet and my leg muscles were threatening to rebel. I took a longish break, around 20 minutes, to hydrate and eat and just take in the surrounding. But plans were cut short when a freezing wind rolled in, making it impossible to stay still.

On this leg, I also made plenty of friends on the track. People had a knack for randomly start conversations with each other, in a gesture of sweet camaraderie, and that was very comforting. I spent several minutes talking to a mother-daughter duo from France, managing to practice my French a little. While climbing the South Crater, I also compared notes with another photographer about how tough it is to lug around heavy DSLRs on the track. The struggle is totally real.

If the Devil’s Staircase was bad, the journey up to the Red Crater was a scenario straight out of Nightmare on Elm Street.

South Crater to Red Crater

At the far edge of the South Crater, I caught up with my friend, who had managed to power through the route. Ahead of us, the track went through an exposed ridge, which often gets slippery when it rains on the mountains. It led up to the Red Crater. At first glance, the ridge looked easy enough, but then you realized you would be ascending about 200 meters, which meant there was more grunt work waiting out of view. Halfway up the track, we encountered a rock wall; there were chains attached to the boulders that were meant to help climbers move forward. Holding onto these chains, while freezing my hands, I managed to go past and end up back on the flat(ish) track.

Prior to the reaching the rock wall, I saw many people were turning back toward the South Crater. Going past the rock wall, I realized why.

We could tell we were nearing the Red Crater because of the mild sulphur smell accompanied by a heavy, freezing wind. The Red Crater is an active volcanic vent that last erupted in the 1920s. This was the hardest part of the climb because there weren’t any marked pathways; there were rocks and boulders everywhere, some of them loose and unstable, and you had to find your way up the steep slope. Being exhausted, cold and shivering, one miss-step would’ve sent us tumbling down the edge. While pausing for breath, I met a girl whose friend had gone to climb Ngauruhoe; she had apparently turned back halfway through her ascent on the scree slope. Together, we climbed toward the Red Crater, with several more pauses for breaths and short breaks. By the time we reached to the top, I had an extremely runny nose.

The Red Crater, standing at 1,886 meters, was the highest point of the entire track. The views from the top are well worth it but we missed the chance to sit and relax here because a large cloud rolled in at that exact moment, fogging up the view and making it extremely cold. My friend was waiting for me at the top and we paused for about five minutes to snap some quick pictures and to briefly appreciate the view, before moving forward. We walked on a narrow, but marked, pathway along the Red Crater for about 10-minutes through the cloud — while praying the ~65km/h wind did not knock us off course — before the path began to descend toward the Emerald Lakes.

Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

The way down to the lakes was one of the worst tracks I’ve ever been on. The path descended sharply and it was made of scree (loose stones), which meant every step was unstable. If you weren’t watching your movement, you’d either fall flat on your back or, if you’re really unlucky, you’d tumble forward, roll down and fall off the edges.

The intermittent fog that obscured the visibility on the path ahead didn’t inspire any confidence either. This was where having a hiking staff would’ve been very handy because they provided an added layer of stability. I lost my footing more than a dozen times during the descent, falling unceremoniously on my rear. At one point, I tried sliding down on my back but that didn’t work out and I managed to get plenty of stones inside my jacket, pants and shoes.

On this track, I met Magda, who was from Warsaw. She was a seasoned climber and was doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit; while taking pictures of the Emerald Lakes below, she saw me struggle on my way down and offered to help. We held hands and walked down the rest of the track, sort of becoming each other’s points of stability, and it took us only 10 minutes to complete the rest of the descent. After thanking her profusely for the help, I met up with my friend. We realized we were running well behind schedule because it was already 2 p.m. The shuttles left from the end of the track at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., and we still had another 11km to go.

After a brief rest by the lakes — to re-hydrate, eat and take out the stones from my boots — we walked towards the next leg of our journey. By now I was beginning to feel the exhaustion from the hike, and the constant assault from the freezing wind. Thankfully, the path here was relatively flat and most of it went on a downward slope so we managed to cover a fair bit of ground while walking toward the blue lake and eventually to Ketetahi Shelter.

Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut

The path from the lakes continued over Central Crater, which was on relatively flat, and stable, ground. As we descended, we saw the sacred blue lake in the distance, which is called Rangihiroa’s mirror in the native tongue. This is where I was beginning to worry that we might lose the daylight before reaching the carpark. In Autumn, the sun sets in New Zealand by 6 p.m., and it was already 3 p.m. The path moved around the flanks of the North Crater and descended in long zigzag pathways toward the Ketetahi hut.

This was an active volcanic zone and we made our way toward the hut as fast as we could. By this point, I was exhausted to the point where I didn’t trust myself to not fall off the edge of the narrow pathway. My friend says at one point, I looked like I was going to pass out. I don’t really remember this leg of the journey that well, possibly due to the exhaustion, despite several water and food breaks. As we neared the hut, it became darker and along with it came the fear of being stuck on the mountains alone, in the dark, freezing night. By this point, I knew I couldn’t go any further.

When we reached the Ketetahi hut, we saw that it was not an overnight shelter. It used to be at one point in time, but an eruption in 2012 damaged the roof and it was still being repaired. The hut was dark and empty — by then most people have gotten off the track — and we took refuge inside the dilapidated, neglected structure to escape the freezing weather outside. But it didn’t work because of the massive hole on the roof.

I sat by the wall on the dirty floor and told my friend I couldn’t go any further, that I had no more energy left. We decided to give Tracey a call. (More on Tracey in another post, because people like her are far and few and they deserve to be celebrated) After explaining our situation to her, she said she was going to arrange for a search and rescue with the local LandSAR group; the downside was that it’d take the rescuers almost 3 hours to reach us at the Ketetahi Hut.

By then we were freezing and it was pitch black outside. Because LandSAR’s operations fell under the jurisdiction of the local Turangi police, we were also on the phone with an officer. He suggested if we could, we should start making our way down the mountain and meet up with the search and rescue team halfway through the track. After a short rest, some food and a good cry (because I genuinely thought I was going to freeze to death on the mountain), we decided to make our way down.

Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi carpark

When we stepped out of the hut, we couldn’t see anything, not even each other. But the sky was the most incredible thing I’ve seen in my life, dotted with hundreds of thousands of stars and the spiral arm of the Milky Way was so clear, it could be seen with naked eyes.

We decided to use my Samsung S7’s built-in torch to light the path in front of us, while saving my friend’s phone for emergency phone calls. I didn’t feel confident enough to travel on my own, so my friend very kindly held my hand as we walked down. The path was slippery after it started to rain on the mountain, and there were hundreds of stairs going down. We began to talk about random things, most of which I don’t recall, and it helped in keeping me calm and not thinking about dying.

The walk in absolute darkness was an experience unto itself; at one point, we had to cross a stream using that single source of light from my phone. Most of the pathway went through tussock grasslands and the fact that there wasn’t anyone else on the mountain with us was both thrilling and scary.

It took us about 2 hours to reach the final leg of the journey – a 3km track through a native forest. This is where we saw the search and rescue team and I almost wanted to hug them. I did when we finished the track because I wasn’t sure how long either of us could’ve continued on our own.

Their presence was an immense boost to my confidence level because I knew then my friend and I wouldn’t die on the track. There were three of them and they guided us through the forest, pausing here and there to point out the native animals and insects on our path, including a couple of wetas and a possum. Apparently Kiwis really hate possums.

Tracey was waiting for us at the Ketetahi carpark, which we reached after nearly two hours of walking through the forest. I’ve never hugged someone as tightly as I had her because I wasn’t sure if we’d have gotten off the mountain without her help. And then I hugged my friend because without her, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten off the mountain.

It was emotionally draining and it was close to 11 p.m. when we boarded Tracey’s van to head back to our accommodation.

The trip was an eye-opener because it taught me so many things about me and the people around me. It taught me that if I tried hard enough, I could push myself to limits I didn’t know possible. I learned that my friend, M, is one of the people I can count on in matters of life and death. Lastly, I understood the value of a stranger’s kindness. I guess it took me nearly two months to write this because at some level, I was still processing what had happened, how it had happened and the fact that I am here, alive and able to tell the tale.

There are so many things I wish I could’ve done better; a bit of self-criticism is definitely warranted, but on the positive side, I’m happy I didn’t give up and quit halfway through. That would’ve been the easy way out. More on that in another post.

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