First and foremost, before I say anything, when you read any website about the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing, do what they say! We had an inkling that it would be slightly challenging but it is very dependent on the weather, so you really do need to be prepared for anything.
Even at the bottom of the mountain right before you start your ascent up the side of the cliff there’s a sign telling you to make sure you have the proper clothing snacks and drinks. The night before we spent the night at a hostel in the town at the bottom of the mountain. We drank the night before, then we woke up late, so we were rushed out the door with our sandwiches in our hands because we didn’t have baggies. We ended up eating out sandwiches for breakfast because we had nothing else to do with them and that was that, all stores expended.
And so it began… on a very crisp morning under a very bitter wind and a sea of goosebumps. Stores: A North Face Windbreaker, a pack of crackers, and a half of bottle full of water. O and the brand new hiking boots I barely got through customs. I was thankful that we had brought our clearly filtered water bottles because without those we wouldn’t have been able to drink the water in the streams around the volcano.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing can take up to 2 days to complete if you want to stay overnight on the mountain. It seems like a very good idea but there’s just one thing, this is an active volcano so you must be prepared for anything. For the day hike you will need to be dropped off at the start point at which point you keep forward progress to the end which is about 19km later where you end up in a different parking lot all together. This means if you drive you will park your car at the end point and then have a shuttle drop you off at the beginning so when you get done your car will be right there. Don’t worry, there are plenty of shuttle services to take advantage of.
When they say that the weather can change on the mountain in minutes, they don’t lie. As soon as you start off you feel like you are in and around Mordor; the terrain rough and volcanic. You walk over low wooden plank bridges set over marshes. In the summer months many people make the crossing and in order to complete the day trip you must be start early in the morning. Most shuttles pick up by 4pm so you don’t want to get stuck up on the mountain overnight without being prepared. In order to have lodging on the mountain you must call ahead and make reservations. Spots fill very very quickly, sometimes they are sold out weeks in advance, so plan ahead.
I was dehydrated and hungover so by the time we climbed the first part, a very steep cliff (don’t worry there are steps the whole way up) I felt very close to vomiting, I was dizzy, and freezing, little did I know… that was only the beginning.
At the top of the first mountain, you must make your decision to take a right and continue on up to the summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe or to keep on the steady path to climb the next mountain over. To climb the volcano you will have to add 3 extra hours fighting through volcanic ash and rock to drag your way to the top and a half hour sliding back down. Volcanic Rock
When we got to that point, I knew that we would not be continuing up the volcano to the summit. We were not prepared enough and it was freezing cold, without gloves we would have to grab the ash and rock as we struggled. The wind had picked up drastically on the flat plain that stretched out and there was so much fog we couldn’t even see any part of the volcano, and never did for the whole day.
I blew a kiss towards the summit and my sister and I continued on. Across the plain we walked, the fog closing in so much at times we couldn’t even see the stead stream of people in front of us. In the beginning we saw a Japanese guy from our hostel running past, come to find out later he was running because he was summiting the volcano. Go him! We also saw another woman who had chosen to wear shorts up the mountain. Big mistake, my friend. In fact the whole day we were around the same groups of people on the mountain, it felt like we were this big team racing to the finish and it made it very fun.
After we crossed the plain we realized that it was time to head up and up. This is where the winds proved to be overpowering. Since I stand watch on a ship and monitor the winds often, it has become easy to judge the wind speed on the fly. I will tell you that these were probably 60knot winds coming across the ledge as we trudged upward and upward. As we came to an area that was completely open to the environment we had to get down on our hands and knees and crawl.
My sister and I held hands as we slowly stumbled upward. I’m pretty sure we hit this area at the worst possible time. With only about 15ft. across, either way, one big gust and we would topple over the side of the cliffs on either side. I might have felt that it was worse then it was but the only thing that kept me going were all the people in front of us struggling to the top as well.
At one point a girl was crying and dragging her boyfriend back down the mountain with her. My sister and I tried to convince her to keep going because turning back would be worse and we just needed to climb to the top of this mountain because surely we would be shielded from the wind on the other side. She wouldn’t have it and started sliding down to the bottom. Although I didn’t know that what I was saying was true, as soon as we summited the next ridge and started on the slope downward we were instantly shielded from the wind. That girl should have listened.
Sure enough as soon as we summited that mountain and started our slippery slide down the other side, the winds abated. Here we saw the girl in shorts crouched under a lip of mountain with socks on her hands, her legs were pretty much purple from those cold winds. She was shaking uncontrollably. She should have brought pants.
On the other side were hot springs and as you head up and over there is a huge lake made of water the perfect blue for the brown/black landscape. It was truly beautiful on the other side. We summited with a guy from Holland who has done this crossing a couple of times in his life. He was 67 years old and we stopped for a chat as we all caught our breath. He was spending the night at one of the lodges, so he had a big pack with him and I can only imagine how hard it was for him to make it to the top seeming that it was so hard for us. Here we parted ways because as you slip to the bottom of this area you either continue on towards the parking area or make a right to head to the overnight lodge.
As you climb up and over the rolling landscape and slowly weave your way back down off the mountain, it was a complete change of scenery. It was growing warmer with each step away from the volcano we took and after our fingers warmed up we stopped for a minute to split the pack of crackers we had, a feast for the meager after what we’d just been through.
The farther down you go, the greenery increases and you’re pretty much in a forest without realizing it. When we finally made the last few turns, crossed a river where a bridge was being repaired, we walked out into the open parking lot where weary travelers were already laying in the grass, basking in the sun, after the long trek.
We saw many people that had started out that morning and it was almost like finishing a marathon. Nobody cheered for us, but we cheered for ourselves, then I stripped out of my outer layer and put on my shorts and we sunbathed on the bank while we waited for the van to come pick us up. 10 miles down and you would have thought we had done something extravagant. Or maybe we were just that high on the thrill of struggling through the wind and making out okay, either way it was a huge win for us that day.
What a feast we had that evening when we got back to the hostel, after doing that whole trek with nothing! If you ever have the chance you should definitely try the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we saw all types of people on the trail and yes it was a bit of a struggle but I am very confident that if you can climb up a steep set of stairs then you can make it through.
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