Mt. Doom!! 20 March 2006

Hi all – I DID the Tongariro Crossing today! And I was able to view and walk right past Mt. Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) – you can hike to the top, but it was just too much of a side trip… as it was, the 17 km (10.5 mile) hike took me nearly 9 hours. It was about 2600 (800 meters) feet up, and 3800 feet (1150 meters) down, and the landscape was absolutely stunning. I am so sorry I could not take photos – it felt like being on another planet.

One of the fun things is that I had a new hiking buddy. I met a lovely couple from Sydney at breakfast, Yvonne and Marc Grossman, and Yvonne and I were perfectly matched in our pace (and the same age) , and Marc was much faster, so we hung together the whole day while he went on ahead and finished an hour ahead of us.

After crossing the rocky rolling approach terrain of grasses and heather, the “hard yards” began with what is called “The Devil’s Staircase” – about a 45% grade over a field of volcanic rock – we sort of had to pick our way up among hordes of Wellington College (high school) students that come with their class once a year and do a survey of other hikers on the track. That section took us about an hour, and we got there at about 11 am.

After lunching there, we took a long walk across the South Crater – a very flat bottom section of Tongariro – but really a flood plain, and to our right Mt. Doom literally loomed over us in its *perfectly* conical shape. It is basically connected to Tongariro volcano at the hip, as you can see in the photos on these sites: – about 2/3 of the way down, the snow-covered cone is Mt. Ngauruhoe, pronounced ‘gnowhroohoey’, and The round-trip to the top is another 2200 feet straight up over loose scree (large gravel), and has an estimated round trip time of 3 hours. There were several on the hike that we bumped into that did the climb (young mountain goat types, like we used to be :)), and came back with impressive souvenirs gashes on their legs where they had run-ins with the mountain.

At the far side of the South Crater, we headed up the next section, called “The Devil’s Spine.” Except for a short flat section near the top, it was about 2-3 sidewalks wide, with steep sides, one dropping to the crater, and the other many hundreds of feet down the mountain side, with flanks of the volcano all around. When we reached the flat section, then we could see the last part – a narrower path going up and over a cone point, and as we approached, the Red Crater appeared – a vividly red-hued gash in the mountain with strange, suggestive shapes on all sides and along the top. When we went over the top, we were then headed down a steep section (about 50% grade, or more) that was sandy-gravelly ash scree for about 200 meters (650 feet), still very sharp drop-offs on both sides, and we side-stepped and slipped all the way down while gazing at the emerald sulphur lakes below us. We also began to see steam vents on the right-hand side, where the Red Crater is – it is still an active vent.

We were now running behind (having been told by our shuttle bus driver it was our responsibility to be back at the bus by 4:30), so with no pause (we had taken only one 15 minute break so far!), we headed across the Central Crater toward Blue Lake, just above it. There were very delicate, strange flowers arranged in pods that looked like flat stones strewn across the crater floor. We hooked around the edge of Blue Lake, it started to rain, and we then began our descent – miles and miles of well maintained switch backs across the northern flanks of the volcano, covered in beautiful grasses and mosses, with another large steam vent blooming over the ridge. We reached Ketetahi Hut around 2:30, already tired, so we took a short break just before the ‘hords’ left, but we still had well over 2 hours of downhill hiking to go – thousands of steps and steep sections.

The views on this side were amazing – we could see for miles and miles, Lake Taupo and Lake Rangitoto with large islands scattered in them, and the lovely forest-covered flanks and heart shaped crater of Pihanga – part of a famous legend, which actually has several variations – the first is the one I was told by my bus driver from Taupo to Tongariro National Park:

‘Tongariro and Taranaki both loved Pihanga, who had a lovely green cloak. But Tongariro drove Taranaki eastwards to the sea with great fire, and as he left, his tears formed the Wanganui River.’

Here are two other versions:

‘In the days of the gods, many mountains lived together beside Lake Taupo. The largest were Ruapehu, Taranaki, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. Tongariro loved and married a dainty little mountain, Pihanga, who lived nearby. Taranaki also loved Pihanga but Tongariro became angry and with great fire, drove Taranaki westwards. As he fled he cut a deep channel, the Wanganui River, coming to rest by the sea where he remains.’ – from a tourist postcard.

Vitaliano (1976, p. 119-120) tells the story a little differently and in more detail:
‘The volcanoes Taranaki, Ruapehu, and Tongariro were giants who once all lived in the same area. Taranaki and Ruapehu both fell in love with Tongariro, but she could not decide which of them she preferred. At length they decided to fight for her. Taranaki tore himself loose from the earth and launched himself at Ruapehu, trying to crush him; but Ruapehu countered by heating up the waters in his crater lake and spraying scalding water over Taranaki and the surrounding countryside. Taranaki, enraged and in pain, hurled a shower of stones which broke the top of Ruapehus cone, ruining his good looks. Ruapehu swallowed the broken cone, melted it, and spat it at Taranaki, who was forced to repair to the sea to ease his burns. His path to the sea is the Wanganui River valley. he retreated up the coast to his present location in the province which bears his name, where he stands brooding on revenge.’

CORRECTION: It was Taupo, not Tongariro, that last erupted in 186. The eruption was the largest in the world in recorded history – over 100 times more powerful that Mt. Saint Helens. The plume was over 50 kilometers high, pumice was spread over 20,000 square kilometers several meters deep, and the ashes fell as Rome.

Tomorrow I am heading over to Whakapapa (pronounced ‘fakapapa’ :)) Village and up to the Mt. Ruapehu ‘ski fields’ as they call them, to take a chairlift up to about 2020 meters (6627 feet) and poke around. Unfortunately, it is cloudy, so I don’t think the photo opportunities will be very good. On a clear day, from Mt. Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are close and beautiful.