Boromir was only half right, one does in fact walk into Mordor, but there is nothing simple about it.
I’ve been trying to get up and do the Ngauruhoe summit hike all summer, but a combination of bad weather and a hectic schedule meant it took until now to do it. For those wondering, this was indeed the mountain that was used as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings films.
My original plan was to get an early night on Friday since we were getting up early the next morning, but stupidly I decided that it was a good idea to update the firmware of my GoPro before I went to bed. The update only got halfway and the camera started freezing whenever it turned on, what followed was a frustrating couple of hours trying to fix it. Eventually just before midnight I managed to run a manual update to restore it from a separate micro sd card and get it working properly.
At 3:30am my alarm went of, and although my body clearly thought that was a mistake I assured it that it wasn’t and dragged myself out of bed. Dad picked me up and we began the 3 hour drive to the bottom of the mountain. We arrived just as it was beginning to get light, and were able to get a few cool photos of the colourful sky as the sun started to rise on the other side of the mountain. One day I’d definitely love to be up the top of the mountain to see the sunrise, I can imagine that it would be a stunning sight.
Since we didn’t have to sort out sending a car to the other end of the crossing, we were able to start the trek just after 7am. We made our way up through the Mangatepopo Valley to Soda Springs.
We had a quick break and stripped off some layers before starting up the Devil’s Staircase. We made good time and got to the top of the staircase (and the Ngauruhoe turnoff) after about half an hour, so we stopped and had a rest and something to eat. Looking up, we could just make out the tiny figures against the dark colours of the mountain, the scale of the slope combined with with seemingly vertical incline made for an intimidating sight.
After having a rest and something to eat we started along the trail that lead to Mt Ngauruhoe , when I say trail I really mean vague collection of footprints and the occasional pole marker. Unlike the main trail of the Tongariro Crossing, the ascent to the Ngauruhoe Summit pretty much requires you to pick your own path up through the mountainside.
The terrain on mountain changes regularly as you climb, with each type having it’s own challenges. There are several areas of loose stones, dirt and volcanic rocks which shift under your feet. It was often a nice break to find a solid rock ridge which you could stand on without having to exert energy to stop sliding down. There were sections where it really did feel like we were climbing the slopes of Mount Doom, the only things that were missing was a river of lava and an army of orcs.
Every now and then the call would come down from above “Rocks!!” and everyone would stop and keep an eye on the fist-sized (or bigger) rocks tumbling down towards us. It was mostly just a matter of being aware of them, but it was easy to see how someone could get hurt if they weren’t watching or the rocks changed direction suddenly (more on that later).
Both Dad and I had moments of vertigo while on climbing the mountain, it’s a weird and scary sensation that I haven’t felt that strongly before. Mine happened when I was scrambling up a roughly 20 meter patch of scree, away from any solid rocks. I got to a point where every time I moved, I would slide further down the slope. Looking to my left and right, all I could see was the views off into the distance (giving me the sensation of being very very high up). Luckily I was able to rationalize these thoughts away and managed to find enough grip to pull myself up to the next solid rocks, it did take a little while for my heart to stop pounding though…
It was quite a slog, but 2 hours after we left the South Crater (My GPS watch showed 1 hour, 45 minutes of climbing, 15 minutes of resting), we made it to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe and were rewarded with some truly stunning views.
Upon making it to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe , you immediately find yourself on the edge of a huge crater. The scale is really hard to capture through photos, but if you look closely in the background of the photo with Dad and I, you can just see some people across the other side of the rim. That gives you an idea of just how immense this thing is.
As cool as the crater is, the views in the other direction are probably even more impressive. Looking back down the slope which we just climbed up, we were treated to an amazing view back across the Tongariro Crossing. From the summit it’s possible to see the South Crater, the top of the Red Crater, the edge of the Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake. Being able to trace the trail along the edge of these mountains is great, and being up so high (2,291 meters to be exact) gave us an incredible view across the entire Tongariro National Park.
We spent about half an hour at the summit taking in the views and having lunch, then I descended down a little bit so I could go up the ridgeline beside the summit. Being on top of that ridge gave me another great view, this time looking East over the Rangipo Desert. I then came back down the ridge past a steaming vent, just to remind me that we were on top of an active volcano. I met Dad at the top of the main slope so we could begin this difficult challenge of getting down the mountain.
Looking at the way down made me envious of Frodo and Sam, who clearly took the better option of riding giant eagles off the mountain. The descent starts off with some solid rock which provide a number of foot and hand holds, it was slow going but we were able to lower ourselves onto each rock a couple of meters at a time. But pretty quickly these platforms disappeared and the entire mountainside is replaced by a loose mixture of dirt and rocks (called scree).
Once you get the hang of moving down the scree it’s actually quite fun, dig your heels in and let your foot slide in the dirt with each step and it becomes almost like skiing. It took us about an hour to make our way down the mountain (with a couple of stops to manage Dad’s cramp).
We got back down to the bottom of the slope just as a rescue helicopter was arriving, we had passed a party in the middle of the scree who had been sitting in the same spot for a while. We learned later on that one of them had been hit by some falling rocks and needed to be airlifted out. It’s easy to see how that could happen, the loose rocks quickly pick up speed and if you aren’t warned by people above can clearly do some damage.
After another rest at the foot of Mt Ngauruhoe we started back down the (now quiet) Devil’s Staircase. The descent back down into the valley was surprisingly quiet and peaceful, especially compared to the two other times I’ve walked this track in the morning. Everyone doing the whole crossing would have come through here much earlier, so the entire track back was almost entirely deserted. A beautifully tranquil way to finish the day of hiking.
I’ve also put together a few graphs based on the data collected by my GPS Watch, they should be pretty self explanatory. We covered 17km and climbed 1145m over the roughly 6.5 hours of actual hiking (from leaving the carpark to when we returned was 9 hours). Plus the 6 hours of driving to and from the mountain, all in all it was a long but fun day. We made it home around 7:30pm where I enjoyed a well earned curry, beer and an extra hour sleep thanks to daylight savings.