Adventuring through Mordor: the Tongariro Crossing

I have a confession to make.

Unlike many travelers who have made the long journey before me to New Zealand, I’m not a Lord of the Rings fanatic. I haven’t even seen the 3rd movie of the trilogy yet, I know, sacrilege.

Cave Troll Field at Weta Workshop
Cave Troll Field at Weta Workshop

I enjoyed watching the first couple of films, but they never took a hold of me like they did for so many other LOTR die-hard fans.

Even with my lackluster affinity for the films, I still find it cool when I come across film locations around the trails near Wellington, and I was pretty damn excited for the chance to hike through Mordor and see Mt. Doom (officially known as Mount Ngauruhoe).

Mt. Doom
Mt. Doom

At 19.4 km (12 miles), the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, besides being a famous LOTR movie site, is also considered the best one day hike in New Zealand. It was also my first time hiking in snow. Born and raised in California, let’s just say it was a very educational and interesting experience.

I didn’t quite realize before this walk how much harder it is to hike in snow, and how sore you can feel after falling on your butt so many times. I also learned I’m the epitome of ungracefulness when it comes to me and ice/sleet/snow/you name it. Oh, and did I mention, the hike is 7.5 hours in good weather, which thankfully we had.

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Hiking the Tongariro Crossing was undoubtedly the hardest hike I’ve ever done, one in which I pushed myself to my limits and almost had a few breakdowns. Kiwis take their trails seriously, and even if the Department of Conservation says it’s just an “intermediate” walk, take heed that it will probably be much harder than you’re used to.

I guess I should’ve thought a little harder about transversing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the middle of winter, but hey, there’s a first time for everything, and it hit all the marks to make for an incredible adventure.

Unless you’re especially knowledgeable with an ice axe and crampons, you really shouldn’t be tackling the hike on your own in the wintertime, and more likely than not, shuttle companies will refuse to take you to the trail without a guide in tow for the winter.

Neither I, nor the two guys I was traveling with, really knew the first thing about hiking in snow, so we decided to go with the safe bet and booked an all inclusive tour with Adrift Adventures.

We were originally planning on hiking on our own, and probably would have if it was summer, but after a bit more research, we realized that hiking in winter requires another whole skill level.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing

It wasn’t cheap by any means for a backpacker’s budget at $175, but it included everything our little hearts desired, including free transportation from Taupo and back, a good mix of expert snow guides for the whole hike, and all the gear we would need for the day.

We bundled up in borrowed thermals, hiking boots, and snow jackets. We were given an ice axe, helmet, and fitted for crampons. The only thing we had to bring was food, water, sunglasses….and sunscreen (which I somehow forgot back at the hostel, but our handy guide thankfully let us borrow).

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They commented on how lucky we were with how the weather would be for the day, it was bound to be the nicest day they had all winter, at a high temperature of -1 degrees celsius. That still sounded unbearably cold to me, but once we were up on the mountain and hiking for a few hours, I didn’t even need a jacket, and my thermals were making me sweat.

It was truly a beautiful day at Tongariro.

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We tried to go to bed as early as possible the night before at the hostel, luckily we had booked a 4 person dorm, and being that there were three of us, we basically had a room to ourselves.

We woke up at 5am the next morning, and were picked up in the Adrift van long before sunrise. For the next hour and a half we drove to different areas bordering Taupo, watched the sunrise from the windows of the van, and eventually made our way to the Adrift headquarters near the base of Tongariro.

There were a lot of people on the tour, so it took awhile for all of us to gear up, but we were soon on our way and excited for the adventure that lay before us. Once we arrived at the Mangatepopo car park, the starting point of the Tongariro Crossing, we were broken up into a few different groups to make it more manageable for our guides and more enjoyable for us as hikers.

We immediately saw Mt. Doom in the distance, and within the next couple of hours we were right beside it and whipping out our cameras to get the best angle (or selfie). Although I would like to summit Mount Ngauruhoe someday, it wasn’t included in the tour we went on and I most likely would’ve killed myself, literally, trying to summit an active volcano with my not-so-graceful snow legs.

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However, I do plan on hiking the Tongariro Crossing in the summer at some point, and would love to test out my luck on Mt. Doom when that day comes.

Posing with Mt. Doom
Posing with Mt. Doom

It was such a clear day, we could even see the peak of Mt. Taranaki on the West Coast, hundreds of kilometers away.

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Mt. Taranaki in the distance

About an hour past Mount Ngauruhoe, after steep inclines and growing depth in snow, we finally came to a flat area where we took a rest stop and learned how to put on crampons and properly use an ice axe. According to the guide, the first part of the hike was a baby incline, compared to the next two summits we would be crossing.

One of the very few toilets we came across on the hike
One of the very few toilets we came across on the hike

He didn’t hesitate to tell us the very real danger in hiking these parts in the snow, and how important your ice axe is if you don’t want to fall off the side of the mountain.

The guide told us to basically walk like a duck when you’re wearing your crampons, knees slightly bent, feet outwardly turned, you look like in idiot, but the right form saves you from slipping on an incline. Each step is heavier in crampons, not only because of the extra weight, but because you need to focus on evenly digging your feet in the snow with every step.

Crampon life
Crampon life

Helmets on, we quickly acclimated to hiking in crampons, and how much more tiring it can be. We slowly made our way up the first summit to the South Crater, using our ice axes as walking sticks, and being ready at any moment to throw them across our body to catch our fall.

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We reached a mini plateau where a lot of hikers in our group had to readjust their crampons, and enjoyed one of the best views of the day, in between the South Crater and Red Crater. We continued on to the last steep incline of the day for another 20 minutes or so, and reached our resting spot for lunch at the top of the Red Crater, the highest point we’d reach that day at 1,886 meters (6,188 feet).

Enjoying the view
Enjoying the view

We got a good whiff of the delightful sulphur smell as soon as we moved closer to the Red Crater, and when we sat on the loose red rocks for lunch it was warm to touch. It was simply a nice little reminder that we were still in the area of active volcanos for our quick lunch break.

Eating lunch on Red Crater
Eating lunch on Red Crater

I thought the worst was behind us as we journeyed on after lunch, but the hardest section of the trail was yet to come. After climbing down a steep incline of loose snow that easily slid beneath your feet, we reached a long flat area that seemed like a welcome respite after the intense ups and downs. Strangely enough, this part of the track was the hardest for me to walk.

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The snow was incredibly deep at this point, sometimes coming up to my lower knees, and with my crampons still intact, every step was a mission. By the time we reached the end of the long flat plateau, I was out of  breath, and embarrassingly almost hyperventilating from the struggles I had walking in such deep snow for an extended period of time.

I didn’t realize how much I was overheating at this point, with my beanie and helmet still on, but as soon as I took those two items off, I felt the relief in how much easier it was for me to breathe.

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Clearly, I’m not a natural snow bunny. Did I mention, I broke my wrist the first time I ever went snowboarding…on the baby slope.

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This area is where the famous Emerald Lakes are located, but unfortunately they were covered by snow and we passed by them without really knowing where they lay in the midst of the white wonderland spread out around us.

The next part of the hike proved to be more technical and there were many times we had to be creative in the path we took to avoid avalanches in the soft snow. There was even one point where we had to slide down a hill on our butt to get to the other side, crampons up, ice axe in front of us, sliding down the snow like a little kid on a slide.

The scariest part was when we were on the steepest side of a mountain, trying to go around the possible avalanche area, and having to go in a zig zag across the ridge. There were a couple moments I almost started to slip and I thought I was going to have use my ice axe to stop my fall, but luckily I gained my footing just in time.

When we were finally almost back to the original trail, we heard a blood curdling scream from behind us just on the other side we’d crossed. I never heard any of the guides say anything about any injuries or falls afterwards, so I’m assuming that person was okay, but it was just another reminder of how important every careful step was at this point.

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Before we knew it, we were already at Ketetahi Shelter, the last stop of the day until the end of the hike. This is where we took off our crampons and started off on just under 2 hours of downhill walking. Again, thinking this would be one of the easier parts of the trail, I didn’t realize how hard and slippery it is to walk on melting ice.

Ketetahi Shelter
Ketetahi Shelter

Most of this part of the trail was made up of very icy steps, and with no crampons to dig into anything anymore, I suddenly lost all balance as I was trying to keep up with the pace of the group. I fell a good half a dozen times on my bum, if not more, and the French guys behind me kept yelling to see if I was alright, which was nice with how ridiculous I must’ve looked.

My friend, Mats, looking out at the last section of the trail
My friend, Mats, looking out at the last section of the trail

Kendall, my best friend in New Zealand at the time, and someone who eventually became my boyfriend, showed me the proper way of walking down ice, digging in the heels of my feet, instead of walking on the balls of my feet. Although he thought it was hilarious with how many times I fell on my ass, he always came back to make sure I was alright and helped me up if needed.

And finally, we broke through the bush and made it to the car park. I immediately found a picnic bench to lie down on to bask in the sun and let the feeling of accomplishment wash over me in knowing that I just finished a very hard hike.

The Adrift van that would take us back to Taupo soon showed up, and the guides surprised us with two chilly bins (ice chests) full of ice cold beer. Seriously, you gotta love the Kiwi way of life.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing

After returning all of the borrowed gear, they let us jump in the van, beers in tow, for the long journey back to Taupo. Sipping our beer, we watched the Tongariro Crossing disappear in the distance, and the sun began to set as we drove off.

Apparently it was an absolutely stunning sunset. I was already dozing off on Kendall’s shoulder by that time, perfectly content with the epic journey we completed, and all the beautiful things we managed to see along the way.

Have you ever hiked the Tongariro Crossing? Is anyone else as terrible in snow as I am?

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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