As of right now New Zealand has 10 Great Walks. I’m sure there are more than that but these are specifically named “great walks” and one of those 10 is around MOUNT DOOM! (Tongariro Natioanl Park). I hope I’m not being disrespectful when I say MOUNT DOOM! instead of Mount Ngaurahoe (the Maori hold these mountains sacred) but it’s just so much easier and fun to say. Most people do this walk in 3 to 4 days and stay at 2 or all 3 of the backcountry huts along the way. As of Wednesday morning, only one of the 3 had any spots unreserved, including both camp areas near the huts and spots within the huts. None of them had any spots open for the next 2 days after that. Before I had a chance to sort out our options, McKayla came in from packing the car and excitedly said something to the effect of, “oh you have space tonight, we’ll take it!” This meant our 3-4 day walk (the north ciircut) just became a 33 mile, 2 day walk with gear and hopefully enough energy to summit MOUNT DOOM!
The people at the station, our campground and the hut were all very adamant about keeping special care to note the forecast and keep constant updates. Keeping track of the forecast is only essential if your forecast is correct, semi-accurate, or even sometimes precise… in this case it was never fucking close. For the 4 days we spent in this park, Vegas odds could have been placed on going with the exact opposite of the forecast. I’m not sure if they were dragging kiwis out of their holes to check their shadows or if they were consulting the bones but it was wrong. Fortunately for the first day they predicted rain. Because of this forecast we headed south rather than the traditional north which made Wednesday our easier day.
For the first time in 4 and a half months we put our packs to their intended use: backpacking. Since the hut provided a bed, stove and water, we could go without the tent, stove, sleeping pads or excess water. All we needed to bring was food, a pot, utensils, sleeping bags, clothes and other essentials (map, compass, knife, cribbage board, headlamps, book, water). The first day was a 13 mile hike through rolling/semi-flat hills with a waterfall and 2 lake spur-out options. We opted for the full package and enjoyed the waterfall, lakes and an eerily devoid stretch of trail. The only life was shin high brush for miles in every direction. I mean – MOUNT DOOM! doesn’t scream hospitable, but shy of the small foliage we were walking through Mordor. The access to the second lake tacked on a steep extra mile and a half that might be regrettable on Thursday’s 19+ mile hike but for today it served as the high point and the highlight of our trek through middle earth.
It didn’t end up raining on Wednesday – lucky for us. Thursday was predicted to be clear.
Okay so there are three huts on this great walk, Mangatepopo, Oturere and Waihohonu or simply “M”, “O”, and “W”. “W” is our first and only reserved stay. It’s the newest of the huts and is considered a palace by hut standards. That being said, it was pretty underwhelming. It had a nice kitchen area with multiple stoves and plenty of tables and benches. Although we arrived by 4:00pm, there were hardly any bunks left as most people came from the “O” hut which was only about a 5 mile hike north. Imagine a bunk bed with 6 single sized gym mats on top and bottom. While we did get to sleep next to each other, we were sandwiched between two other couples; one of which spent the night and morning with a long series of small kisses and a fair amount of whispering pillow talk. Now if this was a budget accommodation, I get it – stack the rafters. However, we paid a solid $32 NZD each for our front row seats to Love Connection (the 80s game show where they picked a date from 3 contestants), except they’d just chosen their suitor and hadn’t yet realized they can’t stand each other.
Anyhow, we learned here that you can camp anywhere in the park as long as it is 500 meters from a hut. So, potentially we could use their kitchens and water sources, pack our tent and camp for free. It’s definite food for thought and something to look into. We also learned, view the hut master, that there used to be a fourth hut on this circuit until 2012when Mount Tongario (next to MOUNT DOOM!!) erupted and sent a basketball sized chunk of rock through the roof and into the bunks. Thankfully, it was winter and no one was there. There was also a safety briefing about what to do in case of an eruption, not a safety topic I was aware of. Then there was the mention of the deadly gas cloud that had killed all the vegetation at a different instance in 2012. There was no safety plan for the deadly gas cloud, which frankly, scared me more than an eruption. Surprisingly, we both slept pretty well in our 12 person bunk bed and were up with the sun the following morning feeling refreshed.
The hut master didn’t seem too thrilled when as she was going through her list of destinations, we were the only ones to raise our hands to “go back to the village the looong way,” but she didn’t talk to us after as she hinted at. We had a quick breakfast of a granola bar each and it going early. We made it to the next hut (the “O” hut) in a little under 2 hours and stopped for a coffee and a snack. These huts make really convenient pit stops and we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of a late morning coffee and snack. Bonnie from Australia was solo hiking and had a similar route as us so we invited her to hike with us. Although we gained about 500 feet in elevation through an early morning of walking up and down draws, we still had about 2,000 feet of elevation still to gain. An extra person to talk to would make the effort that much more pleasant.
As soon as we started heading north, the last bit of small foliage disappeared. Large black boulders dotted the barren landscape as we entered a giant dome where we were surrounded by 280* of looming mountains of all shades of blacks, browns, greens, reds and yellows. We slowly made our way up a steep section of the dome where we would cross over the pass.
As soon as the three of us crested the pass we were greeted by one of the gorgeous Emerald Lakes and shortly there after by a few hundred tourists. This stretch is known as the alpine crossing and could see as many as 1500 people a day making the journey. Most took a shuttle from Mangatepopo and finished at Ketehahi, a 12 mile trek. We were going against the grain/sea of tourists and did our best to enjoy some great views of blue-green lakes and red craters, meanwhile the clear weather forecast was about to turn against us. It was near the top of the highest part of our day when the sky really opened up. Thankfully, the stream of tourists let up as the trail narrowed. We had thought about summitting MOUNT DOOM! but the weather disagreed (folks coming down from the peak said the visibility was shit and it was even hailing). Our legs also disagreed with that plan so today, it wasn’t in the stars.
Mangotepopo was a wet downhill walk. We stopped at the hut just long enough to have a hot coffee and a snack and say goodbye to our new friend, Bonnie. She gave us some ideas for one that is definitely on both our radars: Iceland. From the “M” hut back to the village was about 6 miles, which would bring our day’s total to 19. As soon as we left the “M” hut, our nice maintained track of 1,000 people a day ended and what was left was a muddy ditch that they labeled as a trail. You could avoid this span and shuttle back to Whakapapa Village but that comes with a $30 (NZD) price tag per person. Clearly, someone stopped giving a fuck about this part of the trail a long time ago. Our semi-dry water resistant everything quickly became soaked and dripping after pushing through overgrown, shoulder-height foliage that’d gotten nice and wet from the rain wed experienced an hour ago, and the slippery mud ditch made sure nothing below the wast escaped clean.
This was a really great loop minus the last 6 miles. I would strongly advise anyone to take the shuttle or hitch hike to avoid this stretch. After we got out tired, hungry and soaked, setting up the tent was the last thing we felt like doing. Instead, I poked into an old ski lodge, not expecting availability or anything near our price range. Happily, they had a reasonable backpacker room available, with a kitchen we could use, a game/movie room and a freaking hot tub! “What time would you like to schedule a hot tub soak? In 20 minutes? Okay, I’ll mark you down for an hour and a half session.”
19 miles with heavy packs (not day packs) was certainly a record for me and taking an extra day to heal up before going back and attempting MOUNT DOOM! seemed like a good idea. Both mornings at the Skotel Alpine Lodge we enjoyed some delicious breakfasts (pancakes with mix berries and cream, awwwwhhhh), made time for the hot tub and did our best not to look too patchetic as we limped around with sore muscles. On our day off, we went for a short walk at the base of the ski hill and spent some time learning at the Natioanl Park Information Center. Then, Saturday, it was time to summit MOUNT DOOM!
Although our day off was supposed to be clear and sunny – surprise! It wasn’t. Luckily, Thursday, we woke up to clear skies and had breakfast with our first clear look at MOUNT DOOM! in 4 days. The parking lot near Mangatepopo was our shortest rout to the summit. The now familiar trail gave us a good warm-up of stairs and tourist dodging on our approach. At South Crater we broke off from the main horde and started our ascent with a smaller horde heading up the north face of a scree-filled volcano. We planned our ascent route based on the advise of our very friendly bearded bartender\breakfast server. We only adjusted this route slightly to make sure we weren’t under the direct path of any ot the other people crawling their way up a steep face strewn with loose rocks. I never really fell all that comfortable directly above or below people on lose rock fields, but this was an especially slide prone area filled with people that may or may not know how to handle the situation. Better to give them a little more space, even if it means taking some extra effort to traverse a little further. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the persistent calls of ‘ROCK!’ filled the slope. The main face of MOUNT DOOM! was about two thirds scree. Soon, that annoying sensation of 2 steps up 1 step back was fairly consistent. Thankfully there were a few spines of rock outcrops that we could use to steady ourselves, an hoist ourselves up without any sliding.
There wasn’t so much a summit as there was a crater. You could’ve walked around the crater’s rim if you wanted, but we enjoyed the view, had a snack, and got a few photos of me casting the ring into the fires of MOUNT DOOM! As it turned out, there was no lava of small passageway leading into the center (not really a surprise). About 700 feet down there was what looked like a very thin layer or grey sand at the deepest point in the center, spreading out to darker greys and blacks as it got closer to the walls of the volcano. The upper part of the crater, where we sat, was a wild mix of blacks and reds.
It looked like our timing was nearly perfect as a cloud came in to envelop the tip 200 feet or so of MOUNT DOOM! Again we shuffled away from the crowds, found a good line and scree-skied our way down. Good thing we traversed away from the others, on 2 occasions the more used track next to us had 2 loose rocks careen past a couple people on their way down; thankfully no one was hit. What took us nearly 2 hours to climb up, took about 30 minutes to descend. Scree is a bitch going up, but a sweetheart to descend.
After summitting MOUNT DOOM! we made our way to a spectacle McKayla’d been waiting nearly 10 years to behold: glowworms! Through the camping app McKayla found us a free tent camping site, most of which seem to be off the beaten path. While the site took some time to get to, it was a nice clearing in the forest with pit toilets and non of this charge by the person nonsense. Sleep came as easy as should be expected of physical exhaustion, full bellies and a bottle of wine.