Get ready for picture overload. No apologies; I just could not stop taking pictures during the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For two main reasons: 1 – it’s incredibly beautiful and I wanted to be able to capture as much of it as possible. And 2 – taking a picture gave me an excuse to take a break from the crazy difficult hike.
When I originally started planning our trek on the Crossing, I had assumed it would be a nice day hike. I totally underestimated it. It’s recommended that you be “moderately fit” to complete the Crossing. But those are New Zealand standards and I’m not quite sure they’re the same as what I would qualify as moderately fit.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.4 kilometers and spans the length of Mount Tongariro. Mount Tongariro is an active volcano that has erupted as recently as 2012. The recommended path of the crossing begins and ends in two different locations, so having transportation drop off and pick up at both locations is required.
For a little perspective, here’s the elevation chart of the hike. The peak at the Red Crater is 6,188 ft. The tip of One World Trade Center is 1,792 ft. And the tip of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world is 2,717 ft. So we hiked a little over two Burj Khalifas.
All smiles and nerves at the start
I knew I was in trouble when I was feeling a little worn out by the first big checkpoint. For about the first hour and half we were on a slight incline until we hit Soda Springs. While stopping and waiting in line to use the bathroom, I couldn’t help but get scared while looking at how high we were about to hike. I have never walked, hiked, climbed, whatever, anything that steep. I didn’t know if my legs would be able to handle it. Little did I know, what I was looking at was only the first big incline.
Half of the walk from Soda Springs to the South Crater sucked. Specifically the part where we were walking uphill. It was so steep. It’s called the Devil’s Staircase for good reason. My lungs gave out way before than my legs. I learned pretty quickly that the key to making it up would be to stop every 5 minutes or so and catch my breath. Coming from the Lowcountry, I’m used to a life with no elevation. One time my ears popped while driving over the bridge. No lie. Elevation and I are not familiar.
Adam on the other hand was a champion. His plyometric workouts made him much more conditioned for the hike. Once I realized I would be holding him back with all my breaks, we ended up splitting up a little bit from each other. He would reach a good waiting point and just hang out until my weak ass made it.
The second half of the walk from Soda Springs to the South Crater was great. It was the only flat part of the entire hike. I loved it. Like I said, we were ridiculously lucky and had fairly clear weather conditions that allowed us to take pictures of Mount Ngauruhoe. The hike was actually closed the day before due to poor weather and we met a couple that did the hike the day after us and they said the weather was terrible. Tongariro can be so hit and miss. We were extremely lucky.
Every time the clouds cleared out hordes of people started snapping pics. The weather can change within minutes on the mountain so you need to get your shot when the moment is right; round 2 might not happen.
Because of the volatility of the weather, deciding what to wear during the hike can be tricky. We ended up both wearing two layers of pants and tops as well as bringing along both of our rain jackets. We also brought gloves and hats in our backpack in case the weather dropped. The weather stayed fairly warm throughout the day. There were only a couple times I had to wear my jacket and it was when my body cooled down after a break.
The flat walk was so nice and appreciated, especially because Hell Part 2 was right around the corner. Although, the flat part of the hike screwed with your head. It made you think that things were nice again and that the hard part was over. For a moment I enjoyed myself. I was able to walk for more than 5 minutes without catching my breath. Well screw you said Tongariro because soon enough I wouldn’t be able to walk for 2 minutes without catching my breath.
The hike from the South Crater to the Red Crater was out of control hard. It was so steep and difficult. I don’t have many pictures of this part because I was totally focused on making it to the top. There were a few parts where we were walking around the volcano and it was so steep that we had to pull ourselves up with a metal chain. I really had moments where I didn’t think I could make it. 6,000 feet in the air is the highest I’ve ever gone without flying. We went above the clouds! Crazy.
An accurate representation of how I felt. Adam wasn’t getting a smile out of me.
Once we reached the peak I was so relieved and happy. I don’t hike a lot or participate in too many challenging activities so it was a moment where I was truly proud of myself. I did something that wasn’t easy and I didn’t give up. I might have griped here and there, but I felt so good once we were at the top. Tongariro may have just made a hiker out of me yet.
The Red Crater
The views at the top were gorgeous. In one direction we still had great views of Mt. Ngauruhoe and in the other we were treated to the Emerald Lakes. The Emerald Lakes look like they’re straight out of another world. We’re on this hike where there isn’t much color at all and suddenly these incredibly intensely colored lakes appear. The contrast between the lakes and the sand and rocks was shocking.
I must sound like such an ignorant newb, because I also didn’t take into account how steep the climb down would be from the peak. From the Red Crater to the Emerald lakes there was an intense descent. Adding to the challenge, the path was essentially scoria – a loose sandlike lava. People were slipping and sliding everywhere. I just slowly took my time (a common theme) and walked down like a crab. It took forever, but I didn’t fall. Adam did end up slipping once because he picked up too much speed. It was dangerous!
Once we finally made it to the Emerald Lakes we sat down and had lunch. It was a great break and the food was much needed at that point. The lakes were the perfect spot and view to rest and charge back up for the descent.
One of the lakes snuck up on us. We started walking after lunch and I noticed a few people heading in the opposite direction of the crowd. I was feeling adventurous and followed the near empty path. At the end was the most beautiful blue lake without any sort of crowd. It was incredible. The color was insane. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that something this color can exist in nature.
We hiked Tongariro on a Saturday with good weather. This means we hiked along with a couple other thousand people. There were people everywhere all day. This didn’t necessarily bother me, I would have felt safe if I was injured, but it was so nice to find this quiet, gorgeous lake not surrounded by hordes of other hikers.
After the Emerald Lakes, it was time for the descent. I had originally written off the descent as being easy – I mean, it didn’t look that steep on the map and how hard is going downhill? Well, it was hard. Hiking up was difficult on my lungs, but hiking down was more difficult on my knees and hips. My body isn’t used to walking at a decline for an extended period of time.
The descent was a combination of zigging and zagging down the mountains and through a forest. Back and forth, back and forth we went for hours. Since there were so many other people hiking Tongariro is also meant being passed by a lot of people and passing a lot of others. There was a bunch of bobbing and weaving. The decline portion was more mentally challenging than anything; if felt like it would never end.
The end of the hike popped out of nowhere in the forest. We thought we might be getting close when several hikers started to run by us, but the opening to the car park really came out of nowhere. Just like that we had completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
It was amazing. It was hard. It was rewarding. Tongariro was a beast that I was proud to take on. We finished the crossing in just under 7 hours.