The 19km Tongariro Crossing which passes over an active volcano in the Alpine region of the North Island was always going to be part of the holiday. Originally mum and I were going to hike it, but then when she fractured her knee at the gym, the hike turned into me running the Crossing and mum doing a couple of short walks nearby.
I’d done a fair amount of research into how to run it and the risks involved, there was NOT going to be another Kosciuszko incident! The track was also meant to be crazy busy so an early start was recommended. This was easily achieved by starting pre-dawn, and at 6:10am in the dark and with the track lit by headlamp I set off (1100m). The track was very easy to follow and nice to run without being too technical but with enough features to make it interesting and with duck boards thrown it at different times to mix up the surface. It starts out with only a slight uphill on the way to Mangatepopo Hut (1190m). But what was really surprising were the number of people already on the track! It wasn’t even light yet and the hikers were already out.
The hut was surrounded by lots of little tents as a few of the early morning campers were beginning to stir as I switched out some of my gear and took my headlamp off, it was only just light enough to now see. Then I was off again the next checkpoint, Soda Springs (1350m). It wasn’t feeling too cool in the early morning light so I was just running in my singlet and shorts, but there was still a fair amount of low cloud cover around which meant that I couldn’t see the tops of any of the mountains.
I was passing groups of hikers, but less frequently on the track, they must have started crazy early! The first section of climbing was up from Soda Springs to Mangateopo Saddle (1650m). The climb wasn’t very hard, a mix of walking and running and on a nice not too technical track, it was just a shame that there was too much cloud to see the view of.... well, anything while I was climbing. I came across a group of college age American girls on the climb and could hear them discussing my calves as I passed, they were impressed with their size. I was also impressed that my calves were still working. Still climbing up to the saddle the cloud cover was getting thicker and I could only see a few metres in front of me, I kind of got an idea that there was a large mountain over to my right, but I couldn’t really see it.
The turn off to Mt Ngauruhoe (2287m), which appears in the Lord of the Rings films as Mt Doom and which I was exclusively calling Mt Doom because I can’t pronounce Ngauruhoe starts from the Saddle. This isn’t a fully marked path and instead is a series of confusing crisscrossing trails that people have made with the occasional pole sticking up to help point the way. The climb is also entirely on scree which is made up of a lots of loose rocks, some big, others that are more like coarse black sand.
I took the turn and immediately got lost, the mountain was here somewhere in the cloud. I finally found a path to follow and started climbing, the visibility was getting worse, I could barely see in front of me, and couldn’t see anywhere near the top of the mountain, or the bottom or any paths that were more than 2 metres away. The path that I was following got consistently harder as the mountain got steeper and the scree became course black sand that I was having to stick my hands into to pull myself up. Very much like trying to get back up to Clearspot in the Buffalo Stampede Ultramarathon, just that crazy steep sand dune feel where the calves are burning and i’m sliding down half a step for each step that I take. It was also getting much colder, the wind was blowing and a light drizzle falling. I put my long sleeve shirt back on first. I stuck at this until my calves couldn’t take it anymore then I stopped and looked around, I could see something that looked like the outline of a ridge off to my left, maybe that would be easier to climb, so I cut left and now instead of black sandy scree I could at least use the rocks to help pull myself up. The climbing continued. Surely I must be getting to the top soon!
The temperature was still dropping and I was getting colder eventhough I was climbing, my hands had started to set and were going numb, so the gloves came out next, this took a while because my fingers weren’t exactly working all that well. Once they were on I could immediately feel my hands starting to defrost. The climbing continued.
It was getting steeper, rockier and colder, I felt completely alone in the mist, I could see maybe 1-2mtrs in front of me at best and to get back down looked like an impossible drop down the steep slope I had no idea how I was going to get back down, but I’d come this far and had no intention of turning around. I could see the wind and rain howling down the mountain towards me and the temperature was still dropping. Things were getting very serious. I stopped again and this time got out the seam sealed rain jacket. This is my light weight running jacket, so no extra insulation, but it would at least give me some protection from the wind.
I think I could see the top. The wind was furious now, I was having to fight against it to pull myself up the final section and then I was on top, I think - there was a marker there, not sure if it was the top marker or the summit was a little to my left or right - close enough. There looked to be a sheer drop on the other side, but I couldn’t see very far and the wind was ferocious, I gripped the rocks up top tightly to avoid getting blown off and it was absolutely freezing! Easily as cold as when I was on Kosciuszko which isn’t surprising considering I was now higher then the highest point in Australia. I knew I couldn’t spend too long up here I was already shivering very badly and I could hear my breathing become that shivering breathing, plus my legs in their short shorts were stiffening up. It took well over an hour to summit this mountain, but I was on top of Mt Doom! A few photos and a bit of video, then my phone went into shock, shut itself down and refused to start up again I think it was time to start descending now! And very very fast before I get hypothermia
The descent was a hell of a lot easier then I thought it would be, the mountain was crazy steep but going down the sand like scree slope was fantastic. It was a mix of running, sliding and skiing as I slipped and slided down, then I hit civilisation! In the form of 2 girls attempting to climb up the scree slope. I told them to head to the left as that was much easier and that they had at least 30mins of climbing in front of them. They did not look so happy at this news, then there were more people. It was a mix, most weren’t wearing jackets but did at least have packs, a few were huffing and puffing and had barely started, I suspect a lot of people give up on this mountain.
Then lots more people, all sorts of hikers gathered down by the turnoff to the mountain, a complete mix; Older looking professional bushwalkers (looking like mum and her bushwalking groups), younger groups of guys or girls in their twenties, less prepared and but fit enough looking, older European couples with different looking gear, that looked like they could handle much tougher weather and then there were the totally and utterly unprepared people wandering around in the wrong shoes, carrying the wrong bags or looking way too tired to be able to hike the next 14kms along the rest of the crossing.
I had to stop for a couple of minutes to empty the rocks out of my shoes and strip off the gloves and jackets, it was much warmer down here. That was also when the clouds cleared and I turned around to see Mt Doom “Holy Shit!” the mountain was enormous! No wonder I had so much trouble climbing it, the people looked like tiny little insect clinging to the side of it. Now that my calves and legs were completely trashed it was time to push on!
The track was much busier now, but it was also wide and smooth as it cut across the centre of an old crater. With no cloud cover the whole thing was extraordinary. It was just a shame that Mt Doom killed my phone. So anymore photos in this blog are either from mums camera who was near the start and end of the track, or stock photos.
Climbing the other side of the crater to the Red Crater checkpoint (1886m) I figured I’d done the hard mountain so getting to the summit of Mt Tongariro (1967m) should be easy as. I took the side track and followed the single trail over not too technical ground as it started climbing, lots of people but they were easy to pass on this terrain. Up the top then following the edge of the crater around to the summit. This was some really nice running, it would climb, then level out or drop a little, then climb some more, it was getting cold again so I put my long sleeve shirt back on. I had some fantastic views over the land far below before the cloud came back across then it was the eerie whiteness where you see distant outlines of figures or rocks and the sound travels weird. The path led to a cluster of rocks which I scrambled up, admired what view I could see (not much) enjoyed being up there where it wasn’t completely freezing, just cold and then started down.
Back at the turnoff it was crowded. Lots of people gathered eating morning tea, recovering from their “long” hike so far or just regrouping. The crater below was full of even more people and I could see the base of Mt Doom in the distance (the rest was covered in cloud).
Then it was down the other side of the crater wall. This was fantastic fun. It was a black sand scree slope, wide and covered in very very slow moving hikers with their poles. I took off, full race pace down the slope, so much fun, I was tearing it up, one of the young hikers tried to follow me and keep up at one stage, but not a chance... He was not a trail runner.
I reached the bottom of the slope and was overlooking 2 of the sulphur lakes (Emerald Lakes (1730m)) with their bright blue water, tinged with yellow around the edges. I could also smell them! it smelt like Rotorua... Every so often a warm breeze from some thermal vent (I guess) would blow across giving the place a magical feel.
I followed the track as it briefly climbed then dropped a little to another packed location with people picnicing overlooking a much larger sulphur lake (Blue Lake (1725m)). It reminded me of the Blue Lake that I’d seen while hiking near Kosciuszko. There were a lot less hikers on the track in front of me now which made the running easier, it also made it less exciting and less like I was winning a race (I was not racing... I must not race).
The path came up over a final rise and then started the descent to the end, this was fun! the track had a nice gentle slope and was hard plastic meshing pounded down into the dirt which gave it a little bounce and made it easier to grip. The views were amazing, overlooking the lake and bush a very very long way below. The track stuck to the edge of the mountain as it wound it’s way around the side then started zig zagging down to Ketetahi Day Shelter (1456m).
I stopped at the shelter briefly to admire the view and see the volcano impact site (I’m guessing a large rock had landed here when the volcano last erupted). There were a few groups of hikers picnicking here, I’d guess they’d either hiked up and this was their turnaround or they were doing the track in reverse (I do not recommend doing this).
Then I was off, following the track as I got lower and lower, past alpine springs which clearly said “do not drink”. It was getting very hot now, so weird. I thought I was going to get hypothermia earlier this morning and now I was over heating and glad that I’d packed a full 2ltrs of water. Down to the bush line (1037m) and into the trees which gave a nice reprieve from the hot sun and the cicada’s reminded me of home.
There was this cool section called a LAHAR zone which lasted for 700m and had huge warning signs to move very quickly through and to get out if noises were heard coming from upstream. I had no idea what a LAHAR was but decided it must be like flash flooding, I couldn’t hear anything sounding like a large amount of water, just the stream besides the track so I ran through, it was actually a very nice rainforest like trail. We researched it later on, and it’s actually a giant mudslide that is meant to be enormous, very fast moving and there are warning sirens further upstream to warn people to get out!
I spotted mum as I came out of the bush at Ketetahi Carpark (736m). While I’d been running the crossing, she’d hiked the start as far as Soda Springs and also hiked a couple of k’s at the end. It was a fantastic run, and with the 2 extra summits, it came in at 27km’s but only 1666m elevation gain, which is a bit of a bummer, that’s only the same as Six Foot Track, surely it should be more, that Mt Doom was huge! If anyone else wants to run it, I recommend starting early to get ahead of the hikers (as much as possible) and to carry full race emergency gear (jacket, gloves, beanie or buff & thermals - which I didn’t use, but had on me. The rest I used.) plus 2ltrs of water. It took me 5hrs 38minutes to run the crossing with the summits and a few stops (photos, removing rocks from my shoes, putting gear on/off, view admiration) this was at my easy pace, so allow enough time, it’s a lot quicker without Mt Doom which added about 2hrs to the trip.
Funnily enough we also met a couple of other Tarawera runners while I was getting changed back at the car, they had also run the crossing... I wasn’t the only crazy runner out there.