Along New Zealand’s spectacular Tongariro Crossing intrepid walkers have the option of climbing the formidable Mt. Ngauruhoe volcano that constantly looms over hikers throughout the first half of the hike:
The volcano is nearly a perfectly shaped cone that is easily recognizable as the stand in for Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy:
The volcano is truly a spectacular sight to see. The side trip to the summit of the 2,291 meter Mt. Ngauruhoe is supposed to take three hours, but as I would find out, that is highly depended on the conditions on the volcano that day:
Before ascending the volcano a number of signs warn hikers about the current conditions on the volcano:
The warnings about lethal volcanic gas and falling rocks I took very seriously before ascending the mountain because even though I have climbed up a variety of mountains before including many that are much higher than Mt. Ngauruhoe, I have never climbed an active volcano before. The closest I have ever came to hiking up an active volcano was by doing some hiking around Mt. St. Helens in Washington State however hikers were not allowed on the active volcanic regions of the mountain. So this was going to be a new experience for me.
I quickly found out how difficult climbing this volcano was going to be because the cone is made of volcanic ash. Imagine climbing up a mountain of charcoal because that is what this mountain was. I had to climb many areas bent over using both my hands and feet to make progress up the mountain. I was definitely glad I brought my gloves with me. However, progress up this volcano consisted of taking two steps up an sliding one step back in the volcanic ash:
I felt like Frodo trying to climb Mt. Doom on this climb because of how extremely exhausting the climb was and was made even more tiring by the high altitude which I could definitely feel climbing up the mountain.
Something else I wasn’t expecting was the amount of falling rocks. It was incredibly scary the amount of rocks that would just randomly coming flying down the mountain at me. If one of these rock would have hit me it would have easily injured me, knocked me out, and even kill me. I don’t know if the rocks were falling because of the shifting of the volcano that was on going when I was there or because of the melting snow pack, but whatever it was, it was definitely something I needed to keep hyper alert for to dodge the incoming rocks.
After an hour and a half of slow, but steady progress up the mountain, I eventually came towards the crater and then began to see and smell volcanic gas pumping out of the mountain:
I remembered the skull and cross bones signs warning about hazardous volcanic gas earlier and I also remember when I visited the Taupo Museum, reading a newspaper article they had posted about a man that was rescued by fellow climbers on nearby Mt. Ruapehu due to being overcome by volcanic gas.
I decided not to take my chances with the volcanic gas and try to find another way up the mountain. I started walking down the mountain and trying to work my way around the snow pack to my right. While going down I tried to warn a group of climbers going up the mountain about the gas up ahead but most them proceeded up the mountain anyway. The only two that didn’t were a Japanese couple that decided to come with me to see if we could get up the volcano another way. While going down and working our way to the right the hikers above us were kicking rocks down on us that made the conditions even more dangerous than before.
Ultimately it proved too dangerous trying to cross the snow pack because of how steep the volcano was combined with how slippery the snow was. The snow pack on the volcano was literally a sheet of ice. Additionally the falling rocks fell like bullets going down the snow making it even more dangerous to proceed through the snow fields:
I gave up trying to work my way through the snow pack plus I was extremely exhausted and still had a long ways to go on this day to finish the hike, plus this excursion used up a whole lot of my energy. The Japanese couple that followed me agreed and they decided to give up on this summit attempt through the snow as well. From where I was I still got a stunning picture of Mt. Tongariro that loomed in front of me:
The Tongariro Crossing trail crosses the volcanic caldera seen in the below photograph:
If you look closely at the picture you can actually see the trial itself. After admiring the view for a while and catching my breath I proceeded back down the mountain.
Once down the mountain and gazing back at it, I realized the reason why the left side of the mountain was free of snow was because of the hot gas and volcanic activity I saw coming out of that side of the mountain. The rest of the mountain had a snow pack still on it because it wasn’t as hot:
I also if did decide to go to the craters rim despite the volcanic gas I would not have been able to reach the actual summit of the volcano because it was completely enclosed in snow as well. I had no regrets not going up to the crater when I smelled the gas and after mucking around in the snow trying to find another way up to the summit I feel confident that I made the right decision to go back down the mountain because how dangerous the conditions were.
Due to these reasons I highly recommend that a summit attempt on the mountain is best done in the summer when the snow pack is completely melted. With the conditions I was faced with it would have been wise for me to wear a helmet and have crampons to climb in the snow which was gear I did not bring that ultimately led to me turning around on my summit attempt. Even though I didn’t get to the top it still was great fun and quite an experience climbing my first active volcano.
Next Posting: In the Heart of the Tongariro Crossing
Prior Posting: Hiking the Tongariro Crossing
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