Have you ever climbed a mountain during 40+ mph winds in zero visibility, pretty confident you were about to die? I have, and it turns out that it’s… kind of fun? I never would have guessed I was the kind of girl who enjoyed battling the elements, but it turns out I loved adventure way before I realized I loved adventure.
New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing is an alpine hike, which means that conditions can be extreme. The weather turned from calm to terrifying in just over an hour. Not only was the wind strong enough to literally blow me off the path, I could barely see through the fog. The scenery I could see was amazing, but I was too focused on surviving to enjoy it for long.
When all the tour groups gathered at the trailhead after the hike, EVERYONE had a crazy story to share. Some people who went further up had to crawl back down on all fours, and one person actually fell and rolled down part of the descent. At one point I legitimately thought I was going to blow off the mountain to my death. Needless to say, this was the best I’ve hike ever done.
I went to New Zealand and did this hike with my ex, of “The Stupid and Embarrassing Way My Adventure Started” fame. I’m really happy that I can look back on our experiences together fondly now without feeling sad or angry. Because I am a wise, mature, and totally amazing person. Anyway. This is relevant to this post as he’s featured in a few images, though to protect his privacy I have expertly blurred his face with my good friend MS Paint.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most famous treks, and widely known as the single best day hike in the North Island (and maybe the world!). We tackled the mountain on May 1st, which is late autumn in New Zealand. It’s a challenging hike even in good weather – it’s just over 19 km and there are steep climbs, steep descents, and loose terrain.
The Crossing can take anywhere from 4 to 8 hours depending on the hiker. It took us just over 5, and my fitness level is best described as “couch potato”. I thought the hike was strenuous, but it definitely wasn’t as physically demanding as I expected from other reviews.
The natural landscape is on another level. It’s an active volcanic region, so the terrain is barren, wide-open, and soot-black. The Mount Doom scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed here because of the rugged terrain and the magnificent, imposing volcano and crater. You definitely feel the desolation here, so I completely understand why they picked this spot. Unfortunately, I didn’t even catch a glimpse of the volcano or its crater, as both were completely obscured by fog.
This was, by far, the densest fog I have ever seen. And I never could have predicted it from the calm, clear skies when we started out. The hike began innocently enough – the first half hour is relatively easy, mostly flat with a few uphill sections. After a miserable section of stairs aptly titled the Devil’s Staircase, the trail opened up to a wide-open expanse before the final ascent. And here was where the fog began rolling towards us, at first in lazy tendrils and then in a thick cloud.
As we continued on, the wind began to pick up, at first slowly, then turning into a roar. The fog continued rolling in and first the figures in the distance became hazy, then disappeared completely. I turned around to discover that I could hear nothing but rattling wind, and see nothing but blinding white in the distance. At this point I started to wonder wtf I was doing here, and if it was still possible to turn back.
As we approached the summit, shit really hit the fan. The path narrowed and wound steeply upwards, the wind was still getting stronger, and the fog had tightened around us. It was freezing, and fucking scary. We were being wildly whipped around and I was actually swept to the side at one point, lost my footing, and nearly stumbled into the white abyss.
I briefly forgot that I am a strong, independent Modern Woman, and clung dumbly to a rock. I was not going to move. I was just going to die here, next to this rock, because at least that would be on my own terms. Fuck everyone at the trailhead who said it “wasn’t going to be windy today”.
Eventually it was either continue gasping down air through breaks in the wind, or continue on. So with a combination of steely resolve (10%) and clinging to my ex’s jacket (90%), I bobbled my way up the remainder of the mountain.
We kept scrambling and ascending, unsure where the summit was since we could barely see in front of us. Please note my horizontal hair as proof of the highly unnecessary level of wind.
After what seemed like eternity, we were at the top! There was no respite from the wind here and this may have been the worst spot of the entire trek. But we definitely weren’t going to risk our lives and not get a photo, so we flagged down an equally cold, equally traumatized young man to snap some shots for us.
We spent the remainder of our (very brief) time there crouched on the ground because I was being blown around too much, and we couldn’t see far enough to determine if a fall would kill me (lol).
We began a slow, hilarious descent, during which (I kid you not) every single person ate shit at least once. Everyone fell. It was impossible not to. I have been on a ton of hikes and I’ve never encountered such a slippery descent. The ground may as well have been slicked with oil.
People were linking arms and still falling all over the place, the wind was still whipping everyone around, and I could not keep it together. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Here were a bunch of intrepid explorers who’d just summited a mountain in a complete whiteout and no one could get more than a couple of steps without flailing wildly around and slipping.
We slowly, clumsily made our way down the mountain. Suddenly the fog lifted to reveal the most beautiful emerald green lakes, and a nauseating whiff of sulphur (volcanic region, remember?). Despite the smell, we hung around for a while snapping shots. The wind was finally calming down, and the view was as spectacular as we’d hoped.
The lakes really are a rich, saturated green, due to dissolved minerals from the geothermic activity in the area. I was so thrilled to get to see them in all their splendor because it would have been really disappointing to do the whole hike with those shrouded in fog too. That view made it all worth it.
You can walk right up to the lakes, and we took our time enjoying them. Here I am looking like an absolute dweeb, ecstatic to still be alive. It was still windy enough to create legitimate waves in this calm, tiny pool. But now that the fog had cleared and we were no longer on top of a freaking mountain, it was less terrifying. The worst was over.
In stark contrast to the extreme weather we’d just battled through, the remainder of the hike was completely serene. The rest of the hike is a narrow, winding track that descends through beautiful mountains, past active steam vents and sacred Maori land, and into stunning wide-open NZ landscape.
We took shelter from the wind at the Ketetehi Hut, a small building on the trail, and devoured our lunches before setting off again. The remaining two hours were a blur – we couldn’t believe what had just happened, and how calm the weather had become again. It was like we’d dreamed the whole thing.
Eventually we got back to the carpark and waited for the shuttles to collect us while chatting to other travelers and swapping stories. It had been absolute chaos up there, but everyone loved it – we all agreed we would come back in a heartbeat.
This definitely isn’t the kind of experience you ever forget, and I think I’ll always remember it as one of the greatest hikes of my life. Nothing has topped it yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Crossing stands the test of time as my all-time favorite, despite the chaos. Hopefully the mountain will be a little kinder to you on your visit.
Tips for taking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:
Check the weather forecast here before you go.
Dress in warm, waterproof layers. The weather can turn from normal to terrifying very quickly so you need to be prepared. I had a waterproof, wind-resistant jacket, a warm fleece, and good hiking boots. This is not the place for cute designer sneakers (you WILL fall) or a trendy but impractical jacket (you will be cold and wet). You are in the mountains, dress accordingly.
Find somewhere to stay nearby the night before (and after). Buses pick you up early and you want to be well-rested for such a strenuous, high-altitude hike. We stayed at Tony’s Lodge – basic accommodation, but extremely convenient, and the bus stopped directly outside. Get $40 off your Airbnb booking here!
Book transport rather than driving yourself. I was exhausted and so glad I could just collapse onto a bus back to my AirBnb instead of having to drive myself. Since I visited, they’ve also added a 4-hour time limit to the carpark, making it virtually impossible to drive yourself anyway.
The trail is not a loop. You will come out at a different point than you arrived, so if you do choose to drive yourself you’ll need to arrange transport back to the carpark.
Bring snacks and a lot of water. You are using up a lot of energy and you will want to eat a lot! I normally don’t eat much when hiking, but I devoured my sandwich, chips, an entire bag of trail mix, and an entire bag of beef jerky over the course of the hike.
Do not attempt summiting Mt Ngauruhoe in bad weather. You literally may die attempting this optional portion of the track. The people I mentioned who had to crawl on all fours were the ones who chose to go up there despite the poor visibility. Not only did they not get to enjoy the view (since they couldn’t see shit), they could have been seriously injured.