Mount Doom likes to play games. The abominable, deadly weather kind of games.
After a long drive and a few days spent in the engaging town of Wellington, we decided we would drive back up to Tongariro to attempt the hike up Mount Ngauruhoe, more famously known as Mount Doom. It’s the volcano featured in The Lord of The Rings trilogy that the little keebler elves needed to find to destroy their little magical ring or whatever the heck they were doing. The others filled me in on that by the way. We were warned though, that since it was winter we would need a guide and that ice tools and crampons were necessary for the trek. The weather may seem fine now, but it’s terribly different on the mountain. Still, Mike and I were daring enough to test our fate.
We found a place near Doom called the Tongariro Alpine Lodge, a campsite with outdoor facilities. Perfect for the summer warmth but kinda crap for the winter. Honestly, we just needed a place to stay that was relatively close and on the cheaper end of the spectrum. The winter we were experiencing in New Zealand hasn’t played a huge factor for us yet. It hasn’t felt like any winter we were used to… until we arrived in Tongariro. The nipping, unwanted rain was an omen that welcomed us to our accommodation as we prepared to tempt Doom.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman at the front desk. “There aren’t any treks tomorrow because of the weather. But if you want to schedule for Sunday, the weather is supposed to be very good then.”
We can’t wait for Sunday. It’s Ryans 21st birthday then and we need to get back to Auckland to get him the most wasted he’s ever been in his young life.
There are other trails around Doom that we were able to hike, with Tongariro Crossing being the most popular. Mike and I looked over the map with nearby trails and searched for the one with the most bang that would lead us to at least a viewpoint of Mount Doom in all of her volcanic glory.
Chelsey and Ryan stayed behind while Mike and I geared up for the morning. And when I say geared up, I meant he geared up and I layered up because I didn’t have a proper jacket, pants, nor gloves for a hike of this sort. Everything I had, I retained from Alaska which wasn’t much at all. I also learned from Alaska, that even though I layered up, I was still pretty cold at the end of the day. So this time, I layered up even more.
Chelsey dropped us off at the lodging center a few miles down from our accommodation. The center had all the information we needed about the hike towards Doom. The elderly man at the front desk recommended we try one of the smaller hikes because according to him, by the looks of us, we weren’t properly dressed. Don’t underestimate my attire sir. I’ve explored the largest ice caves in the world in gym shorts before.
He recommended Taranaki Falls, a 40 minute jaunt from where we were now. If we were up to it, we could continue on to other more expansive trails that would lead us closer to Doom.
“The weather won’t be good today,” he continued. “It’s not snowing now, but in about an hour it will and you may think the snow is pretty but once that happens, I strongly advise that you turn around and head back.”
Mike and I glanced at each other with a look of, “let’s just do it anyways”.
“The weather will be better tomorrow if you wanted to try that,” the elderly man finished.
This guy was not optimistic in the slightest about our desire to get close to Doom, but still I kept his advice in mind. If it snows, we’ll turn around, but from the looks everything, it didn’t look like it was gonna snow. And so, Mike and I began our hike towards Taranaki Falls and from there we would play it by ear. Out of all the things we wanted to do in New Zealand, this is the thing Mike wanted to do the most. You could tell by how eager he was to capture some incredible footage, which I appreciated. To come across another traveler who’s eager to go above and beyond for some creative photography gets props in my book. They’re hard to find.
The trail was plainly laid out as if it were holding our hands the whole way. It wasn’t so much a “hike” per say as it was a perfectly placed pathway we simply had to trace. But still, everything that surrounded us was totally captivating. The nutrient rich air, the bush, and the snowcapped range in the backdrop gifted us with the reality that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The pebbled, yet sometimes muddy trail began in acres upon acres of shrubbery painted with rust colored roots and purplish tops that led to a moss deep forest veined with a single river that eventually led to the waterfall we were seeking.
The forest portion of the trek crept through hilly areas as the tree leaves began to chatter from the sudden drizzle. The canopy was dense enough to cover us from it though. We’re just happy it wasn’t snow.
I scouted for areas that would make a suitable place to hang my hammock on the way back. Little did I know at the time that this wouldn’t be the same route to get back where we started. The weather was ideal enough to rock a hammock somewhere and eat these sandwiches we made for our lunch. I’d save the hammock and sandwiches for later. I wanted to get to the waterfall and then closer to Doom.
About 40 minutes later, we arrived to the Taranaki Falls and it was beautiful.
We climbed up and around to the very top of the waterfall to get a view from above. We should have been able to see Mount Doom from where we were but the sky was blanketed in a never-ending white. We could see hints of it through the breaks but it was still quite far off. We had ways to go…
…until it began to snow–just like the elderly man said. And also just like he said, we thought it was a pretty sight.
Mike and I stood around and debated. Should we heed his warning and turn back or should we press forward? Other hikers on our trail stuck around and began to head back. We decided we were both capable of our instincts, if the snow got worse we would turn back. So we continued on towards the Tama Lakes.
On the way we began to see snow build up as we went on.
It was cold, but it wasn’t cold cold. As we went further along the path, we saw fewer hikers along the way, with most of them heading towards us, back to the start of the trail. We eventually found two individual boulders–the perfect place to have our lunch. We prepackaged a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
We saw another duo nearby, including a guy wearing just a plain old jacket and shorts also eating their lunch. If this guy is pressing on wearing shorts, then surely we have to keep going. We’d look like pansies if we turned around. I didn’t let my mind falter around the fact and so we kept on going, and as we did, the path became less laid out and the wind chill cautiously picked up. The snow from earlier subsided but began to flurry just a tad. The buffs we had helped a great deal in covering our mouths and noses from the wind’s chill. I put my bare hands under my jacket into my sweater’s front pockets to keep warm. Doom’s mountain freeze carefully began to penetrate my layers.
We still had ways to go. The wind began to whip so wildly that I could only look down at the path to protect my eyes. The exhaling warmth from the breaths my face felt from my buff barrier began to lessen a bit. My pants began to soak from the rain/snow combo that was happening. I was still okay to go forward, Mike even better because he came aptly prepared. For this Quest to the Seven Continents, I didn’t want to overpack. Snow gear would have weighed me down in the long run. If I needed gear, I would rent or borrow from somewhere. However, there was no way I could have expected this.
Doom was testing us. It began to hailstorm, pelting ice bullets right into our faces. It was plague after plague up here. First a few minutes of drizzle, then some pretty snow, then some cold snow, then some cold snow and rain with some winds, and now all of the above plus ferocious hail. A full on blizzard was happening. Oddly, it was something special to experience. Mike felt the same way. My hands didn’t agree with me though. There was no warm place on my body to keep them safe from the blizzard. I looked at them and saw they were a bright red and barely mobile. The buff on my face began to form ice crystals along the creases as we traversed a stream creeping closer to Doom. At this point, Doom was cloaked in the blizzard. We couldn’t see a dang thing from where we were. I looked behind me to see if the duo was still trailing us. To my surprise they were.
We arrived to an area where we had to cross a small river, via stepping stones, to get to the next overpass. The first of two lakes was just beyond, I could feel it. As Mike hopped the stones to get to the other side, I just stood there. I was arguing with my gut about what to do next. My heart wanted to continue but my gut was telling me, “You’re gonna freeze your ass off if you keep going any further. You can last just a bit longer but remember you have to trek the whole way back, some three hours or so. This weather is unpredictable and it has only gotten worse.”
Mike stood there on that slope patiently waiting. The duo caught up with me thinking that I was figuring out the best way to cross the river when in reality I was battling with myself on whether to continue on or not. The duo eventually crossed the river and passed Mike up the hill, all while wearing shorts. Way to make me look like a wuss. I got Mike’s attention and gave him the gesture that it wasn’t wise to go further. At the time we could have, but it was a long way back and if this blizzard kept up, it would spell doom for us on Mount Doom. We were nowhere close to the actual Mount Doom by the way. It was still way off in the distance, shrouded in this rampaging wintery hell.
Gladly Mike was okay with stopping and heading back. He was still as able as ever, but my hands were my first indicator that things would have gotten bad. They were practically immobile. Hopefully that other duo fares better, but we’ll never know. We never saw them again after that.
On the way back, the storm continued but this time the winds raged against us, forcing Mike and I to completely cover our faces with our buffs in our to progress. Conveniently, we could see through the buffs as we slumped through the hail fury. Slowly the storm began to lessen and the sun began to peek through the white. A moment of peace.
We endured another hailstorm and some more rain until we finally made it back to the waterfalls. But instead of going the same way we came, we took an alternate route that led us above the falls into another area of the trail. The high route.
After about another hour we made it back to the starting point, stiff, soaking wet, hungry and ready to go back to the lodge to pass out. What. An. Adventure!
You just had to be there to understand.
P.S When they tell you to turn around when it snows then TURN AROUND.