Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in winter

Today we have a guest post from Mimi, author of The Atlas Heart. Mimi recently returned home to the US after a year on a working holiday in New Zealand. While she was here she travelled all over the country, including tackling the Tongariro Crossing (a hike we still have to do!) in the winter. Over to Mimi…

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

We sat on the Wellington waterfront during an unusually nice day with minimal wind. Kendall, Mats, and I were hinting that it would be nice to do something together in the next month or two before Mats moved to Australia.

Within a week, we met to book our bus tickets to Taupo and a guided tour with Adrift Adventures to lead us on a hike through the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

tongariro alpine crossing

Mt Ngauruhoe

The first time I heard about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, it was in relation to The Lord of the Rings. You see, Mt. Ngauruhoe is the volcano that Mt. Doom was based after in the films. The hike itself felt as if we were walking through the land of Mordor – just in the middle of winter.

I should mention, we didn’t actually hike Mt. Ngauruhoe. It’s not included in most guided tours during the winter, and it would have added another few hours onto our already 7 1/2 hour day in the snow.

With that said, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing didn’t lack steep ascents, and we still passed by plenty of volcanic activity along the way.

Tongariro alpine crossing

Volcanic zone!

I’m a coastal California girl through and through. I’ve spent very little time frolicking in the snow. I’ve been snowboarding once and it ended with me breaking my wrist on the bunny slope. I’m not the most graceful in the snow, but I thought it was about time I learned how to hike in it.

Transversing the 19.4 km (12 mile) Tongariro Alpine Crossing in winter sounded like a challenge I wanted to try.

We chose our tour with Adrift primarily because of our lack of knowledge about hiking in the snow. If it was summer, we would’ve tackled the hike on our own, but when there were helmets, ice axes, and crampons involved, we thought it better to leave it to the professionals.

Adrift was also nice enough to lend us thermals, hiking boots, and snow jackets on top of our other snow gear so we wouldn’t freeze out there.

Once we were all decked out in borrowed gear, we took off into the snow. I was thankful my guide knew what he was doing, because I couldn’t even see a trail in the fresh snow.

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Climbing on the side of the mountain

The first part of the hike was relatively flat and not too slippery with ice, to my relief. We saw Mt. Ngauruhoe soaring high in the distance and witnessed it in all of its snowy glory as we continued on the trail.

When we looked behind us, we could see Mt. Taranaki in the distance on the West Coast, a testament to how thin a landmass the country of New Zealand can be sometimes. To give you a reference, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is almost smack dab in the middle of the North Island.

We soon started on our first steep incline of the hike and dealt with the increasing depth of snow. We hiked for an hour to higher elevation until we arrived at another flat area to put on our crampons for the next part of the journey.

Along the way, we learned how to use our ice axe and its purpose in preventing us from falling off the side of the mountain by throwing it across our body if necessary.

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Mt. Taranaki in the distance

I can only describe walking in crampons as pretending that you’re a duck that has a fondness for squatting while you walk.

With our new footwear, we made our way up the steepest hill of the day and were rewarded with drop dead gorgeous views between the South and Red Crater.

Once we made it to the Red Crater, we stopped for lunch and smelled the sulfur around us on the red hot sand beneath our feet.

After lunch, we had our first descent of the day, a part of the hike I found harder because of my tendency to slip in the snow while going downhill.

Lunch on Red Crater

Lunch on Red Crater

We finally made it to a straight patch that went off as far as the eye could see. I thought this would be the easy part of the hike. We soon discovered; however, that the snow was heaviest in this area, sometimes going all the way to our knees.

Combine this with wearing crampons, and I was starting to have trouble breathing at the end of this section of the trail from the fast pace we kept. Once we had a chance to rest and wait for the others to catch up, I was good to go and ready to tackle more of the hike.

The next part was the trickiest and most technical. There were multiple times we had to choose our own path and go out of our way to avoid possible avalanches. There was one point where we had to slide down a snowy hill, our crampons up in the air, to get to the bottom of the trail.

Crampon Life

Crampon Life

After a harrowing section of hiking on the steep side of a mountain, we found ourselves at the Ketetahi Shelter, the last stop before the end of the hike. We took off our crampons because the rest of the trail was mainly just sludgy ice at lower elevation.

It was all downhill from here, so everyone took off down the icy steps at a rapid pace. I must have fallen a good half dozen times on my bum to the amusement of the French guys behind me.

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Deep snow across the landscape

Before we knew it, we saw green around us again and we were breaking through the bush into the car park.

In true Kiwi fashion, Adrift brought us a chilly bin full of cold beer to celebrate our accomplishment and to refresh us on the long bus ride back to Taupo.

In no time at all, I fell asleep to the orange sunset streaming through the bus windows. I already felt a soreness from the day’s hike, but I slept peacefully, proud of how far I had come that day.

tongariro alpine crossing

View between South Crater and Red Crater

About the Atlas Heart

Mimi is a California girl who has backpacked through Costa Rica, Europe, and Southeast Asia, lived in the cities of Melbourne, Sydney, and Wellington, and now spends her time travelling the Pacific Northwest.

From jumping out of a plane in New Zealand, to eating snakes in Vietnam, learning how to cook in Italy, and scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, she’s always looking to live with an open mind and an atlas heart.

She’s now based in Portland, Oregon, the jumping off point for her next set of adventures in 2015.

Follow The Atlas Heart on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

[All photos courtesy of The Atlas Heart]

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Hands up, who wants to go and hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in winter now? We do!


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