A Snowy Crossing at Tongariro

By far one of the best hikes I did while in New Zealand was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I did the crossing in late May 2016. There was a group of 25 of us who travelled from our hostel in Napier to stay for a weekend in the lakeside town of Taupo in order to complete the crossing. We had all spent a few months at the same working hostel in Napier, where we had become a rather large, but good group of friends. We somehow managed to get a sunny weekend when the crossing was actually open, in between two rather cold and wet weeks. During the winter months the crossing is often closed due to bad weather conditions, for the safety of those wanting to do the hike. The DOC (Department of Conservation) also recommend hiring one of their guides during this time to ensure your safety. Luckily for us we were able to cross without the need of a guide, however we could not climb Mt Ngauruhoe (or Mt Doom for any Lord of the Rings fans) as it required proper winter hiking gear. It is always best to check the DOC website and the closest I-site before doing any hikes in New Zealand, as the weather in much of the country is very changeable. The staff at the I-site’s are kept as up-to-date as possible and will be your best source of advice in this area.

The Tongariro Crossing is estimated to take around 5 hours to 7 hours, depending on your fitness level and is categorised as an Advanced Tramping track. This means you must be prepared with sturdy walking boots as well as plenty of water and snacks. During the winter it is advised to walk with grampons, ice hacks and thermal wear. We had the thermal gear, but not the grampons. It was a risky move, as there were certain parts of the track which were covered in ice and so very difficult to cross, though we all managed it.

We arose early on a clear Saturday morning. It was still dark as we prepared water and snacks and put on extra layers, before leaving our hostel. We had decided to start the track at around 7 am that morning and we had just over an hour’s drive to the Tongariro Crossing. It was a quiet and sleepy drive, with most trying to fit in an extra few minutes of sleep. We got to the crossing as the sun was just coming up and it promised to be a bright, sunny day. Some of our group had decided to dress up for the occasion, namely one person in particular who wore a bright blue Unicorn onesie for the climb.

First sight of Mount Ngauruhoe

The first part of the trek is a gentle walk across the wooden pathway. It gives you a good view of the valley you are walking into as well as of Mount Ngauruhoe on a clear day. The mountain remains looming on your right-hand side for all of the Tongariro Crossing, though of course there is the option of an additional 3 hour hike to cross it as well. As the incline starts to increase there is a detour to the Soda Springs, which takes around 10 minutes. This is a little waterfall, which when I was there was partially frozen and had some tremendous icicle formations. This stretch of the walk gives you a little break to take in the stunning views all around you as you walk alongside a gently flowing stream. It was here that we met another group of backpackers, who were also doing the trek. We would see them on and off during the hike, as we all walked at different paces.

Icicle Formations at Soda Springs

The next part of the walk is the climb. The path does get very steep and sometimes quite thin in width, meaning you have to walk along as one long line of people, one by one. This part of the walk sometimes includes steps, while at other times you have to find your own footholds in the snow. After an hour or two of climbing, you will come to a plateau of sorts. For us, this was a beautiful, untouched, snow covered landscape stretching to the base of the surrounding mountains. Here we took a short break for some water and snacks, before beginning the next part of the climb. In this section you are closed in by all the mountains around you, but it gives some amazing views.

Now for the real climb, which will take us to the summit of Mount Tongariro, where we would stop for some lunch and to enjoy the peace of the snowy mountains. At the top you get a terrific view of the sulphur lakes and the burning red rock that was uncovered by the snow. During our lunch break here, we met with the group of backpackers we had met before at the Soda Springs. We also met another group, one of which had also dressed up in a Unicorn onesie and another who was in a dinosaur onesie. Just goes to prove there are plenty of mad people out there, probably especially among backpackers. There is a lot of tectonic activity in this area, due to Mount Ngauruhoe being a dormant volcano. There are a number of sulphur lakes and you can quite often see clouds of steam rising from the ground in different areas of the mountain range. The sulphur lakes were frozen when we visited, but you could still clearly see their distinct colour. From the summit, was watched the long lines of our fellow walkers, who looked alot like an army of ants against the snow. The climb up is hard work at times, especially in the snow, but it is, as they always say, well worth it. The climb back down again can be just as difficult however, as we were about to find out.

Sulphur Lake

From the summit, there is a steep drop down the other side towards some of the sulphur lakes. At this time of year it was not only covered in snow, but also in layers of ice, making it particularly difficult to climb back down. Most of us managed it by climbing slowly and at times having to slide down on our butts. It may not be the most graceful way to do it, but it was definitely the easiest and possibly the safest. With so many people climbing the Crossing that day, we did have to be careful not to slide into anyone else, or even one of our own group. There were a few tumbles, but everyone managed to get down in on piece eventually, after a lot of laughs as we slid into each other or someone went racing past, faster than they meant to.

From here you can enjoy the sites of the Sulphur Lakes, as there are a couple which can be easily accessed from the main path. When we were there, the lakes were mostly frozen, as I have mentioned before. Some walkers decided to make the most of the frozen lakes by throwing stones at the ice, as it made an interesting sound, unlike that of a normal iced-over lake. The sound echoed and bounced off the surrounding mountains making it sound even more unnatural. We stood and enjoyed the sound, with some of the group joining in and throwing stones. From here, there is another short incline and then you are out from the middle of the mountain range.

The girls and I on the Tongariro Summit

Once over this last hill, the walk became much less snowy, as we were dropping down into the forest part of the national park. The pathway spirals down the side of the mountain and eventually reaches the forest, giving you some brilliant views of the jungle-like forest which is native to New Zealand. This last section of the hike can seem like it goes on forever, as you are now over the majority of the climb. For us, the walk had been difficult and most people were starting to feel tired, as the sun was beginning to go down on a rather long day. The forest walk takes around an hour and ends in one of the carparks. There are warning signs in this part of the walk, as there is constant conservation work going on to protect wild animals from predators and to protect the native bush from the ice melt coming down from the mountains.

Once down from the mountains, it was a mission to get back to our cars. We had one car in the end carpark, to take the drivers back to the start to collect the rest of the cars. This would have worked well, if all of our cars had decided to work properly. After a couple of jumpstarts and one burst tire, we managed to get back on the road. It took a couple more hours than we expected, but we were extremely glad to get back to the hostel when we did that evening.

This was, as I have said, my favourite hike in New Zealand. The company was great and we had a lot of laughs while struggling up hill, or sliding back down the ice. We were a big group, which meant, no matter what paced you walked at, there was someone around to chat to. The walk was difficult, but afforded some amazing views, especially because of the snow. I have seen pictures of the hike during the summer months, when you can see the brown, reds and greens of the dirt, rock and native bush; but I think I prefer the snowy walk we did. It felt much more magical and like we were in a different world completely. I would definitely recommend the hike to anyone visiting New Zealand, as it is like nothing else you will do.

Next Stop- My favourite city in New Zealand.