North Island Volcanoes

posted in: Cycling, Hiking | 0

If I asked you to imagine an iconic volcano then you might come up with Mount Fuji, Mount Etna or possibly Mount Doom. Okay, the last one doesn’t really exist… at least not by that name. The mountain that was used as a ‘double’ for Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings movies was in fact Mount Ngauruhoe (2,287m) which is in the Tongariro National Park in the middle of the North Island, New Zealand.

We had hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s classic walks, on a previous visit and had waited on the top of Mount Tongariro, a short side trip from the Crossing Trail, for a couple of hours to get a view of Ngauruhoe which eventually appeared out of the clouds. Ever since that first trip we had wanted to climb it.

We had our chance when we went to the Tongariro National Park in mid-December. As well as riding our bikes from Ohakune up Mount Ruapehu to the Turoa Ski Area (which is as far as the road goes and with about 1,000m of vertical ascent is New Zealand’s only HC climb) we also had a day earmarked for Ngauruhoe.

We started the walk sharing the path with everyone doing the Tongariro Crossing. With mist and damp cloud covering the mountains it was hard to get a feel of where we were.

Tongariro Track

It was only the occasional sight of petrified black lava flows that showed that we were in an active volcanic area.

Given the wind chill and potential for the weather to worsen, some of the walkers on the trail looked a little under-equipped; they would have had a miserable time if it had started raining. We came across a young guy, Sam, with a big rucksack who was moving fast. When we got chatting to him we found that he was doing a circuit around the mountains and that he lived in London about two streets away from where we did!

We reached the point where the path to Ngauruhoe branched off the main trail after about 90 minutes. This was at an altitude of about 1,650m, 530m above and 6.4km from the road-head.

It was cold in the wind. Moreover, I had not closed one of our water bottles properly so Lillian’s one extra item of clothing got soaked. I figured that we had to dry it out and as it was my fault I put it on thinking that once we started climbing it would dry out with body-heat. (It did… eventually.)

We weren’t sure if it was sensible to head up in the cloud but pushed on anyway followed by a couple of American guys. There wasn’t a marked path but we could see tracks on the sandy bits. Just when we were starting to have doubts the cloud cleared and we saw the mountain towering above us. There were a few people ahead and even a couple of them already on the way down.

On the Scree

Most of the mountain is very loose scree which was hard work to walk up so we traversed to a reddish rocky rib (on the left as you climb up) and followed this to the summit. This took about 90 minutes from where we left the Tongariro Crossing Trail.

On the Ridge

On the Ridge (2)

Mark on the Ridge

We soon climbed above the cloud and had some spectacular views with the cloud filling the valleys below.

On the Ridge (3)

When we reached the top there was a path leading around the crater leading to a good view of Mount Ruapehu to the south.

On the Summit

On the Summit (2)

There was snow on the top of Ngauruhoe and the south side of the mountain was still completely snow covered. Some care was needed with the strong wind as it was about 35 degrees steep and if you slipped onto the snow you wouldn’t stop till you reached the bottom. It would be nice one day to return and ski down it!

Apart from navigating a rocky area at the top, the descent was fast being mainly a long scree run. Even Lillian, who hates descending loose and stony paths, seemed to enjoy how much easier it was than walking down a regular path.

On the Scree (2)

At the bottom we stopped to empty our shoes of stones and grit and then had an easy descent back to the car retracing our steps down the first part of the Tongariro Crossing Trail. The whole walk took about 6 hours including stops. (We jogged some of the flat bits of the trail on the way down.)

Another iconic conical volcano, although one which is less known outside of New Zealand, is Mount Taranaki (a.k.a. Mount Egmont) (2,518m). It towers over New Plymouth which is a nice city with beautiful beaches and some interesting places to visit. While we were there the Festival of Lights was on in the largest of New Plymouth’s many parks. We also visited the Len Lye Gallery which was housed in a cool concrete and reflective steel building.

Len Lye Gallery

Lye made ‘kinetic’ art with many sculptures made out of springy steel, some of which look like they would decapitate you if they broke… It’s worth watching the video about him in the gallery cinema; it’s only shown twice a day and was not very clearly publicised.

We had come to New Plymouth at the end of January to do the annual Around the Mountain bike ride. Lillian and I rode together. She was dropped by the our initial group 80km into the 150km race, but managed to recover and finish as the fourth woman with a 35kph average speed.

Not content to limit her suffering on two wheels to that experience, she decided to ride up to the Taranaki Visitors Centre a couple of days later. This turned out to be a nice climb with 720m of ascent over 16km, almost 500m of which was in the last 6.5km. However the section of State Highway 3 from New Plymouth to the start of the mountain road was, according to Lillian, scary, with large lorries and cars thundering by at 100kph. (As an aside, we rode 40km of SH3 in the final section of the Around the Mountain ride. That was really scary – riding with a group of unknown people, some of whom had no idea of how to ride in a chain-gang, on a busy road.)

Much earlier that same morning I had driven to the Visitors Centre, where the climb up Mount Taranaki starts, to walk to the summit of the mountain.

Mount Taranaki

The above view is from near the start of the trail which initially is a good, but sometimes steep, track to the Tuharangi Lodge. This is a private hut, just beyond the radio mast on the left of the picture below.

Mount Taranaki (2)

After that the track becomes a small path and starts to climb through boulders and scree up the Hongi Valley (this is the valley that leads to the right skyline of the mountain in the photo above). The main reason why Lillian decided not to join me was because the information about the climb stated there were large sections of scree and someone had said that it was looser underfoot than Ngauruhoe. So when I found myself, climbing out of the Hongi Valley on a nice wooden set of steps I wondered if perhaps Lillian should have come after all, instead of gambling her life on SH3.


The steps had been built by the Department of Conservation to cut down on erosion and are an impressive piece of work (this picture was taken when I was descending).

However, the steps soon stopped and the path started winding its way up through scree (which locals seemed to refer to as scoria, which is volcanic gravel). There was a section which took me about 10 minutes to get up, where it was really difficult to get any purchase on at all – just small rocks on a hard sub-surface.

On the Lizard

Luckily the scree then got deeper and 10 minutes later I was on a rocky ridge, called The Lizard, that led to the summit.

On the Lizard (2)

It was quick going and half an hour later I was on the snow in the crater which I think is there all year round.

Summit Snowfield

From there it was another 5 minutes up a loose slope to the summit. The view from the top was magnificent although I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t recognise any of the places where we had cycled in the bike race two days earlier.

On the Summit (3)

Summit Photo

One curious point was that there were loads of flies on the summit which meant that after a few minutes sitting down and eating a sandwich and a Mallow Puff I was keen to get moving again.

On the Summit (4)

I then wandered around the crater, where the snow was frozen hard, with a sharp rock in my hand in case I slipped and needed to self-arrest; however it turned out to not be very steep.

Summit Snowfield (2)

Going down was not much quicker than coming up and the track below the Tuharangi Lodge was painful as I’d had a problem with my ankle over the previous few days and the longer I descended the more it started hurting. But that aside it was an enjoyable morning and a cool mountain to have climbed.

I started walking at 6.30am and it took me 2 hours 15 minutes to get to the top, which is just under 1,600m above the start at the Taranaki Visitors Centre (960m).

The Tuharangi Lodge (1,492m) took me 50 minutes to get to. From there it was 1 hour 25 minutes to the summit. The descent all the way down from the top took 1 hour 50 minutes. Adding in a stop on the summit, exploring the crater and a stop to empty gravel from my shoes on the descent took my total time for the walk to 4 hours 45 minutes. I walked fast uphill and because of my ankle descended slower than I would have normally done.

For anyone climbing the mountain, take lots of water as there is none available on the climb and as it is north facing it can get hot. Clouds seem to cover the mountain from the late morning so it is worth starting early to maximise the chance of getting a view from the top.

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