Climbing Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom)
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
The traffic cone mountain. Perfectly shaped like a comical volcano you'd draw as a kid but very real, jutting out 2287m above sea level. It's not hard to feel insignificant looking up at it's fierce volcanic slopes. So, naturally my first thought when I saw it for the first time back in 2017 was "I want to climb to the top of that thing". Lack of time and preparation stopped me back then but fast forward 3 years later and that initial hypnotic thought hasn't escaped me..
Shortly after my 2017 visit, the signs to the summit track of Mt Ngauruhoe and nearby Mt Tongariro were removed as the local Maori view them as sacred and discourage climbers to their peaks, so I knew an attempt now would be frowned upon. Nonetheless, reassurance from our driver that "techinally you can do whatever you want, there's nothing physically stopping you" outweighed the moral uncertainty.
6am, clear skies forecast and no wind, things were looking good. James, my cousin, who had only glimpsed the 45° degree slopes on the drive in the day before was naturally anxious (I like to think in a good way) but truthfully we both didn't know what to expect. I had done the Tongariro Alpine Crossing previously but never set foot onto the mountain itself. A 2 hour walk in from the carpark, through a valley along the start of the Alpine Crossing track and up a steep winding gravel staircase giving us a taste of things to come, we were at the beast's base..
Prep time. A quick brekkie of bananas and muesli bars while scanning the side of the mountain face, visually planning the route we would take. No markings or set track make it quite technical and we knew we'd need some brain power. Using my camera tripod as a walking pole we cut off the main walking track, making a little acknowledgement to the traditional owners of the land (respectfully declining their respectful request for us not to climb) and headed upwards.
A gentle slope through the tundra and shrub at first, made it seem easy. Once you get to the fine ash based gravel however, it's a different story. The gradient shifts dramatically from a
15-20 degree slope to 45 degrees in less than 100 metres and the ground beneath your feet sinks you up to your ankles in ashy gravel. The tripod/walking stick becomes more a nuisance than a necessity. It's so steep that you're on your hands and knees literally pulling yourself up, two steps at a time and then sliding back down one as you go. On top of that, you can't see where you are going without lifting your head all the way back, then planning your next move ahead of you - where your foot will go next, asking yourself which rock is stable enough to grab on to. It's mentally testing and physically exhausting, but hellishly fun. Slow though..very slow, but you cannot stop smiling..
We assumed we would be the only ones climbing, however about half way up we were overtaken by a solo french dude who was absolutely gunning it. Bit of a language barrier but he seemed to just sprint up the rocky ledge we had found ourselves on, a little break from the sinking ash. You can't help but stop every 5 minutes though, the view is incredible. Looking back across the whole martian landscape is absolutely breathtaking. To the west, the lone Mt Taranaki shot out of the landscape through a thin layer of mist, amazing to see. No time to fool around though, there was a job to be done and the summit was within reach..
4-5 hours in, the slopes flattens off and turn from slippery ashy mush to solid rock. We had made it up to a false summit. The true summit was another 200 metres or so up, but thankfully wasn't as technical and required no hands. A final push and we had made it, french dude as our welcome party to congratulate us. That sense of accomplishment when you finally reach the crater rim is overwhelming not to mention the view, but you quickly come back to reality when you see the crater. Its immense. It just makes you wonder how something this huge just creates itself out of nothing. A single steaming vent nearby was a friendly reminder that this volcano is very much active. The name 'Nguauruhoe' literally means 'throwing hot stones'.
We had the White Island disaster in our mind well before we even set foot on the volcano so were well aware that what we were standing on could blow at any moment. With that in mind and the fact that we would miss the last bus (which we did) if we stayed any longer, we took our last photos and set off back for the descent..
Here is when the fear kicked in. Instead of looking up, you look down..and its a long way down. My long term fear of heights creeps in, coupled with the weight of a backpack, any slight lean forward feels like you will lose balance and fall face first all the way down into the pits of Mordor. Babysteps were the way to go, back down to the false summit to the start of the steep gravel slope. Here, the ash and gravel which was once the burden of our existence becomes your friend. You dig your heels in and you slidddeeee. My feet dug in so deep that ash went half way up my calves. Fear slowly turns into fun but you can't get ahead of yourself, you have to be so careful to control your speed otherwise your slide becomes an unstoppable freefall. Regardless though, we turned a 4-5 hour accent up the same path into 1 hour descent. The relief hits you when the slope starts to flatten out and you're back on solid ground again..with rock filled shoes.
Back at the base, looking up at the summit to where we just were, it was hard to take in. We had done it. 3 years in the making for me. Still hard to get my head around. We couldn't stop though, we had 19kms more to walk along the Alpine Crossing to our pickup point, that in itself is essay worthy but for another day. It didn't sink in to what we had actually done until we hitched a ride back to camp with one of the locals. Exhausted beyond movement, the mountain came back into view again along the road. Classicly huge moment of fulfillment: "I climbed that."