In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie, there is one hike to rule them all, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. As serendipity would have it, between the excellent conditions last Monday and the fame of the 19.4 kilometer trek, we arrived at the base of Mt Doom on the exact same day as our cruising buddies Dirk and Gretchen of s/v Peregrine.
We were by no means the only group of hikers planning to explore the volcanos that day. As New Zealand's most popular hike, there were shuttles of people streaming in from every campsite and nearby town to hike the trail when we started around 7 am.
As a fellowship of four people and two vehicles, we had dropped off one car at the end of the trail the previous night. This turned out to be brilliant because it freed us from the constraints and costs of using a commercial shuttle and we could move at a luxurious pace and enjoy the scenery.
The first leg of the hike traversed a gentle incline of alpine bush. The track itself was a raised wooden walkway that followed a trickling stream. We watched Mt Doom grow larger as we approached, the sun throw its first rays of light over the mountain edge to the crags on the far side of the valley, but we all found ourselves most impressed by the volume of the crowd—we've read that there are days when over a thousand people hoof through trail; it felt something like visiting Yosemite, if Yosemite were in the middle of Disneyland.
The crowd thinned as we climbed the switchbacks defining the base of Mt Doom, and again as we left the well trodden path to climb its ashy heights.
Gretchen and I hiked to Camp One, my own euphemistic name for the first outcropping of rocks on the side of the mountain where I imagine Frodo found the trapdoor to enter Mt Doom and destroy the ring. He was a smart little hobbit that Frodo, as the trail all but vanishes at that point and the rest of the hike is through scree—a loose, shifting mixture of volcanic dirk rocks that makes for expert level terrain.
So Gretchen and I, knowing that Mt Doom was a side hike and we still had 14 kilometers of the crossing to go, enjoyed the extraterrestrial views from Camp One looking over mud flats and emerald lakes, a picnic, some yoga, and the general soaking in of scenery as Dominic and Dirk powered onward to the summit of Mt Doom.
Two hours of hiking the earth's largest pile of dirt later, they arrived at the summit.
Dominic enjoys the expances of his triumph, while Dirk lounges in the glory of his ascension.
Looking into the caldera of the summit:
And beyond, over Dirk's shoulder, through the clouds (note the *highest point* marker in the photo):
After descending and lunching, we pressed onward, through the mudflats that form the basin between Mt Doom and Mt Tongariro:
The mudflats were followed by another dramatic incline, but the effort was well worth it because each time we came to the top of a new crest there was another spectacular mountainscape to behold. Plus, this was my first volcano experience ever, so every sulphur vent and lava tube brought thrills of discovery.
A fiery red canyon with a lava tube in the lower right corner:
Then we found the Emerald Lakes, super acidic alpine ponds filled with colorful algae blooms.
After winding through the lakes, the trail opened to views Lakes Otamangakau and Rotoaira; a view that sustained us for the descent from the alpine pass. Then we hiked through a subtropical forest and a slightly tenuous flood zone before arriving at the comforts of Peregrine's sweet ride. After over 19 kilometers of the Alpine Crossing plus the distance and vertical climb of Mt Doom, the only thing left to do was enjoy the epic depth of our sleep.