Mount Ngauruhoe: How To Successfully Summit “Mount Doom”

The kupu “ngauruhoe” hints at a history peppered with near-death and tragedy, amidst some of the most challenging weather conditions anywhere in our world.

Legend begins with the navigator-cum-high priest of one of Māoridom’s much-revered seven settling canoes, the ‘Te Arawa’, and a ‘tāne’ (“man”) named: ‘Ngatoro-i-rangi’ – or more simply, “Ngatoro”.

Whilst Ngatoro had done a fabulous and fairly comprehensive job of “claiming” the wider landscape/s of Taupō for his people, he – like many others in time, space, and cosmos – took one look at Tongariro and decided to summit said mountain so as to secure that terrain, too.

Of course, these things are never really as straightforward as that, and Ngatoro did face some stiff competition in another high priest, equally smitten by those same exquisite, ethereal view/s.

So-much-so, Ngatoro ultimately felt the need to petition the heavens for help.  His ‘hapū’ (“clan”) hadn’t fasted as he’d insisted, thus shattering the spiritual veil of sacredness and purity – indeed, of ‘tapu’ – that he’d so purposefully invoked in his innate certainty that these prerequisites would work in his personal favour to champion success.

Calamity ensued…

Despite absolutely trouncing his adversary to the apex, Ngatoro would soon find himself swiftly succumbing to the southerly-of-all-southerlies atop present-day Mount Tongariro (*nameless, at that stage, and clearly fair game).

In something of a last-ditch plea for survival, Ngatoro’s final act was to pray to his priestess sisters (still in our Māori-motherland, ‘Hawaiiki’) and our Māori deity of volcanoes, ‘Rūaumoko’, for fire.

Bursting out of the ‘whenua’ (“land”) at Ngatoro’s feet, these flames of salvation served their purpose, saving his life, and the lives of the few loyal companions he had with him on the day.

Gratitude compelled him to sacrifice a slave, ‘Auruhoe’, thus appeasing Rūaumoko, and permanently anchoring said fires to this particular landscape.

So then, “ngauruhoe” is a clear and necessary nod to ‘Auruhoe’ – the slave who was apparently flung into the furthest depths and reaches of those flames, thereafter creating modern-day Mount Ngauruhoe the volcano, and to which our best-known film director has managed to assign fame and re-name: Mount Doom.

Uh-huh, so, what’s Ngauruhoe like to climb(?) – right?

Basically, fairly lengthy and arduous, and absolutely worth every moment of “gruel” and “trauma”, whānau (*grins*).

The risk/s that tend to come with tackling our fair nation’s mountains mean you shouldn’t really climb alone – certainly not if you’re sensible, and definitely not if you’re just starting out, like me.

Just, don’t.  Take a mate.

My mate (Mave) and I set-off in late December ’16 to bag Mount Ngauruhoe, and by our measures the day seemed perfect – perfect weather, no cloud or moisture, plenty of sunshine, and a prudent af 5:30am start.

The beginnings of this journey also comprise the beginnings of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and arriving pre-sunrise at Mangatepopo Carpark means more likelihood of nabbing a parking space in the carpark proper – a minor coup, these days.

Heading through the Mangatepopo Valley at sunrise, en-route to Mount Ngauruhoe (2,291m) (*concealed by cloud).
Last of the sunrise strikes Mount Tongariro (1,978m).

We were at the base of the mountain within 2.5 hours, after a couple of brief pauses to re-fuel, and deliberately easing our way up the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ (*an historic lava flow from a previous Ngauruhoe eruption).

Pre-summit slog… All smiles, for a little while.
Ngauruhoe’s base.  So many routes… Stay true to the lava “spine” in the centre.

Here’s where things turned ‘southerly’, for us

A narrow perspective and inexperience saw us veer unintentionally away from our intended route along Mount Ngauruhoe’s lava “spine”, and we were quickly and unequivocally trapped on the RHS of a north face heavily laden with some seriously deep scree (*easily a foot deep, in places).

By then, all this fumbling around, flailing, and ‘failing’ was fucking with us mentally, too.

So, we set ourselves down amidst the scree and the loose boulders of scoria, and watched a lot of other people either get nowhere fast, or decide things were just too tricky and technical, and surrender.

We surrendered.  We made an effort to re-route, initially, but by then our minds and our hearts were completely out of there.  So we slowly descended, heads down and everything else heavy with disappointment.

Thus comprised our first summit “fizzle”, our first “flop” since we started our respective close personal relationship/s with our Earth Māmā ‘Papatūānuku’, two or-so years ago.

#EngariTonu.

Of course, enthusiasm and reason dominate one’s hunger- and attitude-for-altitude, and we gave ourselves a year to foster planning, and change

We were back in a month…

And, we got up.

And our adjustments were not spectacularly major – we simply:

  • Kept a sense of humour;
  • Left any potential distractions by-the-by – i.e., expensive cameras (I took my GoPro instead), and heavy packs (pack light, whānau);
  • Ignored time limits and constraints – for example, the two-hour “guideline” to summit is fine if you’re thrashing ‘Thunderstruck’ by ACDC, and not planning to stop, snack, or savour – because, why wouldn’t you(?), you miss so much by rip-shitting and busting (*we took a ‘ngāwari’ (“gentle”) three hours);
  • Performed as we would on the pretence that we may never return, or be afforded the opportunity to climb again;
  • Wore our micro-spikes, from the base of the mountain to the top, and back down again – and what a difference they made in all that scree(!) (*bag ’em from Trade Me for around $70 (you can buy cheaper, odds are they’ll break));
  • Mantra’d: ‘rocks + lava “spine” = fine’ – as long as you’re climbing these, or even skirting around them in close proximity with your fingers in their edges to pull you along, you’re on the sweetest route (*be sure you’re grabbing-at solid rock, and not loose boulder/s).

A shallow scramble up some reddish-pink rock is your first real sniff of the summit.  Above this is more scree, in the form of a well-trodden, windy path that goes high-left.  A man-made, rocky ‘photo-booth’ sits on the junction offering a swell space for a summit shot, and the chance to stop, horizontally, finally.

There are options for more views; the LHS leads to the outer crater’s rim, and panoramic views of the entire Crossing, Rangipō Desert, and Mount Ruapehu and his two ‘Tama Lakes’, while the opposite direction takes you up to the inner crater (don’t climb in(!)).

Man-made rocky ‘photo booth’ summit-shot feels (*grins*)…
“The Crossing”, and the entire breadth of Mount Tongariro – as seen from Mount Ngauruhoe’s outer crater.  Lake Taupō in the distance.
Rangipō Desert/Desert Road.  Steam vent on the left.
Mount Ruapehu and his two ‘Tama Lakes’.  The ridge of the outer crater continues (*right).

Māori tikanga steers summiteers away from the act of standing directly atop the highest point of our many ‘maunga’ (‘mountains’), due of course to their place within our whakapapa as ancestors.  Mount Ngauruhoe’s inner crater is very clearly this, in this case – so be mindful, please.

An hour or-so well-spent exploring the outer crater saw us descending shortly afterwards, making our way left of our lava-laden ascent route via a whole lot a’ bum-shuffling.

The challenge really is in getting yourself back down, and mainly because the scree is chock-full of different-sized scoria boulders, making getting any type of foot-traction-hold pretty darn problematic.  You find yourself sliding down quite rhythmically and (*almost) expertly one moment, only to strike rock underneath, and so begins a rather uncontrollable skid through said scree, the boulders systematically piling-up underneath your bum and your knees.

Here’s where you’ll also inadvertently take some of the skin off your hands – make a note: take some gloves.

Another ‘notable’ is the sheer number of times you’ll hear the exclamation: “rock(!)” (*or other expressions of warning – we heard “achtung(!)”, too), with each unintentional disturbance of the terrain above and every subsequent rock that rolls down the entire north face of Ngauruhoe, smashes into a bigger boulder, gathers more speed, and aligns with some poor innocent bugger at the bottom (*actually happened).

Other than that, keep an eye out for anyone passing you with the entire seat missing from their pants, walking with swagger, and oozing the attitude of someone you know has totally climbed a fucking mountain in #beastmode…

They won’t give a toss that their entire arse is “out there” for all to see, and neither should you.

#NgauruhoeSummitClub.

‘Haere pai atu, hoki ora mai nei’ (“Go well, and return safely”) – always;

In memory of Auruhoe,

IM.

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