Climbing Mount Ngauruhoe
A World Heritage site, Tongariro National Park is dominated by three volcanoes, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. Ruapehu may be the highest peak in the park (and the whole North Island) and Tongariro might share its name with the park, but Ngauruhoe will have you transfixed from the moment you lay eyes on it’s near perfect cone shaped outline.
Although technically a cone of the broader Tongariro volcanic complex, if ever there was a mountain that screamed ‘volcano’ this would be it. Now if you’re anything like us you may be wondering to yourself, ‘Can I climb up that there volcano?’ The short answer is yes, technically you can. But the real question is should you, and while it’s not for us to tell you what you can or can’t do, the answer is no you probably shouldn’t. Read on to find out why.
The most common approach to Mt Ngauruhoe is from the Mangatepopo end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC). The Mangatepopo car park is at the end of a short stretch of gravel just off Highway 47, 13 km from National Park or if coming from the Taupo side via Turangi, 36 km from Turangi.
No matter what direction you’re approaching from, Ngauruhoe is hard to miss and we guarantee you’ll be reaching for your camera in no time. We never get tired of the view. In fact we still take photos every time we visit and one of our favourite views, dare we say it, the best view of Mount Ngauruhoe is from Bruce Road which snakes its way up Mount Ruapehu towards the Whakapapa ski fields. One of our ‘rituals’ whenever we visit is to drive up and watch the sun setting as we contemplate our time on the mountains.
Some of our other favourite views of Ngauruhoe are from the Tama Lakes and Taranaki Falls tracks, both highly recommended, or, if you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, you can have a meal at the iconic Chateau Tongariro Hotel with its ‘Ngauruhoe window’ – you’ll understand if you go there.
Update: Sadly, Chateau Tongariro has closed down with effect Sunday 5 February 2023. There is currently no talk of re-opening in the future but hopefully somebody will save this historic icon.
And just so you don’t get any funny looks when you visit, it’s worth knowing that the ‘g’ in Ngauruhoe is effectively silent. It took us a while before we stopped mangling the word ourselves, and while we’ve seen and heard various pronunciations, the best pronunciation for Ngauruhoe that we could come up with is ‘Nah-roo-ho-eh’. Don’t worry, the locals will know what you’re talking about.
Summer or Winter, Which is Best?
We’ve been fortunate enough to climb Ngauruhoe a few times and it’s a totally different experience depending on the time of year. So when is the best time to climb Ngauruhoe? Well the view is stunning no matter what time of year but our personal preference is winter. In summer it’s a hot, sweaty scramble up loose, jagged and crumbling scoria. Coming back down is no less challenging although you can choose to ‘ski’ down the loose scree which is certainly quicker if not a little riskier. In winter it’s no less strenuous but personally, we find snow easier to climb. That is of course as long as you are properly equipped with crampons and an ice axe and equally importantly, know how to use them. We say this because we’ve seen equipped climbers on Ngauruhoe lose their footing and, not knowing how to self-arrest, slide several hundred meters down the mountain. Fortunately, when climbing from the Mangatepopo Saddle side, there are no gullies or steep dropoffs so the mountain is fairly forgiving but even still, meeting an exposed rock during an uncontrolled slide is unlikely to end well.
That’s not to say that climbing in summer is without its hazards. Because there is no clearly defined or maintained path, people tend to haphazardly make their way up the mountain, often dislodging loose rocks and boulders which hurtle down towards unsuspecting climbers below. In fact, not a year goes by (no exaggeration) without somebody being airlifted off the mountain after having been hit by a falling boulder. For this reason it’s always recommended to wear a helmet when climbing Mt Ngauruhoe, even in summer.
So, all of this is our way of saying don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s not a casual stroll and it’s tougher than it may look at first sight. Oh and another thing, in case you’re hoping for a Lord of the Rings Mount Doom ring-tossing moment – don’t, you will be disappointed. Despite being an active volcano, there are no hidden chambers or fire-spitting pits on Ngauruhoe – at least none that we know of. You’ll be far better off visiting Hobbiton to get your LOTR experience.
It’s a devil of a climb
And that’s before you even begin to hike up Ngauruhoe itself. From the Mangatepopo carpark the track meanders gently up the valley towards Soda Springs. It’s a great way to ease yourself into the day, especially if you leave before sunrise as we usually do. We love the crunch of frost underfoot and the crisp morning air (it was -5 degrees C the last time we climbed). Beautiful early morning colours and seeing first light on Mount Ruapehu are just some of the added bonuses.
But don’t let any of this fool you. At around the 4.5km mark the track starts to climb quickly from 1,400m to just over 1,600m in less that 2km. This section of the track is aptly named the Devil’s Staircase – enjoy! Although the track is well formed at this point, it’s a bit of a slow hard slog, giving you ample time to enjoy the view back down the valley towards Mangatepopo.
At the top of Devil’s Staircase you’ll reach a saddle. From here the signposted Tongariro Crossing heads east across South Crater but you will be heading to the right, making your way up through the lava field towards the base of the mountain. There is no formed track as such and you’ll need to follow the blue DOC markers (since removed) that will guide you towards a distinct ridge and from there you will pretty much be one you own.
A not so perfect cone
While there is no formal track, in warmer months when there is little to no snow, there are a number of fairly well-worn routes that follow the ridge towards the summit. In winter it’s a different story entirely and while you can still use the ridge to guide you, the best route will ultimately depend on the condition of the snow and ice. And it’s the icy patches where many climbers come unstuck, especially if they try and climb without crampons. We’ve seen people charging up the snow in trainers or running shoes, find themselves in a band of ice with nowhere to go but back down, and then watched as they slowly inch their way back down on their bums, looking rather sheepish.
As you climb, you’ll have the summit in sight, or at least what you think is the summit but is in fact the edge of a plateau. Once you reach this plateau you’ll realise that the summit of Ngauruhoe is not as perfect and cone-shaped as it appeared. Continuing upwards you’ll reach a saddle and at this point you’ll see that there’s actually a shallow valley that heads south. Directly ahead you’ll see a large rocky outcrop and that marks the actual summit of Mount Ngauruhoe at 2,287m. To your left you’ll see (and hear) another outcrop of rock, no doubt steaming, and to your right will be another summit. This is the actual crater edge and where most climbers will head.
It’s a short climb up to the crater’s edge and you will be rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the entire area. In fact, on a clear day you’ll be able to see all the way to Mount Taranaki, some 140 km to the west. In winter, the crater can seem fairly calm and peaceful but in summer, the scorched-looking crater walls and sulphurous steam are a stark reminder that this is an active, albeit ‘sleeping’ volcano.
Recent Ngauruhoe eruptions
Since we’re on the subject of steaming sulphurous pits, you may be wondering how active this volcano really is. So when did Mt Ngauruhoe last erupt? At around 7,000 years old Ngauruhoe is the youngest and also the largest cone of the Tongariro complex. It also happens to be one of the most continuously active volcanoes, not just in the region, but in the whole of New Zealand, with the most recent eruptions occurring between 1973 and 1975. Since then there have been no eruptions but there have been periods of increased unrest (earthquake activity) which saw raised alert levels (1 on a scale of 0 to 5).
So could the mountain blow again at any moment? Given that it is an active volcano, technically anything is possible, but the mountain is constantly monitored and any changes to the alert level are published on the Geonet website. The Department of Conservation also posts notices at the start of the Tongariro Crossing and you should always pay attention to these and any other signs before you head out.
A rapid descent
What will typically take 2 – 3 hours to climb from the Mangatepopo Saddle can be a rapid descent of under an hour depending on whether or not you choose to ‘ski’ down the scree slope. In winter, many people choose to glissade which looks like fun but can also end painfully. On one of our climbs we watched as someone slid down on a piece of plastic, only to come to rather abrupt and uncontrolled stop on a rock. He hobbled his way back down to the main track with, no doubt, a bruised bum – a nice souvenir to take home after his climb.
So why shouldn’t you do the Mount Ngauruhoe hike?
Given that we’ve just shared our experience of climbing Mount Ngauruhoe you may be wondering why we’re advising you to think twice before doing this hike. There are a number of reasons for this, practically, environmentally and culturally. Let’s start with the practical.
With the ever-increasing popularity of the Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s official Great Walks, parking at Mangatepopo has become something of an issue, so much so that as of October 2017 the Department of Conservation (DOC) has put a maximum 4 hour parking restriction in place for effectively six months of the year. So while parking remains free (as at the time of writing), if you did want to climb Mount Ngauruhoe between 21 October and 30 April, given that you’ll need at least 5 hours, you would have to make alternative parking and transport arrangements.
While there are a number of shuttle services in the area, they are mostly geared towards people walking the Tongariro Crossing from end-to-end so finding a shuttle that will both drop off and collect at Mangatepopo may be a challenge. DOC has now made it clear that they no longer want people to climb to the summits of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and given that DOC manages shuttle concessions in the area, operators will be reluctant to go against this.
So why has DOC introduced these restrictions? Ultimately we feel it’s about trying to manage the environmental impact of the ever-increasing number of visitors to the area as a whole. But concerns have been raised by the local Māori about visitor safety as well as protecting the sanctity of Tongariro, particularly the lakes and mountain summits which are considered ‘tapu’ or sacred. It’s generally accepted in New Zealand that many of the mountain summits are sacred and while climbing them is ok, standing on the actual summit is deemed culturally insensitive. We’ve always been mindful of this but from experience have found that not everyone feels the same way. Add to that the fact that more and more visitors are leaving rubbish and even worse behind, you can see why locals get irate. It’s a complicated issue, and not one we want to debate here.
Maybe in future you will be able to climb Mount Ngauruhoe as part of a paid guided experience, in the same way that you can climb Mount Tarawera which also has restricted access. We’ll leave you to make your own considered decision on whether or not to climb Mount Ngauruhoe based on your skills, the weather conditions and your cultural perspective.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Ruapehu region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Ruapehu.
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