Tongariro Midwinter Moonlight Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, hailed by many as the “greatest one-day tramp in New Zealand”, and even “one of the best in the world”, is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The 19.4 km trail sees 60,000 people each year; over 1000 per day at the more popular times. I’ve personally walked the trail twice, but done parts of the track on at least five different occasions, and can see why it is so popular – the scenery is amazing, not too strenuous, and simply a great place to spend a day or two.

Just over three years ago, a friend suggested hiking the crossing in the middle of winter, overnight, under a full moon. Ever since, we’ve been looking out for a suitable opportunity: great weather, full moon, lots of snow and low avalanche danger. Unfortunately, these opportunities don’t come around often. But a few weeks ago, everything fell into place.

Weather in the region is notoriously hard to predict in advance, so the window between a reliable prediction and being on the mountain is less than a day. This is not ideal for planning the trip in advance, but opportunities must be taken whenever they present themselves…

Tongariro Alpine Crossing Winter at Night

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing on a summer’s day and a winter’s night.

It Begins

By 9 PM, we had arrived in the Mangatepopo carpark at the start of the trail, ready to begin the adventure that had been on the to-do list for over three years. We were joined by everyone else who thought it would be a good idea to wander into an alpine area in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night (there was no-one else there), and began the walk before the moon had risen above the horizon. Even without the moon, the night sky was bright enough to walk without headlamps through the first parts of the trail, but extra lighting became necessary with rougher terrain and the first signs of snow and ice on the ground.

An hour later, we had arrived at the last long-drop for the next 6 hours. Normally there would be long queues here, but this time there was no queue at all. Up until this point, I had been wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and thermals, but the time had come to bring out the more serious outfit, including several more layers, wind and waterproof jacket, and crampons. With the Devil’s Staircase just around the corner, things were about to get more extreme. One does not simply walk into this kind of environment and expect to be warm.

If you’re not suitably prepared, there’s a sign nearby that asks a few questions: “Stop! Is the weather OK? Do you have the right equipment and clothing? Are you fit enough? If you have answered NO to any of these questions, seriously CONSIDER TURNING BACK”. Probably the best advice I’ve seen on a sign.

Devil’s Staircase

This name didn’t come about for no reason. The staircase is the most strenuous part of the entire crossing, unless you take a side trip up Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom). Under the conditions at the time, it would have been extremely dangerous to attempt this part of the track without crampons. Slippery slopes leading to large cliffs aren’t very forgiving to a misplaced foot. Ice and snow had covered the track quite consistently since the bottom of the staircase, and the temperature was dropping steadily as time progressed and elevation increased.

By the top, the water from my hydration bladder had begun to freeze. Short and frequent sips seemed to keep things flowing, but inevitably there would still be ice forming in the bite valve and tube. Snacks like muesli bars or a hiker’s favourite One Square Meal bars also become very solid. Not ideal after being drained of energy by the staircase. Oh well…

Mangatepopo Saddle and Beyond

With the Devil’s Staircase out of the way, it’s relatively easy going for the next section of track. The flatness of the plateau is always welcome sight! The silence of the night was occasionally broken by ice falling down nearby slopes, but in general the whole place was very tranquil. And then there was another hill.

Half-way up to Red Crater, the early hours of the morning combined with the weight of several “contingency plans” in our packs had taken their toll. Fortunately, someone had kindly carved out two rather nice seats in the snow. Thanks whoever you were! After a rest and several photos of the awesome view seen in the photo above (and that uncomfortable moment when $1500 of camera suddenly stops working in the low temperatures), it was time to turn around and head back to the car park.

Afterthoughts

There’s something very unique about moonlight and snow that can’t be fully described, nor seen in a photo. It needs to experienced; being there is everything. Having the Tongariro Alpine Crossing all to yourself is another experience in itself, compared to the conga-line that usually appears during peak periods.

I think that the scenery is far more beautiful when covered in snow and lit by moonlight than the barren landscape in the heat of summer, yet the crowds don’t seem to agree. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great place in summer. But under moonlight in winter – wow.

Equipment

If you’re still reading, it may be because the moonlight crossing idea is something you’d like to do. To make your planning a bit easier, I’ve included some basic equipment and resources that you’ll need to take into account. I have to say at this point that entering an alpine environment at any time has its own dangers; even more so during winter at night. Not only that, but Tongariro is also volcano that has recently shown signs of unrest. Any decision to enter this environment is yours and yours alone – not mine. I take no responsibility for your use or misuse of any information on my website. Make sense? Excellent.

First up, understand the hazards. Low temperatures, slippery ice slopes, cliffs, volcanoes, avalanches, frozen drink and food, injuries, and changeable weather conditions should be a good list to start with. We had planned to take enough equipment to safely spend the night on snow during high winds and rain/snow, with equipment such as a tent, winter-rated sleeping bags and insulating mats, a gas stove, and extra food. Hopefully you’ll need none of this stuff, but it’s all good to take just in case. Remember that there is always an element of uncertainty in mountain weather prediction, so be prepared.

Secondly, warm clothes are obviously essential. Many light-weight layers are better than one bulky layer. Nothing should absorb water (no cotton!), and the outer layers should be both windproof and waterproof. Waterproof hiking boots with gaiters, gloves and beanie/balaclava are also essential to keep warm and dry.

Thirdly, crampons are essential. Don’t even think about omitting these – it’s just not safe. Ice slopes that are fine to walk on with crampons can be impassable without them. A decent pair is not cheap, but can be hired for a weekend at a relatively low cost from various outdoors and snow shops. An ice axe would also be nice to have, but probably won’t be necessary – the slopes on the official track aren’t overly steep.

Finally, take anything else that you consider important. If you’re a reasonably experienced hiker, you’ll know the usual supplies you take with you. Otherwise, become an experienced hiker or take one with you. What follows is a minimal list of equipment to take. Use common sense when putting together your own list.

Essential Equipment (Shared between group)

  • Emergency shelter
  • Gas stove or alternative way to create hot drinks or food
  • Headlamp
  • First aid kit
  • GPS with pre-loaded route (in case visibility drops), map, compass
  • Toilet paper (the long-drop doesn’t have its own)
  • Phone or communication device
  • Plastic bags (always good to have)

Essential Equipment (Personal)

  • Waterproof jacket and pants
  • Waterproof boots and gaiters to keep snow out
  • Waterproof and warm gloves
  • Beanie or other warm hat (balaclava recommended)
  • 5+ warm layers / thermals
  • Winter-rated sleeping bag and good insulating mat
  • Snacks and extra reserve food
  • Crampons

Recommended Equipment

  • Camera and tripod
  • Sports drink (for energy and lower freezing point than water)
  • Pack liner
  • Chapstick
  • Spare socks

Summary

If you do plan to head out and experience the magic of the Tongariro Midwinter Moonlight Crossing, please don’t underestimate the risks involved. Pretending that the risks aren’t there will not end well. Instead, acknowledge the risks, try to minimise those risks then decide if that level of risk is acceptable for you. Please let me know if you do give it a go, especially if there’s something I’ve missed or you have any other suggestions. Most importantly, keep safe and enjoy!

Useful Resources

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