Skiing Down a Volcano on Top of New Zealand's 'Mount Doom'

A few months ago, a group of friends and I traveled to New Zealand for adventure, some much-needed vacation time, and to visit real-life Lord of the Rings haunts. Filmmaker Peter Jackson filmed the entirety of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in New Zealand. He chose the Whakapapa Ski Field on the sacred volcano Mount Ruapehu to depict Mount Doom, the fictional final resting place of the Ring. The bulk of our group is from Colorado and we just couldn't resist the opportunity to ski down a volcano.

After driving our rental campervans up the winding mountain road, we had to pull over for this breathtaking photo op (above). That's Mount Doom, #irl. What we had imagined for months was finally towering in front of us. What I hadn't imagined was the complications of skiing atop an active volcano.

Let's go Rock Skiing!
Mt Ngauruhoe from Mt Ruapehu Whakapapa Ski Field New ZealandMt Ngauruhoe from Mt Ruapehu Whakapapa Ski Field New Zealand. Getty/iStockphoto

The thing about winter sports in New Zealand is you're likely on or near a volcano. As you climb in elevation, you leave behind the vegetation and trees that are usually spotted here in the States, especially around the Rocky Mountains. The Whakapapa Ski Field is a barren snowy wasteland, much like the fictional Mount Doom if it were inside a snow globe.

There is no tree skiing here, only rock skiing. The jagged lava rocks poke out all around the narrow runs and often a false turn can send you flying off a cliff on either side. I'm spoiled living next to the luscious resorts in the Rockies and can't imagine learning to ski here among the actual rocks.

What's a Lahar?
New Zealand, North Island, Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu, aerial viewPaul Souders/Getty

Mount Ruapehu is nowhere near dormant. Earlier this year, Forbes reported on The Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management's warnings to visitors:

"Increased volcanic gas release, increased surface temperature on the volcano, and almost continuous seismicity all point toward a higher probability of Mount Doom's eruption in the near future."

Since the report was out before we left, the reference to the "near future" meant anytime after May 2016, including during our trip. Not seeing any warnings while there, we snapped into our skis and slushed through the spring snow.

Floating above the massive volcano on the ski lift, there's no virtual buffer between you and the expansive valley below. No trees, no clouds, no mountain ranges. This is not a ski field for the faint of heart.

We hopped off the lift, shuffled over to plan our descent, and stopped when a siren echoed through the mountain air. Having zero experience with volcano-related alarms, we asked the ski attendant what was happening. She said it was a lahar alarm and we needed to move, now.

A lahar, as the iSite outside the Whakapapa Ski Field points out, is a pyroclastic eruption. It's an epic mudslide triggered by volcanic activity beneath the surface. And it's deadly.

Thank You For Your Cooperation

Obviously, I'm writing this after the fact and there's no need to worry (anymore). But we stood together for five long minutes in Middle Earth on top of Mount Doom, waiting for the danger to pass before hearing that it was only a drill. "Thank you for your cooperation," rang out across the snow and our laughter built to a crazed relief.

Thank goodness, because if the alarm were real, we knew the Eagles wouldn't be around to save us.

Danger sign with icicles in front of snow covered mountainsBo Tornvig/Getty

Katy is a Denver-based writer and film creative. She revives brands and grows online communities by crafting custom copy and casting fresh faces. Take a coffee break with her on Twitter @bykatypalmer.