02/25/11 - Tongariro Crossing
Katie let me sleep an extra half hour in the morning, which meant we got up at 6:30 A.M. Though I felt a bit rushed with only forty minutes to get dressed, prepped, and fill my stomach, I appreciated her thoughtfulness. Besides, we made it to our bus in time. (A quick note regarding breakfast: Someone stole our cereal! We woke up cereal-less! They stolz it from us! [as Gollum would say] But what could we do? Dust for fingerprints? We're in a hostel with tons of people. It could’ve been anyone, or even an honest mistake. We ate toast instead.)
A bus drove us to the starting point of Tongariro Crossing. Widely considered the best day hike in New Zealand, Tongariro Crossing is 19.4 kilometers long (12 miles) and takes you over an active geothermal area. It also provides the added opportunity to climb the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, which you may know better as Mount Doom! Yes, this hike stretches right alongside the very mountain that Frodo and Sam climbed together in order to destroy the one ring and free the people of Middle Earth!
Both Katie and I wanted to climb it, but could we? There were some constrictive circumstances to consider before making our decision. For starters, our bus was dropping us off at 8:00 A.M. and would be picking us up at 4 P.M. sharp at the other end of the trail. That gave us 8 hours to walk 12 miles without climbing Mt. Doom. The side trail ascent of Mt. Doom was an additional 2km out and back, and from all accounts that portion would take us 2 to 3 hours to complete, leaving us with potentially only 5 hours to hike 12 miles. Then there was the other consideration: Were we fit enough?
On arrival, our bus driver parked, stood up, and made some announcements about the trek. He was a Kiwi with a doomsday sense of humor. Every comment bordered on a warning, always with a twinkle in his eye. At some point he asked: "Is anyone thinking about climbing Mt. Ngauruhoe?" My wee little hand rose up slowly. His eyes snapped to me and I suddenly realized that on a bus filled with people I was the only person saying yes. Why? I have no idea. But it made me wonder if Katie and I were crazy.
Here is a rough account of the conversation that took place in front of everyone on the bus:
Driver: “Are you fit?”
Me: “………kind of?”
Driver: “You hesitated, which means no.”
(Long pause as he stares me down. Then I realize I need to respond again.)
Me: “Yes, then?”
Driver: “It takes 1.5 hours to climb Mt. Ngauruhoe and 20 minutes to come back down – or 10 seconds if you choose to go that route.”
(Nervous laughter from me, Katie, and others on the bus)
Driver: “If you climb it, you must reach the summit no later than 11:30. If you decide to climb and are half way up by 11:30, turn around.”
Driver: (looking at the entire busload of people) “My bus leaves at 4 P.M. Planes don’t wait, trains don’t wait, so why should I? Good luck.”
And on that note, we set off!
We glanced at the map to assured ourselves of the path before joining the throng of people hiking Tongariro Crossing. It was early morning, and we’d seen from our room at the hostel that Mt. Doom was shrouded in cloud but for the top. Now we were enfolded in that mist as it hovered over the rocky grassland and slowly rose into the atmosphere. At first, the clouds were so dense it crushed the light. We could stare straight into the sun, the filter was so thick. But soon the haze thinned, leaving only wisps of fog drifting over the ground and across the horizon. Spiderwebs emerged around us, shimmering with morning dew, and as the sun crept higher I saw swarms of bugs swerving around the jagged lava rocks that littered the valley floor. The spiders must be well fed around here.
We took pleasure in all the natural wonder while walking at a brisk pace. We were trying to give ourselves some wiggle room with regard to time, because of course we wanted to climb Mt. Doom. Is it any surprise? In case you haven’t noticed yet, we both happen to love “The Lord of the Rings.” On top of that, we’re extremely dorky, so you do the math. This was one opportunity we weren’t going to pass up. But, regardless of our efforts, the speed tactic was proving difficult. The trail was full of people. Some passed by while we passed others, but try as we might we couldn’t break free from the masses. All we could do was be patient and attempt to hike at a reasonable pace.
Normally we would’ve stopped to take pictures, but there was no time to dilly dally. Pictures were taken hastily while feet continued to move. This definitely helped our cause, because before too long we came to our first ascent, “The Devil’s Staircase.” Up, up, up we marched, those steps leaving us beleaguered and out of breath. But once that portion of track was over we knew we’d reached it – the fork in the road. A decision had to be made: To climb, or not to climb.
The time was 9:30. That meant we had two hours to reach the crater rim. Doable, right? That’s exactly what we thought. And since this would likely be our only chance to climb Mt. Doom, we took it. A steady stream of people joined us on our quest, which emboldened us and spoke well of our sanity, because statistically we couldn’t all be crazy. Then again, maybe they didn’t have a 4 o’clock bus to catch? Yeah, that was probably it...
At first, it wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, I’m only talking about the first fifty feet. Swiftly we were condemned to an unmerciful 35 degree angle upward. We’d seen the looming mountain in the distance the entire morning, so this wasn't surprising. It always appeared daunting and was now living up to our expectations.
While on Abel Tasman I’d talked to another kayaker who had completed the Tongariro Crossing. She’d loved it and gave me some particulars. One important detail she imparted was to take the left side up Mt. Doom – don’t take the right! The left was rockier but far easier to scale than the loose scree on the right. That’s what she apparently climbed, and now that I saw her route I think she was nuts.
As you’d expect, we took her advice. The going was slow and steep. Even so, ascents happen to be my strong suit. Not to say I can run up a mountain or anything, but I can keep a steady pace without having to take lots of breaks. Katie has a tougher time with them. As a result, a distance naturally spread between us. I kept looking back, making sure to keep her in sight. We’d give each other little waves before continuing on, trudging up the piles of scoria blanketing the slope. At first there were switchbacks to follow, but those quickly fell away, leaving behind an unmarked trail. It was a free for all; a real-life “choose your own adventure” – go this way to scramble up scree OR go that way to clamber over lava boulders. Was it fun? Yes! Was it exhausting? Of course! Was it dangerous? No comment.
Halfway up I did my good deed for the day. An older couple, probably in their early 60s, were hiking up the mountain. At some point the husband was parallel with me. Huffing and puffing, he asked:
Husband: “Wow. What do you think of this?”
Me: “It’s pretty tough.”
Husband: “It wasn’t what I expected.”
Me: (thinking that comment was a little concerning) “You did want to do the side track up the mountain, right?”
Husband: “This is a side track? I thought it continued on from the top!”
Me: “No. This is only a side track leading up to the summit of the mountain. It doesn’t continue on. Everyone up here has to go back down again to get back on the main trail.”
(Wife staggers out from behind a boulder)
Husband: “Did you hear that?”
Wife: (puffing hard) “What?”
Husband: “She just told me this is a side trail. The main trail is back where we came from at the bottom.”
Wife: “We’re turning around!”
There was little discussion after that. They turned around.
Before they headed back, the wife confessed that she’d thought it odd that the trail wasn’t marked and that it was so difficult. She was right. The climb was strenuous to say the least. I can imagine the disappointment they must’ve felt having climbed half way up for nothing. But what if they’d gone all the way to the top! I was glad I said something, and once we entered the second half of the ascent I was even happier. The ground was very uneven and rocks tumbled down from hikers above. Sometimes I felt large stones give a little when I planted my foot on them. They could easily pull free under more pressure. At one point a boulder came crashing down to the far left of the trail. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it’s reverberating thumps as it bounded passed. It made me wonder why they allow people to climb up here at all. Not to say I was scared, because in general I truly wasn’t, I just knew I had to be careful. We all did.
Around this time Katie and I met up to discuss continuing or turning back. We decided to go as far as where the black rock met the red. We climbed onward. My hands gripped the porous rocks, holding fast. I took each step with care and as much speed as I could muster. Heaving breaths were my constant companion. Thankfully, the day was clear and gorgeous. The odd gust of wind would toss up dirt from time to time, but all in all the air was still. The weather’s tranquil mood allowed us surer feet and deeper concentration. It also provided spectacular views. I’d sometimes turn and lean against the slope just to drink in the vista: Waves of clouds stretching into infinity; fractured craters wrapping their arms around teal blue lakes; a barren valley branching out below. The thin grey line running through that cracked valley floor was the Tongariro Crossing trail. From the base of Mt. Doom it angled up a ridge and around a crater. That's what awaited us below – an 8 mile hike. It was closing in on 11. Break time was over.
I spun around and kept on crawling, and I’m not taking creative license here. At times I was literally crawling up the mountain. Fingers grasping and pulling, knees touching the ground. I hadn’t seen many people come down from the summit yet. One or two had passed by, but neither were heading down the main lava tract that sloped to my right. That was when I saw a young man striding down that stretch of scree with a fair amount of speed. Aside from a few slips and drops to his bum, his feet sunk easily into the dusty rock as he ran down the volcanic giant. That was the way we were planning to descend. Was I excited? Absolutely! Would it be exhausting? No Doubt. Was it dangerous? No comment.
When I hit the red rock I kept right on going. I could see people at the top and Katie wasn’t too far behind me. I knew neither one of us would turn back now, even if it was 11:30. We were so close! I motioned to Katie that I was continuing up to the top and she nodded her consent. I plowed forward, red and black rock scratching at my boots and stifling my progress. I waded through it during the last 100 foot stretch until at long last I scrapped my way to the summit. I just climbed Mount Doom!!
Others sat around the crater resting happily. I joined them whist snacking on an apple and taking in the panoramic view. I also whispered soft words of encouragement as I watched Katie slowly make her way up to meet me. Her feet dug the same path until she finally stood tall upon the mountain top. She promptly looked at her watch and said, “11:30 on the dot.” We'd done it! We hugged each other tightly and threw a congratulatory hi-five, all smiles and pride.
Mt. Doom is an active volcano, not that there were swirls of lava flowing around us, but vents of steam were steadily pumping mist into the sky and blurring the air. It was through that fog that I saw Katie reach into her shirt and pull out a shining object hanging from a chain. What was it? I couldn’t tell, but I was captivated, drawn unconsciously forward until I saw it: A golden ring. Round and perfect. It gleamed in the sunlight like a beacon, calling to me. I had to have it. I reached out my hand to take it from her just as she stretched her own arm outward – she was going to drop it into the volcano! “Noooooo!!!” I screamed. A tussle ensued, and amidst the pushing and pulling the ring fell free, dropping into the deep throat of the mountain, never to be seen again…
Like awaking from a dream, we both looked at one another and wondered why on earth we’d been fighting. We had a long hike ahead of us and there was no time to spare! With that strange business quickly forgotten, we dashed to the top of the dry lava tract and jumped in with both feet. Large steps slid us straight down the incredibly steep slope. I surfed the rock with my feet, adjusting my weight with each stride and leaning back to accommodate the angle. Did we fall? Of course! We both fell several times, but falling back onto your bottom beats the hell out of falling forward down the side of a mountain. Minor bruises left their marks and scrapes reddened our palms, but no real damage was done, and besides – we just ran down the side of Mount Doom! How cool is that?! Not to mention the poor folk who had opted to go down the way we’d come up. Bad choice. I’m telling you, digging your heels into deep sand and loose rock is a far better way to travel straight down a mountain than to cautiously inch down step by step. Not only is it faster but it’s much gentler on the knees.
Once we reached the bottom the time was 12:25 P.M. And, as one would imagine, our vertical climb up a kilometer and consequential slide back down had zapped our energy and made our muscles as strong as hot pudding. We were tired. But resting was not an option. We’d already wasted enough time at the top of the mountain with that bizarre fight over a ring (I still don’t understand what that was about. I don’t even like jewelry!). With the clock ticking like a time bomb, our boots ate up the dirt.
We flew across a flat dusty plain until we met a ridge. Up was our only option. My legs kept on pumping while Katie embraced a slow and steady march. It took a while, but eventually we both reached the top and saw the writing on the wall, or rather, the writing on the sign, which regretfully informed us that our destination, Ketetahi Car Park, was 3.5 hours away. According to Katie’s watch we had a little over 2.5 hours before 4 o’clock. We’d have to make up nearly an hour to catch our bus. We both looked at each other and stated the obvious: “We’re screwed.”
Mount Doom towered behind us while we stood on the ridge. We’d both known it was a gamble to try and climb it, but even in that moment of failure we felt like winners. Who cared if we missed the bus? We climbed Mt. Doom! From this point on nothing was going to take that away. We were happy with our choice, even if it did mean finding another way back to our hostel that night.
Skin dusty and sweaty, we tramped on and immediately hit another downward slant… Loose rock and sand at an extreme angle? Yeah, I think we can handle that. We ran down the slope like kids in a playground. As I sailed down I could see aquamarine pools steaming below. Their sulfur scent made my eyes water. Hot red rock colored the edge of a nearby crater. It was all gorgeous, and I was even more thrilled once I reached the valley floor. There was a new sign post calling out the distance. This one said we had 2.5 hours to reach our destination. It seemed our running down the scree had saved us nearly an entire hour. We had hope again!!!
Our smiles were wide as we briskly took on the trail. A mammoth hardened lava melt stretched out on our left, looking epic once we scaled the hill across the way. Mount Doom, as well as the second crater we’d just conquered, looked colossal and fierce against the blue sky. Yet again we shook our heads in amazement. We just climbed that!! But we had no time to pat each other on the back, we still had many miles to go – and fast!
Around a lake and up over another hill we strode. The terrain changed drastically, now lush, green, and mossy. A gentle incline took us downward, twisting around a ridge and gifting us with the spectacle of Lake Taupo in the valley below. It looked so refreshing compared to the dusty terrain we’d just traversed. Half walking, half jogging, we entered tall grasslands and made a speedy descent. In our haste, we brushed past more people than I can count, which was atypical for us (short legs, remember?).
Another sign appeared on the trail. According to those calculations we were behind schedule by ten minutes! Jogging was suddenly mandatory, not only because we were determined to make that bus, but also because the angle of the trail was bordering on crippling. We had to run. Gravity was our friend, and I happily catered to it. A forest rose up around us with steps cut into the ground. We practically fell down those stairs with exhaustion. Groups of hikers started popping up in front of us and it got a bit awkward. Katie and I loath being rude, but we were on a mission! Polite as possible, we rushed by each group, sometimes calling out, “Sorry, we have a bus to catch!” Again, it wasn’t our style, but you do what you have to do.
Yet another sign stopped us dead in our tracks. We’d made up those ten minutes and were exactly 45 minutes away from the end of the trail and our 4 P.M. bus ride. According to the sign we’d make it, but we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. We kept tearing down the trail on burning legs and hammered feet. With each minute that ticked by the kilometers trickled down – 3, 2, 1, 0. We strolled into the car park with five minutes to spare. Hi-fives were exchanged yet again, and just as we stepped onto the pavement the driver called everyone to the bus.
We’d just hiked the entire Tongariro Crossing AND scaled Mount Doom in 8 hours flat. I was so insanely proud of us both.
Now I can officially say, “Yes, sir. We. Are. Fit.”