Is that a Lord of the Rings reference you say? Why yes! Yes it is! This past weekend, three friends and I packed our bags, rented a car and headed for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. After navigating the left side of the road, stocking the necessaries for a meal of champions, and driving through gorgeous country, we arrived at the Crossing Backpackers, our home for the weekend.
Our morning began early at 6:45 AM when the shuttle picked us up to take us to the beginning of the 19.4 km track. We were headed to Mt. Doom. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is made of of three peaks: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom), and Tongariro. Considered one of NZ’s most popular single day treks, the trailhead was buzzing with people excited to tramp through Mordor. The sun was bright, the skies were clear, the wind was still, and while the air had a chill, it also held the promise of warmth should the sun decide to climb higher into the sky. In other words, the weather was perfect.
The trail was crowded as we began, but thinned out gradually as the track went on. There were several incredible vantage points of Ngauruhoe (Nair-uh-ho-ee), so naturally, everyone stopped to snap the perfect shot. Several days prior to our arrival, snow fell on the peaks, so the summits of all the mountains were white-capped and very photogenic. I liked to pretend that the snow was lava. Oh yes, Ngauruhoe is an active volcano. The track followed a stream for awhile before it broke away and headed uphill and towards the looming Ngauruhoe.
The sun finally broke away from behind Tongariro and it got warm pretty quickly. Layers are key. We had many (they had to add Alpine to the title of the crossing because people were getting hurt getting caught out in fast-changing, inclement weather). We had a 4:30 shuttle to catch, so we had to ration our time pretty carefully, especially since summiting Ngauruhoe is not part of the track. It was quite surreal approaching what I knew was Mt. Doom. Before getting here, I knew about LOTR, Flight of the Conchords, and the kind of Australian accent, so seeing such an icon was cuhrazy.
We made it to the point where the trail breaks off for the summit and headed up and up and up. The trail quickly turned to a “trail” and further dissolved into loose volcanic rock, scree, snow and ice. Pictures hardly capture the scale of the mountain and the steepness that we climbed, mostly hand over hand, stepping from one unreliable foothold to the next. The snow was almost easier to climb through than the rock since you could dig your toes in and create leverage, when it didn’t give way underfoot. Crampons anyone? We set a goal of two hours to summit, and after taking a few breaks to take in the breathtaking scenery and fill the air with Hobbit talk, we made it to the top in 1:53. I like climbing mountains because it is a clear goal with a clear ending. The fact that this particular mountain was also an iconic volcano covered in fresh snow made the experience almost numbing. What box do I have to out this experience in? It was a mountain, but also a volcano. It was in Mordor, but I was there instead of Frodo. It was a joke from friends wishing me well to be careful on the trail to Mt. Doom, but I was actually at risk of getting hit by falling rocks and getting exploded on by burning, hot lava (not likely, but it could have happened. And what a way to go! “How’d you die?” “Oh, I choked on some pie. You?” “Volcanic eruption.”)
I’m reading a book by ND Wilson called Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl and this passage speaks to me about the nature of experiences and sights such as this. “There is a crushing joy that crackles in every corner of this world. I am tiny and yet I am here. I have been given senses, awareness, existence, and placed on a stage so crowded with the vast, so teeming with the tiny, that I can do nothing but laugh, and sometime laugh and cry. Living makes dying worth it.” Beautiful.
The trip down the mountain took all of twenty minutes. Those snow covered streaks from the picture were our way down. I’ve been bred in seeking “shortcuts” whilst descending mountains, and this experience was no different. There is no growth on Ngauruhoe, so there is nothing to stop a person from heading straight down the side at speeds that are borderline inhumane. The trip down was just that: running, falling, skiing, bounding, leaping, sliding, bracing, rejoicing. The feeling was incredible. It was one of the craziest, most dangerous, yet freeing things I have ever done and I would not trade it for anything. Once we all met up at the bottom, the feeling was of awe, disbelief and total joy.
After that high, we had a deadline to worry about as we realized that time and tide (and shuttle drivers) wait for no man. We set off on a ridge that we thought would meet back up with the trail, but ended up having to bail off it down a treacherous rock face that was more stressful and dangerous than thrilling. The flatland where we ended up was moony. A lunar landscape to be sure. Saluting the 1969 American flag as we passed by, we headed for the trail after an exciting three hour detour.
The rest of the track was beautiful, if rushed. Crater lakes shined with colors unnaturally vibrant due to the mineral contents of the water. A distant lake Taupo was visible for the majority of the downhill trek to the shuttle. After a timing error which had us positively running the last 6k, we realized we were an hour ahead of schedule. As if to reward us for our hustle, the trail gods provided a gorgeous waterfall to gaze upon and cool our legs and aching feet in until the real 4:30 came. Incredible trip, and one that will not soon be forgotten.