Into The Very Fires Of Mordor
Trip Start Jan 15, 2011
38Trip End Mar 19, 2011
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A bus drove us to the starting point of the 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 you the added opportunity of climbing to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, which some of you will know better as Mount Doom! Yes, this hike stretches right beside 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 total 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 up 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
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 at 11:30, turn around.”
Driver: (looking at entire bus load 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 and 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
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 often 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
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 was likely to be our one and 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 didn’t surprise us. It had always appeared daunting and was now living up to our expectations.
While on our Abel Tasman trip 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’d apparently climbed, and now that I’ve seen that route I think she was nuts.
As you’d expect, we took her advice. The going was slow and steep
Halfway up the mountain I did my good deed for the day. An older couple, probably in their early 60s, were hiking up the mountainside. 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!”
(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
Around this time Katie and I met up to discuss continuing or turning back. We decided to at go as far as where the black rock met the red. We trudged onward. My hands gripped along 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 out to infinity; fractured craters wrapping their arms around teal blue lakes; a barren valley branching out below. A thin grey line ran through the cracked valley floor. It was the Tongariro Crossing trail. Beyond Mt. Doom it angled up a ridge and around a crater. That was what awaited us below – an 8 mile hike
I spun around and kept on crawling (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 while he ran down the volcanic giant. That was the way we were planning to get back too. Was I excited? Absolutely! Would it be exhausting? No Doubt. Was it dangerous? Um…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 was going to 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 stilting 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 did 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 ring. Golden and perfect. It gleamed in the sunlight and called 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 shouted. A tussle ensued, and amidst the pushing and pulling the ring fell free, dropping into the deep hole 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
So now we were at the bottom. Time: 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, what with that bizarre fight over a ring (I still don’t understand what it was about. I don’t even like jewelry!). With the clock ticking like a time bomb, our boots started eating up 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
Mount Doom towered behind us while we stood on that 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 that mountain! 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 that 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 had even more to be thrilled about 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. 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 beside us, 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
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 quadriceps crippling. 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 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, dear sir. We. Are. Fit.”
UPDATE! Alice and Katie are now embarking on a Round the World trip!
Visit aliceintraveland.com to follow along on their continuing