A friend of mine had told me that when I got to New Zealand I had to had to had to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Having limited knowledge of the country at that time, she explained it the only way I could understand – it was the land of Mordor from Lord of the Rings and I would be able to see Mount Doom. Having seen all three movies about 100 times, there was no way, obviously, that I was going to miss that experience.
It was raining the day we got to Tongariro making visibility terrible. We couldn’t even see the volcano from our backpacker’s lodge, so it was a good thing I opted to stay the extra two nights so I could do the crossing. Actually, ten of us stayed. I thought the lodge in Raglan was nice, but this place had a hot tub and an awesome common room with a fireplace, fridges and en suites in each of the rooms and an espresso bar. I was told by one of the staff members that most of the ski lodge staff stay there during the winter months. It’s easy to see why.
Our guide picked us up at 6:30 a.m. from the lodge to take us the 30-minute drive to the starting point of the Tongariro 19.4 km crossing. It was kind of misty outside and we couldn’t really see the volcanoes (three of them are crowded together, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe – aka Mt. Doom and Pukekaikiore) out the windows on account of the incredibly low clouds. As we got closer, however, the skies began to break apart and it looked like it was going to be a great day for the eight-hour hike. What we didn’t know at the time was we were not going to do the traditional crossing that most people (without a guide) do. Our guide, Stewart, had other plans for us.
Stu owns the business Adrift that took us. They provide hikers with all the gear they could possibly need for $10 an item capping the cost at $30. That came in handy as many of our group didn’t have hiking boots or proper clothing. I, however, had enough clothing, and I think my pictures reflect that.
During the first few kilometers it was easy to see the park rangers had put a lot of time and effort into building and maintenance of great trails for the hundreds of people who do the journey every day. Last year they had built stairs up the side of one of the inclines making it a lot safer. It had already had the name “The Devil’s Staircase,” but it still earned the name because you felt like death after you climbed it. None of that was in place during the filming of the LTR movies.
The total ascent we would do is just about 900 meters. That’s all.
So, three hours into the hike, after climbing the staircase and getting lots of corny shots of ourselves with Mt. Doom in the background, we were walking across the South Crater. The South Crater, if I recall, hadn’t erupted for about 100,000 years. Yet I have to say there is something really cool and cavalier about knowing you’re walking across a crater of a volcano, even if it hasn’t blown it’s cork in forever. The volcano, you see, is still active.
Soon we had more climbing to do, which brings me to another point. Kiwis seem to have a different view on safety then rest of the sue-happy world. There were points where I knew if I slipped or tripped, I would get seriously injured or killed. There were no safety barriers to ensure careless people were held to the path. I kind of liked this part – it made me think of Darwin Awards and natural selection. The lack of security made me feel like I was really climbing a volcano, not just merely following some guided rope to some destination – take a photo – and follow another rope down. Anyway, when we got to the top of that climb the views were amazing. We could see down into Red Crater – so named from the red colour of the iron-clad walls. Inside the crater were two walls that Stu told us were called the womb of the mountain because that’s where the lava came from the last time that crater erupted. It really did look like a vulva …er. It was around this time that he changed the battle plan. Because our group was making such good time he decided to take us down to the Emerald Lakes – three bright blue sulfer filled lakes – to have lunch on the beach. There were a few heat vents nearby that were releasing steam from the thermal activity below. I do have to say it was one of the coolest places I’ve ever eaten lunch.
From there we went off the beaten path. We hiked across the Central Crater, through snow, mud and bombs (of the volcanic nature) to the slope of Mt. Tongariro. Navigating up the side of the mountain, we climbed between boulders and such carefully planting our weary feet in front of us. I had never really touched volcanic rock before. I mean, pumous is one thing, but volcanic bombs and such are incredibly sharp and felt like broken glass in my hands. Needless to say, I couldn’t care less. I had to hold onto something during that climb.
The rest of the scale to the summit was quite treacherous. Snow coated bits of the trail, which was on a sketchy and uninviting 45 degree angle. A few of the guys kicked rocks down the slope and watched them tumbled across the snow forever descending until they were out of site. Again no safety barriers. This time, however, I’m slightly more trepidatious because I know how snow can just give way. I sucked it up and went on. Before I knew it we were on the summit. Now we had to descend, after taking some more cheesy photos, of course.
The descent wasn’t as bad as the climb. It hurt different parts of my legs, but seeing as my muscles were already so sore and exhausted, I had many more missteps and slips to keep the active part of my brain busy. It took us about three hours to make it back to the car park, even though the last kilometer was probably the longest kilometer of my life. I had to pee so bad.
When we got there, most of us removed our boots and a few of us passed out on the ride back to the lodge. We ended the day off with a hot tub and a few beers from the Spiral Bar in the lodge.
So, my diagnosis is this. While that crossing was one of the most difficult and strenuous things I have ever done in my life, it was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And while I can say that I have hiked across Mordor, I can also say that I have walked along a volcano and had lunch next to a vent and a sulfer lake that smelt like rotten eggs and it was wonderful.