From the balcony of the park lodge, Mount Ngauruhoe—Mount Doom in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings—was a wondrous site, looming in the distance past grasslands and volcanic terrain. Its majesty appeared just as unattainable as it had for Frodo, the hobbit on a mission. And yet if all went well, I would pass by its base on foot the next day.
Clouds covered the volcanic mountain's peak in the evening hours and, for a moment, I hoped they predicted foul weather that would give me an excuse to stay in the lodge the next day and not take on an arduous hike. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often described as the best hike in New Zealand, is not for the faint of heart. It goes 12 miles up and down a pass between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, over largely barren lands on the volcanic hump in the center of the country's North Island.
If the winds are high or the weather wet, the trail can be treacherous. All the guidebooks warn the weather can change swiftly at the highest point of more than 6,000 feet. Anyone who hikes it needs to carry a backpack with clothes for all conditions, plus food and plenty of drinking water for the six to eight hours most will take to climb up one side of the pass and down the other. But I wanted to do it.
The hikes I'd accomplished so far in New Zealand paled in comparison: highly managed trails through steamy bush with the sunlight filtering through fern trees. If anything, I found the trails too tame, too groomed for the tourists and locals who "tramp" on them. The trails also kept walkers on tracks that kept them off plant life and soil that could be contaminated by hiking boots, something that made sense. But during the whole month I spent in New Zealand, I found the well-organized tourist experience there very controlling. For more than a hundred years, the country has campaigned to bring tourists to its natural wonders. But now that hordes of tourists come in the summer months, the same promoters are contending with trying to keep them in line. Even the public toilets, as spotless as you'll ever find, have signs telling you how to do everything right. One high-tech version won't flush the toilet until the sensors indicate you've washed your hands.
Everything about the Tongariro crossing felt different. The paths are up to the country's standards but there's a wildness to the land with no protection against rain, wind, or sun. But it was the attitude toward hikers I found distinct. There could be dangerous weather, there was a steep decline on scree that invited falls, and there were warnings of potential volcanic activity. But it was the responsibility of each person to decide if they were up to task.
I wasn't sure I actually was, but I was determined to do the pass if the conditions were right. Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park in New Zealand, named twice as a World Heritage area, once for its unique physical beauty and once for its cultural significance in indigenous history. The chief of the Maori tribe who gifted the lands to the country's government said, "Behold, beyond are the fires of the mountains and the lands we have held in trust for you. Take them in your care and cherish them, they are your heritage and the heritage of your children."
These were sacred lands and I wanted to be in the heart of them, which meant hiking that pass.
I awoke to blue skies on a cool summer day. No excuse. A sanctioned bus drove us from the lodge to a parking lot at the base. The driver asked if we had water but didn't check. He gave us each a small card with the times for pick-ups at the other end: 1:30 in the afternoon for the fastest hikers and two more pick-ups before the last bus at 6:00 in the evening. If I couldn't make it out by six, I'd have to pay for a late pick-up. The driver made it clear no one would be left on the pass overnight.
A rising sun cast a haze over the grasslands we had to cross before the serious climb. At first, the top layers of my clothes kept me warm in the chill of the morning. But it wasn't long before I realized I had too many layers for the hot day, which meant I had to stuff them into my backpack and carry them along with my water and food all day.
I took one step after the other, trying not to compete with the walking times for each section listed on the card the driver had given us. I found myself doing that nonetheless, but I didn't worry about the younger people who passed me at a clip or even ran, determined to make the trail a test of their fitness.
At the end of the first section, we came face to face with a big blue sign with a black exclamation mark on a yellow warning triangle. "STOP," it says. "Are you really prepared to continue the Alpine Crossing trek?" It asks if the weather is okay, if we have the right equipment and clothing, if we are fit enough. A map shows where the hiker is on the climb with a steep ascent ahead before a long decline. "Consider Turning Back," the sign says.
But I was determined at this point to make this trail an accomplishment and so I joined the dozens of other trekkers headed upward over rocky land and wooden steps of "Devil's Climb." It was steep and I had to stop often. My legs are strong; I'm relatively fit but my cardio was no match for the sudden rise. I could feel the pounding at my temples and stopped often to catch my breath. I did not want to die of a heart attack on a mountain in New Zealand.
Books from the Author:
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