“Don’t dance on a volcano.” ~French proverb
So I was going to be Bilbo, and get to climb my big mountains after all. Or, shall I say, volcanoes. There has always been something so alluring to me in the journey of climbing a mountain, and the breathtaking, rewarding view from the top after a wearisome and exhausting struggle. When I was a little girl, I was always outside playing in the dirt and climbing trees, I’ve always had the need to be in the wild, appreciating God’s creation. I feel like a different person when surrounded by the quiet solitude of nature. Being outdoors heightens your senses; you can breathe more deeply and you notice all the little smells—every flower, every weed, tree bark, every pine needle that falls from the trees, and every grain of sand you trample beneath your feet. I remember saying to myself growing up, “I’m going to climb Mt. Everest one day!” Piece of cake. And I would summit Kilimanjaro in Africa; with a lion, tiger, leopard, and cheetah all by my side (for moral support). Going to church camp every summer, the highlight was always hike day when we would climb Mt. Sinai in the mountains of New Mexico. It was always super tough and I thought I would never make it, but I always pushed myself hard, and to be in front. I wanted to lead the pack; I did not want to be in second…I hated being passed. If it killed me, I would be in front, by George! I didn’t ever end up being first, however, but by the end of the steep climb, it was enough just to make it to the top. I will never forget those moments that impacted my life forever standing high above the world, gasping at the view of the valley spread out below me and being above the other mountain ranges. There was a God. I felt him up there on that mountain and felt him hold my hand as the goose bumps formed on my skin after hearing the resounding echo of all the camper’s voices shouting “PRAISE GOD!” in the youth group song, “Pass It On.” I have climbed mountains in Colorado, with peaks reaching over 14,000 feet, passing wildflowers of pink, purple, yellow, and blue along the way and seeing remnants of the winter snow slowly melting away. I think that is one of the prettiest scenes I’ve ever seen. The rush you get, still puffing and gasping for breath, heart pounding, as you see how far you came and the reward in knowing you did that; you conquered the mountain—that feeling is something I feel is hard to surpass.
Josh and I were ready to conquer our mountain. To conquer a mountain in New Zealand, Wow! The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most popular day hike in all of New Zealand, and we had been waiting to climb this months before arriving in the country from the pictures and videos we saw online and the emerald and turquoise pools lying in the middle of the volcanic wasteland. The Discovery Lodge we were staying at, when we were checking in the night before, the owner was trying to convince us to book our transportation to the crossing with their van. We thought that would be quite convenient until she said that it would be leaving at 5:45 in the morning. Say what?? It was a little more expensive than the transport we had actually already booked with Adventure HQ that we had stopped by a few minutes the previous day and chatted with the nice lady who gave us tips on hiking the crossing. We had considered cancelling, but imagining us having to wake up that early seemed insane and pointless. She had a pretty good argument saying we would beat all the other people (there would be busloads and vanloads of people arriving at the crossing the same time we would) and have time to enjoy and not be in a rush to get back to the bus. We would remember her words . . . later.
We got up still pretty early on Tuesday morning and we had already packed our daypacks and loaded up with food. I was so ready to embark on this new adventure and feel like true explorers and trampers. It was a little cloudy that morning, but the forecast was expecting clear skies that afternoon; absolutely perfect hiking weather to provide ample views. We left our lodge and drove to the crossing transport, then loaded up in the van with three other adventurous trampers. The waiting part is what can get to us; in whatever situation that may be; waiting for an answer, waiting for the airplane, waiting in an emergency room for news of your loved one, waiting to find out whether or not you passed that test. It’s the unknowing part . . . encountering a place you’ve never been before . . . a mountain we were told is fairly easy to climb, and wondering if you will be able to conquer this beast after all as it looms above you. It had looked much smaller the evening before as we stared at it from our lodge. I started thinking again all the things I do before doing something like this, what if, what if. Thankfully the drive wasn’t too long. Once we turned onto the dirt road and were driving straight towards the mountains, then the adrenaline and excitement started kicking in. We arrived at the car park to see loads of other hikers being dropped off, and we got out, smelling the fresh, pure morning air, and seeing the clouds hugging the mountains and slowly streaming away to give us a view of its grandeur. At that moment I found it reassuring to be surrounded by so many people; made me feel safe and like this had to be attainable. Everyone’s enthusiasm was infectious…adventurers in search of lofty heights to stake their claim.
Let me tell you, first of all, how much distance this day-long hike covered. 19.4 kilometers. That means 12 miles. We knew this beforehand, and what did this sound like to us? Easy as pie. It was estimated that on average it takes between 6 to 8 hours to complete, including stopping for breaks and to eat lunch. We arrived at 8:00 a.m.; our transport had three departing times: 7:00, 8:00 and 9:00. Pickup times were: 3:00, 4:00 and 5:30.
The first few minutes we started our Great Walk I was gloating; I felt so happy and brave as we were walking on straight, flat paths as the volcano was getting closer in view and seeing the clouds slowly vanish. We both were using our walking sticks that Antony had given us, and knew that we looked like the epitome of a New Zealand tramper. Except for the fact that everyone was passing us. Everyone. That didn’t bother me, in fact, I wanted them to pass and I said, “Good grief, what is their hurry?!” And smiled as I kept stopping to take videos. Josh was patient with me, though he is always in a hurry and, as I’ve mentioned before, we are quite opposite in this. He’s a speed walker and I hop and skip around and do little twirls as I throw daisies in the air, just wanting to take it all in and savor each moment. “I want to enjoy this!” I said, which he actually agreed to, and I said, “There’s no need to rush! What is wrong with these people?” Josh and I were both going camera crazy, of course, and just smiled as all the hikers passed us. We were impressed with ourselves when we came upon the marker that announced we had already reached one kilometer . . . wow, we were doing good!
We had walked about thirty minutes, when we approached our first uphill battle. It’s all fun and games until you start climbing uphill! And then, I started doubting myself. I should have prepared more for this, I was thinking. I thought I had gotten in better shape since we’d arrived in New Zealand and been here a few months, and was thinking of the times I had hiked up the trails by our flat. “I am so out of shape!” I said to Josh, already huffing and puffing as we climbed up and carefully around the rocks alongside a stream. My heart was pounding. We made it through that little patch, and then saw a long stretch of a boardwalk. Flat. Hooray! My love for the outdoors and my thrill-seeking self left me after only forty-five minutes of starting the hike, which I realized when a group of young high-school looking kids basically ran past us and I almost snarled and hissed at them like Gollum. Who do you think you are? And what are you trying to prove, you little young whippersnappers?! I thought to myself. I was beginning to feel old at 25.
As we edged closer and closer to the base of the volcano, we realized what a barren wasteland this was, and, in the fall of New Zealand, we were in the open sun and felt the temperature rising swiftly, increased all the more by us expending our energy. We were in the land of Mordor; seriously. I will never forget the moment, when, already feeling tired, I looked up at the volcano and saw tiny dots way up high. What is that? Ohhh Nooooo!!! Those dots were people! For some reason, we had heard and I guess what all we had read about it and the pictures I’d seen, I was expecting this to be a fairly easy hike. I thought it would be just a little uphill, kind of more like our experience at Rangitoto Island, a gradual, easy ascent, and that we would be walking more along the base of the volcano. Looking at those specks, how small they looked in comparison to the towering volcano, and where we were being at the base and how far we had to go, I felt incredibly tempted to turn around. We were staring at Mount Ngauruhoe, which, for you Lord of the Rings fans, is MOUNT DOOM!! I felt dread, probably just as much dread as Sam and Frodo had when they stared up at Mount Doom, carrying also with them the burdensome One Ring. Many hikers were stopped at this point in the track called Soda Springs for a bathroom break, as these port-a-potties were the last toilet facilities for a long time. That of course was not a pleasant experience, but can’t be too picky when you are in the outdoors. Josh and I stopped in that area to eat with fellow hikers to give us some protein before the grueling struggle we were about to partake in. I had part of a banana and ate a chocolate/nut protein bar with raisins; that was actually quite yummy for being so healthy. We finally strapped our packs on again, put on a brave face and headed towards the first steps of the straight up climb. There was a big warning sign at the start of the steps, saying if you doubt your fitness then turn back now, and all the dangers we were about to encounter…you know, like walking along two volcanic craters, that last erupted not too long ago; these were definitely not extinct. I kept imagining how screwed we would be if it erupted, especially me, as a few minutes ago I could have imagined myself sprinting away from the lava, but not now as I dragged my heavy legs up the first steps. I am a pretty determined individual, after all is said and done, and despite my inner struggle, the thought of giving up and turning back would only make me a coward.
It was straight up, and each movement of my legs up to the next step hurt. My thighs were burning, and felt like I barely had the strength to lift myself up. The walking stick didn’t seem to provide much help in the conditions, but it was better than nothing. I was so out of breath, and could hear my heart loud in my ears. Josh and I had to stop quite frequently, though I would have stopped a lot more if I were alone; sometimes I want to appear more brave for him, too, I think. I want him to think I’m a tough cookie. It helped seeing him and hearing him express how hard this was for him as well, and I know he was definitely putting on a brave face for me. He was always ahead though, but would wait for me and give me time to catch my breath. And he’d encourage me, for I kept saying, over and over again, “I can’t do this.” And then after the next round of steps, “No, I really can’t do this!” It was never-ending. After we rounded a corner, and Josh predicted this was the last part we had to climb and then it would be flat, well, then we’d round the bend and groan heavily to see that we had only just begun. A few of those little high-schoolers, the girls in the pack, who had been so eager and arrogantly pushed past us before, were now slouched on the rocks and panting for breath, looking like they weren’t so fit after all. We took turns passing them the next several moments, as many other hikers seemed to slow down during this exhausting part of the ascent. We passed a few people, but then we’d stop for a while and they were ahead again. It was slightly annoying since I am very competitive, especially when it comes to climbing mountains, but in all reality, at the time I couldn’t care less if the Dalai Lama passed by me on his portable carpet carried by his servants. We were really starting to feel bad, though, whenever we saw some quite older people, as in they looked like they were in their 60’s, possibly older, were beginning to pass us up. We couldn’t let that happen! But they soon became our competition. I was expecting to see a Granny on a motorized wheelchair lift come zooming past us yelling, “Wheee! Yippee!!!!”
In retrospect, I haven’t felt too bad as we’ve researched the hike even more, and looking on their website it does say that some parts of the walk are pretty treacherous. The part we were hiking then is described on the site as follows: