The World Around Us

The exhilarating and tantalizing Tongariro Crossing

Country: New Zealand by Lisette

18-02-2005

My hike in the Tongariro National Park was drenched with white-knuckled and terrified moments. The park is one of the places where Lord Of The Rings was filed. In recent years, I have seen Frodo and his friends travel, sweat, cry and laugh for three long extended movies trying to get to Mt. Doom. Each time I see the mountain I feel this flurry of recognition – I was there! Even more so, I feel the flurry of fear and many of my angsts are returning full to life.

Arriving at Taupo, my base for hiking the one-day Tongariro Crossing, I was welcomed by the three mountains Mt Ruapehu (2797mtr), Mt Ngauruhoe (2287mtr) and Mt Tongariro (1967mtr) in the distance. Mt Ngauruhoe seemed the most symmetric but I was mostly impressed by its nickname, Mt Doom!

92-Mt Doom

I started quite nervous and was pleased with myself for having chosen a well-experienced guide. Quite soon Sara joined us, a young German mountain climber who was an inexperienced hiker. I was happy having her enthusiasm and motivation with us.

92d-Mt-DoomAll I had to do was keep my eyes on the path, look up and around me (never down!) when I felt brave enough wanting to see the wonderful nature I found myself in. Soon we saw Mt. Doom ascent. Wow and wow!

Though we weren’t climbing the mountain, we had to climb 1000 steep meters. Peter, the guide, checked in with me regularly and said after an hour or so that he was impressed with me holding up. “You’ll be just fine”, he said confidently.

I felt a bit less optimistic; especially when he shared we needed to keep the same pace throughout because there was a storm coming up. He wanted to ensure we wouldn’t get stuck for none of us had come prepared with warm clothes and more food and water.

Reaching the first peak, Peter held my hand as if I was a little girl, but it made the difference and we kept creeping up. When we reached the peak we walked through a crater that was created thousands of years ago. The oldest lava flowed in this area about 275,000 years ago until the Ice Age. Mt Ngauruhoe is the youngest and most active volcano in the area.

While pondering this information over, the wind was picking up in this open space at this height. As I had to step sideways at times, I started doubting my own abilities again, despite having come so far.

We climbed a little higher to get out of the crater and found ourselves high enough to see many more craters, with some that turned into lakes. The view was absolutely stunning with layers and layers of earth, bright colours and the tiniest, winding, steep path going down and down and down. Pondering about this moment in time many years later, I struggle to explain what I felt back then.

93-Tongariro-CrossingW I was stunned by the beauty and was rendered to speechlessness by the height. I felt crazy with fear while in awe of nature’s force. Within a split second (or less) my irrational fear of heights took over the function of body and mind. I was frozen yet trembled all over my body.

When my brain registered there was no railing to hold onto while walking down this steep narrowing path and connected it to a wind blowing 56 kilometers an hour I whimpered quite loud as a sign to my guide that I was about to lose it.

And I did lose my mind. So many people walked right past me coming up and down as if it was the most normal thing in the world to find yourself practically blown off the peak. Some folks even ran down!

As the next realization, that the path was made of loose earth and little stones and I skidded a little, took over my fried brain I freaked out. Planting my feet strongly in the ground, my body froze up as if I were made of stone. There was not even any tremor. I was absolutely certain I could not move my body to go down that steep side of the mountain peak.

Peter told me not to let my eyes wander, but focus on my feet only. He spoke softly, sternly, pushed, stood still. He offered his hand and then he didn’t. He wrapped his arm around my waist, and then let go. Nothing worked; I was turned into a life-sized statue.

Soon he learned I did not want to be touched. Vaguely I registered I must be in the way of people coming up, but I couldn’t move. Turns out I stood still for 30 minutes – in which I died a thousand deaths – while he kept telling people, “Don’t touch her!” Faint memory tells me I shrieked as soon as people took my hand or even lightly touched my shoulder in their well-meant efforts.

Though he knew better, he dialled the emergency number on his cell phone to get me rescued by a helicopter. As he expected, there was no phone coverage.

As a last resort he tried to reason again. “A storm is coming up and we need to move forward. The way back is too long and dangerous, we have to go down here.” It was the storm indeed that convinced me. I certainly had no desire to be stuck at the peak with no cover, standing straight up catching wind and rain with the only option to fall down.

With tears streaming down my face and a quivering voice, I held onto Peter’s hand like a lifeline. I must have bruised this poor man’s hand with my firmest grip ever. Slow and reluctant, I etched down centimeter for centimeter. After every centimeter I slipped half a meter (this is normal) and was certain my life ended right there and then.

After a little while I moved slightly easier, driven by Peter’s fear of being caught in the storm. Confused by my desire to see something of the splendid and unique nature I did sneak in a couple of side views. I knew I would never do anything like this again and wanted to see at least a little of it.

92b-Mt Doom

Peter got mad at me each time I did and he was right. But I just couldn’t help myself. Sara took some of the pictures you see in this article. I was in no shape to open my backpack and take a picture myself. I was trembling just standing still!

Once down, we turned around to view the magnificent mountain peak from this angle and I was stunned I had been able to walk right beside the deep craters on a tiny ridge.

94-Tongariro-CrossingW

The walk was not over for another four hours while my knees were busted. I had them locked for over an hour and they started hurting quite a bit, slowing me down once more. But my breathing returned to normal and we were able to descend more than 1400 meters in three hours.

92c-Mt-DoomAs Peter drove Sara and me to the youth hostel he made me swear never to go hiking in the mountains again. “You’re just not cut out for it; I have never seen anyone this scared”. And declined my payment: “I am just glad you’re safe”.

The next day I learned that at one point he thought he’d never get me down alive. But, here I am devoting this hiking article to him. Peter, thank you for saving my life!

Note November 2012: this news video shows the latest eruption of Mt Tongariro.