Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Day 11 of our North Island holiday (April 10th, 2012)

“Don’t dance on a volcano.” ~French proverb

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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:

 

Soda Springs to South Crater
“Grade: Moderate – Difficult, allow 40 minutes to an hour.

This section of the track, known as the Devil’s Staircase, is steep – climbing from 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level. You will need to take your time on this section, but on a clear day the view down the valley and out across the surrounding countryside is well worth it.”

After reading about it in that factual context, I feel even more proud of us. So there we were, climbing Devil’s Staircase onto Mount Doom! If that doesn’t sound intimidating, I don’t know what would. We at last reached the top of that section, and were now very close to Mt. Doom. Now this was a volcano, what you really imagine one looking like; a red mountain with its top blown off. I looked up at the massive formation, and saw that people were climbing it, but fortunately and quickly learned that summiting Mount Ngauruhoe was optional; a side trip you could take if you were up to it. On any other day, perhaps, or if we had been in better shape and had more time, we would have followed the overachievers, but the sign said 2 ½ hours return, and, the height at it which it still towered above us didn’t make me cry in my soup that we didn’t summit that mountain. It would be impossible to have summited, though, unless we had been dropped off at 6:00 in the morning, or some people break it up and stay in one of the huts as it would make the total trip 11 to 12 hours.

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We walked a little further and joined others who were stopped to take a break and to take in the incredible views. It was quite rewarding to look down and see the path so far away and small below that we had amazingly tread and conquered. We saw a few people, that were now dots from this angle looking down, and I felt quite sorry for them. Those were the ones who obviously were dropped off an hour later than us, and I knew they’d soon be catching up with us! It was nice to be around the people again, though, and we all seemed to share something; a bond in that we had all defeated the volcano. And bonded that everyone else around us looked beat. We didn’t tarry too long there, as the journey had really just begun when looking at the sign and how much further we had to go. We did stop and talk to another married couple our age, he was from the States and she was Kiwi, and we took pictures for each other. Josh and I were so relieved to see the path ahead of us was flat for quite a while; it stretched on for what looked like miles. We needed this. It looked like we were in the barren desert in Arizona as we walked the dusty trail of this lifeless land. Felt like we were on the moon. The sun was beating down, but it thankfully wasn’t too hot. Our bodies went through temperature changes quite frequently as we would get worked up and have to shed layers of clothes, then, put them on again when reaching the great heights. As we were walking through no man’s land, the flat lands gave rest to the muscles in our legs and we felt the confidence return and the adrenaline in our bodies push us forward again. We were so small walking beneath these towering, violent mountains, and I envisioned the lava flowing down and the mountain spewing smoke miles into the sky.

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“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
~Nelson Mandela

 

Nelson Mandela was sure right. The flat lands did not last too long, and my heart dropped when I saw the tiny silhouettes of people again climbing up far ahead of us. This almost looked worse than the hike up to the South Crater! As we got closer, the terrain looked much more dangerous and rocky, and I began to regret wearing my tennis shoes instead of buying hiking boots. The lady at the transport place told me I would be fine with these, my runners, if I was used to them and had them broken in. She said it wasn’t as bad as they make it sound in the brochures. I wasn’t so sure now, though. The next several minutes I do believe were one of the worst of all the hike (but not the only, haha) and if I had to rate it between the last uphill battle we had done earlier, I honestly would have to say this one was harder. It wasn’t as long having to climb this straight uphill part, but it was rocky and you had to be very careful. I felt pretty scared, too, and did not want to fall (of course) and so the fear magnifies the experience and your nerves can overwhelm you. Of course, you are supposed to remain calm, but I certainly felt nothing of the sort, especially as the wind had picked up here pretty strong, and I was worn out. The wind was brutally cold and I had to put all my layers on again. We stopped a couple times here, but I didn’t want to pause too long as the heights and lack of secure foot holdings made us feel the urgency to carry on. We caught up with many people here and the congestion of hikers made me feel like I didn’t have to rush so much and made me feel better again that I wasn’t the only one struggling; this was really tough! There were no railings, of course, and our feet would slip a couple of times. I was quite annoyed at this point, and beginning to feel like Bilbo: “Why O why did I ever leave my hobbit-hole?” said poor Mr. Baggins, bumping up and down on Bombur’s back.” I was wishing to be back in the Shire, or back on solid ground, with my feet propped up, snuggled up next to the fire, away from all this danger and exhausting journey. I heard one girl struggling near us say, “I have more sympathy for Frodo and Sam, now.” And I laughed to myself, making a mental note to remember that and write about it. At this point, with the wind blowing fiercely, and the never-ending goal of reaching the top of this cragged precipice, I almost started crawling like Sam and Frodo do up Mount Doom. Where is Sam when you need him? I thought to myself. When Frodo was exhausted beyond all imagining and had fought against the burden physically and mentally with carrying the One Ring, he could not go one step further and collapsed on the mountainside, just feet away from his goal, the chasm where he must throw in the ring and destroy it. Sam sees his friend’s defeat, and cries out, “Come on Mr. Frodo, I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” That scene in the movie always gets me, and I can’t help but cry. Talk about a true blue friend. I needed him to give me that pep talk right then and call out, “Come on Mrs. Lindsey, don’t give up! I’m here . . . I can carry you!”

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The heavens seemed to open and the angels gathered around to sing “Hallelujah!” when we finally made it up those rocks and saw the flat place where several other people were stopped and eating lunch. We definitely needed to take a big rest after our battle. The hikers were happy, proud to have accomplished the two hardest parts of the crossing. The views were unsurpassable and we could see for miles and miles. I turned around and looked where we had just come and my jaw dropped open at seeing how high up we were and how truly ginormous the volcano was that we just passed and could have summited. It really put me in my place . . . God’s creation; so powerful and humbling to see the mountains and volcanoes, this land he created. Josh and I found us a spot facing the volcano and ate our lunch. We were exhausted and not talking much; we were beat. I gazed in wonder at the volcano and its width and height, wishing I could stay there much longer to really take in this magnificent site. I ate my sandwich, another protein bar, and beef jerky. We had brought plenty of water, which really added to the weight of our packs, but better to be safe than sorry. We only stayed there a few minutes as we knew we still had much further to go and everyone else was moving on as well. It was fun to watch the people as they appeared to this safety zone, and seeing their weary faces turn into smiles of relief. There was always that sense of urgency to carry on, being on top of a volcano that we were, but also we did not want to be left behind and miss our van, though we still guesstimated we had plenty of time. With the time change occurring that previous week, night was falling early, and we definitely did not want to be caught on the mountain in the dark without a flashlight or for any reason.

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We carried on, and looking ahead saw that we just had a little more uphill to go. Goodness gracious! It looked very easy though and just a small slope. This was amazing! Now, we were walking right alongside a crater, the red crater as it is called. It was massive, and we were seriously walking along the edge with a straight drop off just inches away into the hole of the volcano. For some reason, I didn’t feel that scared, I was just amazed and in awe. We took our time here, looking at the panoramic views and taking pictures and videos. At last, we walked a few more feet and our eyes got wide with excitement when we saw the infamous Emerald Lakes down below. What we had seen in pictures and thought how cool it would be to go hike and see that when we went to New Zealand! And here we were! It made us feel so proud, and it was hard to believe that we were now living out those images by being here in the flesh. It seemed random, that in this wasteland, in the middle of a barren, plant-less landscape, that there were pools of water…not just brown, lake water but bright turquoise, green, and blue (I find it hard to describe in one color haha), three pools of water that are filled with minerals from the rocks. We could smell the sulfur, rotten-egg odor, and steam was coming up from the ground in several places. I wouldn’t be filling my bottle with that water, nor would I be touching it. All I could think of was the old grandma in Dante’s Peak, when she got in the water and pushed the boat with her family inside to shore, and her legs were all burned. Yikes. Going down from the red crater down to the emerald lakes was also somewhat of a challenge but also fun, and scary. It was a lot of loose sand (actually scoria) and loose pebbles so you had to be really careful. It was quite a steep descent and I was going very slow as I didn’t want to fall. I hate that feeling when your feet just come out from underneath you and you have no control. That happened quite a few times; I would laugh at Josh as he almost fell in front of me, and then it would happen to me seconds later. Everyone around us was uncool in those moments though, it didn’t matter who you were, how fit you were, or what kind of shoes you had on, we all were slipping around and feeling embarrassed. I was going down very slowly, but sometimes just slid a few inches down, which was quite fun. It made me nervous though, and my legs started feeling shaky. I was extremely happy when we got to the bottom and were finally at the lakes. We walked around them and were just amazed and trying, once again, to take in the reality of the situation. The color of the water was beautiful and rare. Many people were stopped here and eating. We didn’t stay long, just about five minutes for pictures, as we were really wanting this hike to be OVER!

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I was relieved to see flat lands again and these several minutes gave our legs a vacation. I wished I had blinders on like a horse, however, and I groaned angrily when I saw we still had more climbing to do. This is ridiculous! I had no idea it was going to be like this, and I couldn’t imagine my legs being able to lift up anymore. They were killing me. It was getting warm again as there was not a cloud in the sky…climbing those rocks was tough, but not near as bad as what we’d already encountered. It still took quite a while, and Josh and I were getting in worse moods with each staggering movement. Once we reached the top of that section, we had reached another lake called Blue Lake, a huge pool of water, this time with dark colors. It was silent and still; quite eerie. According to Maori, these waters are sacred and it is a disgrace to eat at the water’s edge. Looking down into the valley on the other side that we had walked from, to the side we saw a huge forest of black . . . an old lava trail. Crazy! Once we passed the Blue Lake and rounded another corner and a few more steps upwards, we came upon a place in the hike that I thought was the best view of all. We could see all the way to Africa! It felt like we were on top of the world, and we could see Lake Taupo and who knows what all bodies of water we were seeing. It was breathtaking. We had lost a lot of the people and were alone to enjoy the views and the quiet. It was nice to not have a crowd swarmed around us. Josh said, “It’s all downhill from here!” And, he was right this time. I could not have imagined one more step up, I would not have been able to do it. For a while, our paths were straight and level, and we were now on the other side of the volcano, and this part of the land was now covered with plant life, which was wonderful to see for a change. The air felt cooler again but the sun was beating down on us making me start to feel nauseous and from the exhaustion my body was feeling. Walking along the edge of that trail we took in the views, and I just wanted to pitch a tent there and call it a day. No wonder some people break up this trek; some people do a four or five day hike around the mountains, covering many more miles than we were of course. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been going 19 kilometers in one day, either. “What is that?” I asked, as in the distance, we thought we saw a volcano erupting. I never found out what it was, I guess a grass fire, but it seriously looked like smoke coming from the top of a mountain. Standing up there, with the world far below, we felt pretty accomplished, and yet our eyes couldn’t really take all of it in, there was so much to see, such a panoramic view, our eyes were in information overload, “Woah, what’s going on here!” We were so small and the world was stretched out before us seemingly infinite. It was similar to standing at the Grand Canyon and your eyes not being able to take in the grand magnitude of it all. I didn’t feel as proud as I normally have in the past when climbing a mountain, mainly because I knew it wasn’t over and we felt like we were in a race against time to get back before nightfall and our van leaving. I was in a lot of pain, too. Josh was complaining quite frequently as well.

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Thus began our slow descent. And I mean slow . . . slow and painful. We had begun noticing that the signs along the way saying the next destination and how long it would take to get there were wrong. Dead wrong. If the sign said it would take 45 minutes to an hour to get to Red Crater, in reality, it took two hours. We were going at a normal speed, too, actually we felt we were going pretty fast. At first, I kept dreaming about the downhill part and how great that would be and was relieved when I saw the path leading downwards, but after a few minutes, I felt like this was worse than going up. Our legs were not used to this trauma, and we were pushing our bodies to the limits; that is no exaggeration from me, but the honest truth. You would think going down would be easier, but, not so. What muscles in our legs we didn’t use going up, we were certainly using now, and the back of my thighs and legs and my calves and my knees were burning and felt like jello. When we rounded a bend, and saw the Ketetehai Hut far down below, with a zigzag trail of switchbacks leading down to it, I groaned yet felt relieved. It took a long time to get there, however, and I just could not believe how much my legs were screaming at me, and was scared that I wouldn’t be able to complete this hike. There seemed no way that I would be able to; we still had hours left to go…an estimated three more at that point. It was during this section of our hike, that once again seemed to be never-ending, and trying desperately to keep up with the long, fast strides of my husband, that I had a little hissy fit. I had been complaining quite frequently throughout the duration of the day, but then again, so had Josh, and it really helped me mentally to complain out loud to him for some reason…most of the time he would encourage me and motivate me to keep on going, that I was doing great. By this time, however, I was worn out, and it was the worst time to be a girl that day, to boot. Always perfect timing, I tell you. My hormones were therefore also my excuse, and I started ranting…I felt so angry. “Why are you in such a rush anyways, you’re just like all these other people, it’s like your in a race against the clock!” I snarled. “Because we have to make it back in time for our van, I’m worried; you don’t want to be left behind on this mountain, DO YOU?” He snapped back. “Well, look at your watch! We got plenty of time…calm down and SLOW DOWN!” I yelled. There were a couple of name-callings on my part, very mature and a good wife of me to be, and then he was no longer patient with me and said how I’d been complaining the entire time. “Well excuse me, but so have YOU!” I had the wrath of Khan in me, and I was ready to defeat any enemy on this side of the mountain. I was so mad and angry at all the people who kept passing us, one after another, and they were all practically running past us, which Josh mentioned that we weren’t even going fast, look at all these other people, and none of these girls were complaining. That was it. I was so sick of all these trampers and my ego being lowered and confidence in myself to conquer this mountain after all with each one that I had to stop for or move to the side so they could pass me. “This isn’t the Olympics!” I felt like shouting. A couple times I stopped dramatically and abruptly and just let a couple of them pass, and kind of rolled my eyes and acted really put out that they were passing me, haha, I wasn’t being very nice, I admit. With all the people passing us, it reminded me of the panicky feeling you get when taking an exam, and you aren’t doing so great and it’s taking you a long time, and you look up and everyone is already finishing and leaving the room, leaving you and only a couple others behind. Oh no, I better hurry! Anyways, so my ranting at my husband lasted for several minutes and I’m sure a few people heard me, but I couldn’t care less at that moment. I needed to get off this mountain, and I needed to get off NOW. Anger and adrenaline can keep you going, though, and to prove a point, I started powerwalking and left Josh behind in the dust. That wore me out, though, and I was happy to finally, eventually, let him pass me and take the lead again. By that time we had almost reached the hut and he slowed down his pace significantly, almost too dramatically, in order to spite me, or to make a point, or to be nice, not sure which. The bathroom break was needed at that time, and was quite a relief, though those port-a-potties were just horrible, ugh.

 

Josh and I sat on the porch of the hut along with quite a few other trampers, who all seemed to be feeling the same pain and loss of motivation that we were. I wanted to stay and sleep in the hut, apparently that was one that trampers use who do the around the mountain tracks. Wished we had gone inside to look at what it looked like, but we didn’t…Josh was ready to get back on the trail. He didn’t remember what the pick-up times were, which I had them mentally in my head, as it was, by this time, almost 3:00, and he was thinking the next time that we could make was like 3:30. I said I don’t know why you are aiming for that, we have plenty of time, it actually picks up at 3:00, 4:00, and 5:30…I guarantee you! But he didn’t really believe me and I told him to get out our info sheet that told us, but he was being hard-headed (as we both seem to be with each other haha) and stuck to what he believed. By this time, we had lost a lot of the fellow hikers again, and were alone and not being tailed by the overachievers. The sun was getting much lower in the sky, and according to the sign at the hut, it would take us 1 to 1 ½ hours to get down to the car park from there. We kept descending, and descending, and every step was more agonizingly painful than the last. We wanted this to end, and were now both hurrying as much as we could, not because we felt up to it, but we needed to reach the goal and be done with this ridiculous torture. Whose idea was this? What were we thinking? Never again. There were so many steps going down, and then a few more uphill steps, randomly, that I detested. I couldn’t carry on much further; my legs were about to give out. Thankfully, I have a good husband; I was slowing down and being serious when I said, “Baby, I really can’t do this anymore”, Josh was sweet and grabbed my heavy pack from my shoulders, strapped it across his chest, along with his heavy backpack, and I felt like a free woman with that burden lifted off. And, I was in love with him again! Haha. That was so sweet and sacrificial of him, shows what a great man he is, and strong, and loving and protective, and patient despite my earlier mean behavior. I was able to get another rush of energy and adrenaline and started running down the path with this newfound freedom, and it helped my legs for a while.

 

We reached our next sign, and my heart dropped, as did our morale when we saw the sign said 45 more minutes. Are you kidding me? How could that be? I told you those signs were wrong…we had been going fast and thought we were nearly there, I couldn’t imagine. At this point, I was thinking that the sign in the beginning said 17 kilometers, and we were at the 16 mark, so I was like, “oh only 1 more kilometer to go!”, but as we kept going downhill and down more steps that I felt my legs wobble with each excruciatingly painful movement of my leg down onto the next step, then I realized that it was 19.4, not 17. That makes a world of difference. By now, we were in a forest, and walking alongside streams. Normally I would have been pausing and taking in the beauty and enjoying the reprieve from the sun that had been making me feel ill, but by now all I could think was, Survive, Just survive. I was carrying my pack again, and I will never forget these next few moments. I had slowed down significantly and was dragging every step forward . . . Josh was so far ahead of me, he seemed to be doing just fine, and I felt so alone and abandoned in these few moments when everything just finally got to me. He wasn’t that far ahead of me, but with the sun behind the trees and the darkness of the forest around us, and no people but their faint voices catching up from behind, I became completely overwhelmed. I was defeated. I felt completely defeated by the mountain; my body could not carry on, I was utterly spent. I had wanted to remain and had been tough for so long, being so competitive and strong-willed, especially when it comes to hiking, but that was all over now. With night coming upon us quickly, I knew there was no way I would make it back to the car park in time, or ever. A few minutes ago Josh and I had been aiming for the 4:00, but by now we had long passed that. I told myself, they are going to have to have a helicopter come get me. And then I thought, Josh is going to just have to leave me behind, and I imagined myself laying on the forest floor and lifting my arm weakly in the air and whispering, “It’s okay . . . go on without me.” And waving goodbye to him. Two kilometers seemed absolutely impossible. If I saw another set of steps going down, I knew I was just going to collapse. I thought of the verse, “and he will make your paths straight”, and I prayed that God would do that, but I only saw more steps. After what seemed like eternity, Josh noticed me trailing way behind, and slowed down. I couldn’t help it; by then, the tears just clouded my eyes, blurring my vision, and started streaming down my face. I felt like a baby, so helpless and sad and scared and defeated and weak. “Baby, are you okay, what’s wrong?” and then he saw my tears, “I can’t do this anymore, I really can’t…” as I cried on his shoulder as he hugged me and wiped away my tears. “It’s okay baby, I know, we are almost there, it’s right around the corner, you’ve been doing SO good!” A few people walked by at that moment and this one lady turned and looked at me funny and I tried to hide my tears. What are you staring at lady? I thought to myself. Josh then took my pack from me again, which I felt bad for but grateful to him because I knew he was just as exhausted. Those kilometers were one of the worst moments of my life, seriously. I was basically limping and I will never forget and cannot describe the fire burning in my legs, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Around each bend we kept hoping to see the car park, but the path before us was infinite. I was reminded of Bilbo again, and visions of laying in my bed in my comfortable imaginary hobbit-hole after eating a huge meal brought some comfort:

 

“To think it will soon be June,” grumbled Bilbo, as he splashed along behind the others in a very muddy track. It was after tea-time; it was pouring with rain, and had been all day; his hood was dripping into his eyes, his cloak was full of water; the pony was tired and stumbled on stones; the others were too grumpy. “And I’m sure the rain has got into the dry clothes and into the food-bags,” thought Bilbo. “Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that he wished that!” -The Hobbit

 

At last, and I mean at last, we rounded a bend and just ahead of us I saw what was the most glorious sight in all the world . . . cars! We had made it to the car park! My whole body ached. A few more steps and we finally arrived! We heard a lot of cheers as we had caught up with people who were approaching the finish line every few minutes. Vans and buses were waiting, and I was hoping ours was there, but it wasn’t yet. It was 5:00. Good thing we had rushed, for in 30 minutes our last ride would be coming. Josh and I found a spot on the deck, and laboriously sat down, and then lay down and didn’t move. I ate a banana and another protein bar, and we didn’t say anything, but just sat in silence. The look on his face said he was in a lot of pain, and couldn’t believe what we had just gone through either. It had taken us exactly 8 hours to complete that monster.

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And we had!! We did it! Josh and I conquered the mountain . . . the volcanoes! It would take us days after the fact to feel grateful for it, because then, sitting there staring blankly ahead not being able to move a muscle, it did not seem worth it, at all.

 

After a few minutes of finally having my heart rate calm down and getting more nutrition and resting my legs, my mood cheered up as more people reached the car park, and dragged themselves and collapsed on the floor. A lot of them laughed at each other, and I smiled to myself as they were all groaning. It was like we had just climbed Mount Everest. It helped a lot, and I felt tons better seeing all the pain people were in around me. Maybe I wasn’t such a pansy after all.

 

Our van was another site for sore eyes at five-thirty. The sun was almost completely gone, and so, when the van arrived, the air was getting significantly colder. I dreaded the part of getting up from our spot, which was no picnic for the legs; thankfully we were able to rise up and carry ourselves to the van. We were joined by two other couples, and waited for another guy, who we hadn’t heard from and waited for five minutes, but he didn’t show up, so the driver of the van just left. Poor guy, I hope he somehow got a ride back. When the driver was checking us in and about to slide the van door closed, he asked us how it was, and we all kind of moaned. He was a tough looking outdoorsy guy, and he said, “Now time for a beer a two…you guys definitely earned it!” And we all just laughed. There was silence the whole way back, and I felt so happy to be sitting beside my husband in this van, and couldn’t wait to shower and stuff my face with food. We got back to the transport, got into our car, and then talked and vented about how tired and hungry we were. It was about a ten-minute drive back to our lodge, and that was the best hot shower ever. Felt so good to be clean and the heat helped my aching muscles. We drove back into the village to another lodge as there were only a couple restaurants open at that hour, and ate at the restaurant. I don’t even remember what I ate, all I know is that it was good, and I didn’t leave a single thing on my plate. Familiar faces surrounded us as we saw many of those we had met along the way on the track, and heard them telling their stories. We even saw those older couples that had passed us right on up, and they were laughing heartily…man those old folk put us to shame! Haha.

 

What a great, eventful, rewarding way to end our anniversary trip! That night, it took me forever to fall asleep, which was so annoying, but I was just in so much agony and re-living the events of that day. We felt truly accomplished, more so the next day, Wednesday, despite the intense aching in our bodies and the drive back to a cloudy and rainy Wellington was fast. We were actually quite ready to be back to familiar territory again, and be able to rest and relax in our flat. We’d had an amazing, North Island expedition, and the best one year anniversary trip I could have ever asked for. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is something we will always remember and be proud of ourselves for, and the teamwork in helping each other survive it (well more on Josh’s part for me anyways, haha.) And we can both honestly say; that was the hardest thing we have ever done. They call the walk a once in a lifetime experience, boy, ain’t that the truth. We will never, ever be doing that again!

Interesting facts:

“The most recent confirmed volcanic activity from Red Crater was reported between 1855 and 1890. The dike on the Southern Wall has been exposed by erosion. Lava would have flowed through this dike and poured into the Oturere Valley.
Mount Ngauruhoe is the youngest volcano in the area and started to form about 2500 years ago. It is the most active vent in the Tongariro area with its last eruption recorded in 1975. The most recent flows from Mount Ngauruhoe are easily visible on the way to South Crater.”

http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

***
How fit do I have to be?
“The true answer is fit enough. A moderate to good level of fitness is required. It is a 19.4km walk which starts with a staged climb to Red Crater. The thing to consider is that you will be climbing nearly 800m in altitude to 1900m above sea level and as a result you may feel the effects of oxygen deficiency (hard to breath, slight dizziness) This is not common but needs to be considered. The decent from Red Crater requires some coordination and balance due to the volcanic ash and scree that is underfoot. From this point you will be descending just over 1000m in altitude most of which is a good steady gradient. At all times you should consider the possibility that if you do not feel you can do it, turn back! It is better to return to the start (if you have not already passed the Red Crater) than to try and continue and be caught out in the dark requiring rescue.”
http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

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