Tongariro

Storm on Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I was wedged into the back seat of a car with people I’d just met, hurtling through the dark. We’d been road-tripping for three hours, with two more to go, due to arrive at our hostel near Tongariro after midnight. As we slung around another curve, I felt the Chinese leftovers I’d inhaled in the parking lot move in my stomach, and I thanked god that I wasn’t prone to motion sickness. I slid from Lauren’s shoulder into Adam’s arm as we took another turn; a deep breath told my dinner to stay down.

We’d teamed up with Rob and Got to Get Out veterans Adam and Alex for the trip; another group member, Craig, would join us on the bus the next day. I was amazed that, less than a week after landing in Auckland, we were in a car with a new group of people, headed for one of New Zealand’s best day hikes. I was a bit anxious too; being relatively inexperienced hikers (the longest trip I’d ever made back home was three hours one way, and I wasn’t particularly graceful about it), I’d assumed we’d attempt Tongariro’s 6-8 hour alpine trek after we’d built up our strength with smaller hikes. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d made a wise decision, jumping headfirst into a trip that would be twice as long (at least) and much more difficult than the longest hike I’d ever made.

We made good time to our hostel, got a short night’s rest, and assembled on a shuttle bus the next morning. The day was grey, misting, and cold; the land wider and more sprawling, with fields of yellow grass carpeting the expanse between mountains in the distance. The bus swung down gravel roads, water streaking the windows.

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Stopping outside the entrance to the crossing, the white-haired bus driver stood up. “It’s going to be cold and wet,” he said shortly, “and the weather is expected to deteriorate further this afternoon. I would encourage you not to linger on the mountain. Head straight on through to the other side. Pick-up time is 4 pm. If you don’t feel you can make it and decide to turn back, give us a call and we will arrange to come pick you up. If you proceed and do not make it across the mountain to the car park by 4 pm, we will have to alert the authorities for search and rescue.”

We all sat in silence. After a beat, he observed wryly, “None of you are smiling.” Laughter broke some of the tension, and we piled out of the bus. My watch said 7:45 am. The mist turned almost immediately to light rain.

The gravel path turned into a wooden walkway that curved away through the landscape. Within 15 minutes of walking, I could see why Tongariro was one of New Zealand’s most popular “Great Walks.” The land rose on either side of the track in swells of yellow grass, colorful scrub, and colossal jagged boulders. Tiny plants in all colors and varieties clung to every surface. Icy water sliced through small ravines alongside the trail. We passed beneath and between towering, monolithic peaks of dark rock, looming through the mist. The landscape already felt vast, enormous, timeless; but you distinctly felt that there was more, much more, out of sight, obscured by the weather.

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Then we began to climb.

Gradual at first, then distinct, we curved upward on a gravel trail. Sometimes the trail turned into stairs. Then it plateaued, and we were walking across flat plains of small stones, nothing but rocks on all sides and mud underfoot, stretching away into mist, barren as the moon. This is what I’d imagine purgatory to be like, I thought. What a strange, terrible kind of hell: A group of people lost and wandering forever through mist and an uncertain landscape.

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Then we reached more stairs, and this time the stairs didn’t seem to end.

As we climbed, the mist turned again to fine rain and the wind picked up; we stopped to add more layers. Now I was feeling it in my legs and chest; the people below us had become ant-sized, picking through colossal stones. Stopping again to catch my breath, I could see nothing but stairs above, ascending over the lip of the mountain and into mist, and below, far down into the valley. It was getting colder.

We climbed stairs for a long time. And when we reached the top of the stairs, we started climbing the mountain.

A narrow track twisted between rocks that stabbed the air, leading up, still up. The wind was constant and buffeting now, freezing spray stinging our faces. We picked our way to a brief plateau; the land fell away sharply on either side, the mist scraping over the edge, raked by the wind, blanketing the plunge.

Then I looked up and saw the peak: no path now, just a long hill of loose dirt, ankle-deep, sloping sharply upwards to the top of the mountain. I’d have to go at least part of the way on all fours.

That was the moment I thought I’d made a mistake. It was miserable, and the wind was howling; whatever beauty the land offered was obscured by mist and the spray in my eyes (Craig’s video gives some idea). My muscles were burning, but the longer I stood staring at the final climb, the colder I became. Rob conferred with the group about whether or not it would be safer to turn back. Ultimately we agreed that we were near enough to the summit that it would be better to get up, over, and through as quickly as possible.

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I began trudging up the dirt slope, inches at a time and sliding backwards with each step, sometimes sinking fingers in for a better hold. I tried to focus only on breathing, on digging in my feet where Craig, above me, had left an imprint. It was a slow, slow scramble to the top.

And then the ground leveled, and stayed level. Elation and relief washed warmly over my bones. I didn’t care that thousands of people trek Tongariro every year (while impressive, Everest it is not), or that we’d only (only!) reached the crossing’s peak and not the actual summit; a signpost pointed out a diverging, optional path and cheerfully dared hikers to take the 45-minute detour to the summit (a dare I cheerfully declined). It still felt worth it. I’d conquered a freakin’ mountain! 

But we didn’t have long to congratulate ourselves or rest; it was freezing and we had to keep moving. After another mist-shrouded, purgatorial plateau we began our descent down a matching dirt slope. Sliding with every step was much more fun now, and I skipped down the steep incline with lunar-style hops, half skating, half striding with the dirt scattering under-sole. The Emerald Lakes, which fill explosion craters on volcanic Mount Tongariro, were the color of milky jade, elegant and poisonous looking.

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We continued down for several hours; the wind slowed and died, left behind on top of the mountain. Fine rain continued to slick our faces. Color crept back into the landscape, flourishing from dark and severe to bushy yellow grass and boulders blanketed in moss and clinging plants in green, white, rust, and delicate pink.

We stopped for a quick rest and a snack in a hut crammed with other hikers dripping onto the damp wooden floor, breath fogging the air and the windows, steam rising from wet coats and hats, the clever ones with hands clasped around hot drinks from hiking stoves they’d packed. We didn’t stay long; it was warmer to keep moving, and the temperature was rising as we made our way down. By hours and degrees, the rocky grass slopes became thick with scrub and trees, then flax plants and palms as the mountain track wound into rainforest.  

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The parking lot was waiting for us, and so was the bus. The crossing had taken seven hours, over a distance of approximately 19.4 kilometers / 12 miles.

I look forward to doing the trek again, in better weather–although, I can’t deny it was an unforgettable experience, and one I’m proud of. 

We enjoyed hot showers and dinners at the pub that night, and celebrated again the following night over excellent pizza and beer at Chapel Bar in Auckland, joined by about two dozen more people from the awesome Got to Get Out crew.  Later that night we would pile into Rob’s car and drive to his house in Laingholm, where we began our first week of wwoofing.

Our first seven days in New Zealand, Lauren and I had set up cell phone plans and bank accounts, attended the ANZAC Day Dawn Parade and hiked Rangitoto, test-driven vans and started to learn to drive on the left side of the road, explored the War Memorial Museum and city parks, and hiked the Tongariro Crossing–and at the end of our first week, one of the best moments was eating and drinking, singing and dancing with strangers who were swiftly becoming friends, with the burn of the mountain still in my calves, and the year opening up before us.

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From left to right: Adam, Rob, Alex, Craig, me, and Lauren
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