I Go To Meet My Doom (again)

You may remember, back in August, when I went to Mordor… as in Tongariro National Park, home to Mt. Nguaruhoe (which starred as Mt. Doom in LOTR) and Mt. Ruapehu (which featured in many location shoots depicting various bits of Mordor, realm of the Dark Lord Sauron). I wanted to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, billed as the greatest day walk on the planet, but ice and snow conspired against me.

Well, Good Friday of all days, I went back. The weather in the area hadn’t been great for a few days (cloudy, rainy, cold…) but the weather gods smiled on me and I had a perfect cloudless day with just enough of a cool breeze to make the climb seem easy. Or at least less difficult. Unfortunately, the weather was also good for the other 2000 people on the trail with me… yes, it was pretty much a conga line of gawking tourists. Definitely the most crowded hike I’ve ever done and no, I did not like that aspect of it one bit. But the scenery made up for it, even if it was hard to take a photo and not get random Yanks, Swedes, Germans or Aussies in it…

I was also glad that I did it Friday… they were expecting up to 5000 people on both Saturday and Easter Sunday. Shudder.

The crossing itself is around 18 or 19 km, depending on which DOC sign you believe (yes, again, the Department of Conversation cannot agree with itself), starting near the Mangetopopo Hut, going up a few hundred meters to the Mangetopopo Saddle, crossing a volcanic plateau right under the nose of Mt. Doom and then dropping down on the north flank of Mt. Tongariro, past Ketetahi Hut, through forest to a carpark clogged with shuttle buses.

Along the way, one is treated to a variety of volcanic landscapes, steaming flourescent lakes, flat and wide craters and others looking as if they’ve been ripped apart by demons, freaky rock formations and crazy-colored cliffs. It is, in a word, spectactular.

Greatest day walk on the planet? Hmmmm… I hate claims like that. But I gotta say, in fine weather like I had, it was definitely up there on the list of fabulous hikes I’ve done.

The campground where I was staying ran shuttles to the trailhead starting at 0615. Yes, before dawn. I got on the 0645 shuttle and made it to Mangetopopo while it was still dark and gloomy and ever so Doomy.

The near-full moon provided enough light to walk without my headlamp, and by the time I’d started the ascent to the saddle it was light enough to see the landscape clearly. Despite low cloud cover in all directions, the crossing itself was clear and, once high enough, I was able to look west and see the top of Mt. Taranaki on the horizon.

Up on the saddle, I took a side trail that leads up to the summit crater of Mt. Nguaruhoe, though I didn’t go all the way. Not to sound pretentious, but I’ve climbed to volcano summits before (in Iceland and Hawaii) and decided I’d rather spend the three to four hours it takes investigating other parts of the crossing. So no, I didn’t summit Mt. Doom, but then neither did Frodo and Sam…

I took another side trail that led to the summit of Mt. Tongariro instead, and then rejoined the main trail to climb up to the edge of Red Crater. There was quite a crowd. It took me a moment to realize people weren’t just loitering; there was a woman down, sprawled on someone’s emergency blanket. She had apparently broken an ankle at the top of the descent from Red Crater, a notoriously steep and slippery bit of the trail. She seemed to be coping okay, but her hysterical friend was running around asking everyone for food and water and to use their mobile phones to let her friends know she wouldn’t make the bus.

Hang on there, sister… it’s not like you’re stranded in the wild. Deal with it. If worse came to worse all of us probably could have formed a line and passed the woman from one person to the next, like a sandbag, all the way down the trail.

I made it down Red Crater without falling, but it was tricksy, largely due to idiots who tried to run or slide down the narrow trail and lost control, tumbling all over the place. At the crater’s base, the glowing blue Emerald Lakes simmered and shivered as a kid threw large rocks into them while his indifferent parents looked on.

Sigh. I miss hiking in the empty wild already.

As I crossed North Crater and reached the edge of Blue Lake, a rescue helicopter came zooming past and picked up the broken ankle woman (and, presumably, her panicky friend), an apparent daily occurrence according to a shuttle bus driver I chatted with later.

From there it was all downhill, literally. After a view north to Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake and itself a massive volcanic crater, I dropped down into the forest. I knew I was getting close to the end of the trail when I smelled cigarette smoke… Scores of tourists, waiting for their shuttles, were sitting all over the ground, many of them lighting up. Yeah, that’s how I’d want to celebrate completing the Alpine Crossing…

While waiting for my bus, I talked a little to one of the other drivers, who stood there shaking his head at some of the people coming off the trail. Because Tongariro is a mere day hike and gets so much hype, it attracts huge numbers of non-hikers, people who try to do it in flip-flops and shorts with no shirt, people who don’t bring any water or food, people who don’t even wait till the end of the trail to smoke, people who break their ankles because they attempt it wearing ballet flats (woman on the emergency blanket, I’m talking to you) and who bring their hyper friends along who shriek about not having food or water to weather the minutes, minutes I tell you, that it will take for the rescue chopper to arrive.

But I am so glad I did the Crossing, and feel so fortunate about the weather… like much of our planet, it was beautiful and breath-taking and very special… and marred by the presence of, you know, people…


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