One of the adventures on which I was most excited to embark before I left for my journey through Middle Earth was that of trekking through Tongariro National Park – home to Peter Jackson’s manifestation of Mordor and Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.
I’m not even a big LOTR fan. It’s Harry Potter all the way. Ahem. But, with that said, I’ve seen the movies and I’m reading The Hobbit, and well, getting to hike through Mordor and see Mount Doom is pretty brag-worthy. Especially when most of your friends are green with envy back home.
Tongariro National Park is one of the oldest national parks in the world, and home to three active volcanoes: Mt. Ngauruhoe (which played Mount Doom), Mt. Ruapehu, and Mt. Tongariro, all of which form the southern limit of the Taupo Volcanic Zone (part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.) Last November, Mt. Tongariro erupted, which meant half the park is now shut down because of high volcanic danger. And Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu are two of the most active volcanoes in the world.
I had heard throughout my entire trip leading up to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing that it’s a phenomenal experience. I even met a girl in Christchurch who told me she climbed Mt. Ngauruhoe. I asked if one needed to be an expert mountaineer to do it, to which she replied, “No! It’s very hard. You climb and slip and climb and slip, you really crawl on your knees. There’s no path. Oh, but you must do it!”
So, with her contradicting advice in mind, I considered it. And when the time came to prepare for my epic journey, I met a woman from Scotland at my hostel in National Park Village, who assured me that if she could do it, so could I.
“Just be prepared – I fell on me bum a lot!”
The next morning, with the necessary supplies in tow, I marched off the shuttle bus and into the park at precisely 8:25am. Mount Doom loomed dramatically ahead, its perfect cone peak sending both shivers down my spine and a wary smile on my lips. I was going to try to climb that thing. Try. After all, I had to destroy the ring.
Bring it on.
I crunched along the gravel path, my fellow hikers spreading out as the time wore on. Strangely, I felt like Harry when he enters the maze in The Goblet of Fire. You know when the hedges close behind him and he’s left in an eerie, misty silence?
Except that the sun was shining brightly. And this was Mordor. Wrong movie.
As I walked on, The Lord of the Rings was overwhelmingly on my mind. The park’s environment practically screamed Middle Earth, and I found myself wondering if Orlando Bloom, Andy Serkis, or Viggo Mortensen had walked the same ground I was. I could just see the dwarves and hobbits scrambling along, preparing for battle or wearily approaching the mountain to destroy Gollum’s beloved precious.
Black, oddly shaped volcanic rocks littered the valley floor, marking eruption landing zones. At the foothills of rugged, craggy cliffs ran a creek stained red from active minerals. Odd plants sprouted from spongy soil, lining the crooked and uneven path that, on occasion, ran only a foot wide along a cliffside.
This wasn’t just the movie’s film site. It was Mordor.
After the first resting point, the trail took a sharp turn up into the dizzying alpine heights. Hundreds of steep wooden stairs were filled with people huffing and puffing their way up, but we were rewarded with sweeping views of the valley far below. My heart slammed in my chest as I finally reached the top, and I wondered how I was ever going to manage climbing a volcano after that. I mean, I work out. But the wilderness of New Zealand had a great way of blasting my physical self-confidence into smithereens.
At the second resting point, the time had come. The signpost pointed directly to my right, with the ominous directions:
MOUNT NGAURUHOE SUMMIT – 3 HOURS RETURN
(MAY TAKE LONGER IN BAD WEATHER)
I could almost hear the dread-inducing score from Jaws… dundundundundundnudundundundunDUNDUNDUNDUN…
Oh right – wrong movie again.
I waited, hoping someone else would turn right toward the sparse grasses and barren wasteland that spread out to the base of the dreaded cone. I drank some water. I tied my shoes. I rearranged my backpack and tied my nylon jacket around my waist. I ate a sandwich.
No one went right. Everyone, after resting and taking cheesy photos, continued straight on the crossing trail. If I wanted to take on the mountain, I’d be doing it alone.
The wilderness of New Zealand had a great way of blasting my physical self-confidence into smithereens.
But if I turned back now, I’d never forgive myself. So finally, I stood up from the rock, faced right, and marched firmly into the wasteland. It was now or never.
An eerie silence fell as I moved away from the crowd. The volcano looked immeasurably large. I shuddered again and laughed at myself, wondering what the hell I was thinking.
At first, there was a path. Weak and worn, winding through the dead shrubs, it snaked its way onto the mountainside. I followed it, thinking if this wound its way up to the summit, I’d be just fine.
This is easy, I thought. Foolishly. What are people complaining about?
Barely ten minutes later, I saw what. The path shriveled up to nothing, replaced by black lava rocks and loose scree on a steep incline. I stepped on a rock embedded in the ground, and it gave way. The scree took over the path then, swallowing it up practically before my eyes.
A wide swath of red stained the face of the mountain, and I wondered if that was the path of the lava flow. I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t feel the ground rumble just then. A thin trail of steam was rising into the air high above on the summit.
Slowly, I made my way up, the incline getting progressively steeper and the scree getting steadily slipperier. At one point, I made the mistake of looking down to see how far I’d come up. I instantly wished I hadn’t.
Suddenly, there was nothing to walk on. It was as if the ground disappeared, and I was standing on a deep layer of sand – almost loose enough to sink into. Like a pool. I fell to my knees, and began to climb on all fours, displacing blankets of silt and sediment as I crawled slowly upward.
Two feet up, one foot down. I furiously climbed, thinking if I crawled faster I’d beat the scree I was displacing. But all I did was slide further. There was nothing to hold on to: rocks I spied were merely perched precariously atop the pool of silt, and slid down along with me if I tried to grab them.
For forty-five minutes, I crawled and slid and huffed and puffed. I made meager progress, although I did see that several other people had joined me on the mountain, far below. Finally, I spotted a large rock above me that was firmly embedded. I hauled myself up on it to rest, and stared wide-eyed at the valley below me. I was starting to doubt that I could make it all the way to the top, but at the same time I had come too far to give up.
I pictured Frodo and Sam scrambling up the mountainside, and wondered where Gollum was. I figured he was eyeing me from behind rocks, assuming I had his Precious and was going to throw it into the fire. It wasn’t a welcome thought.
I saw another girl climbing in the same way I had just come, scrambling up to my rock. I called out to see how she was faring, and she laughed.
“Well, this was a bad idea! A bad, bad idea!”
She was from New Mexico (originally New York) and we decided to stick together. A pair of guys coming down the mountain told us that climbing over the cluster of boulders above us would be easier, if only for the grip. In some ways, I was more terrified to climb over rocks than to crawl up the scree. Rock climbing meant the possibility of falling; at least if you slid down on loose scree, you were already hugging the ground anyway.
But we climbed. Hauling ourselves over sharp, craggy rocks, trying to find footholds, clinging to their narrow edges to gingerly tiptoe around unstable soil. My legs shook and my hands were cut up, battered, and beaten. I was breathing hard, and fear had taken a firm hold in my stomach.
They say that the closer you are to death, the more alive you feel. I don’t know exactly how close to death I was, but the fear and adrenaline spinning in my stomach was enough to make me feel more alive than I ever have before. I considered turning back, but adrenaline kept me climbing up and up.
The fact of the matter was, I didn’t fancy the idea of going down, either. Everyone had told me about the steep incline and how easy it is to fall, and I had watched other climbers literally running down the face of the mountain past us, the momentum carrying them until they lost control and face-planted. Or fell backward. I hoped that in my case, it would be the latter.
I considered turning back, but adrenaline kept me climbing up and up.
So we rose slowly higher, gaining altitude and exhaustion, and I wondered if climbing the rocks was the smarter choice after all. Two hours later, we were perched on another outcrop of rocks, catching our breath and evaluating our progress. The valley trails were needle-thin threads far below us, the mountain sloped treacherously downward beneath our feet, the wind whistled around the face of the volcano.
And there was a new development: fog. We were above the clouds now, and a heavy mist silently encroached the volcano, plunging us into a sea of white. It was fast moving, and while our obstructed view was short-lived, another wave came shortly afterward.
It was at this point that I decided, somewhat to my chagrin, that it was time to turn back. We had made it nearly to the top, but we were exhausted. My hands were bleeding and there was dirt in the cuts. And the fog not only made the climb more dangerous, but we wouldn’t be able to see a thing from the summit anyway.
My friend decided to continue on, too determined to give up just yet. I, despite my sense of adventure and a stubborn refusal to give in unless it is absolutely mandatory, am also quite sensible. And continuing a treacherous climb in a sea of white, when you can’t see below or above you on a steep grade volcano face filled with sharp rocks and loose scree, didn’t seem like the smartest idea ever thought up.
A trio of guys came into view on the red swath where everyone seemed to be descending, and I watched as they began to turn around. They caught me watching from my lone rock, and asked if I’d like to join them. I did.
So that’s how I came to be slipping and sliding, half on my rear and half knee deep in scree, bringing down an avalanche of volcanic mountain with me as I descended Mount Doom with three men from Slovakia. They laughed as I scooted on my ass, and I got back at them when they fell and slid twenty feet below me.
We made it down Mount Doom in about 30 minutes, and as the slope of the mountain leveled out, I shakily stepped on firm ground and sighed with relief. My shoes were filled with volcanic soil and tiny lava rocks, my face was smeared with dirt, my hands were battered and filthy, and my hair was an utter mess. All I wanted to do was shower and sleep, but I had to keep on and hightail it back down the valley to make it to my 3:30 shuttle bus on time.
Somehow, I made it. Blistered feet and all. And as I gratefully climbed into the hot bus, I glanced out the window at Mount Doom in the distance.
I may not have made it to the very top, but I climbed you, I thought proudly. I didn’t destroy the ring, but damn it, I climbed Mount Doom.
I think, however, that I saw Gollum peeking out from his cave.