Middle Earth Day 26: A Daring Quest to the Top of Mount Doom

Since I had decided in Wellington to hitchhike as much as possible in the North Island, I knew that today would be another quest to hitch a ride. Instead of paying the $30 fee to get a round trip shuttle, why not hitchhike and save the money for something else? I started the day slowly, choosing to hit snooze on my 7 o’clock alarm, but eventually I managed to get going and manufacture my hitching signs. Due to my screwy map, I began walking in the completely wrong direction. Before I screwed myself further, I turned around and waited at my chosen spot. For Tongariro Crossing being such a popular trek, I was surprised by the limited number of cars that passed me by. The last shuttles were long gone so this was my one shot, my one own opportunity to walk the Crossing. The sky was overcast which did little good for my psyche. Doubt creeped in and I began to think about what on earth I could possibly do at the hostel today to make up for this missed opportunity. Sure enough, a Kiwi saved the day as they always tend to do. He was a man heading to work on a bee farm. New Zealand is very big on their honey so I had the opportunity to hear about what he does to produce this sugary gold. I finally found out why the New Zealand international airports don’t allow people to bring in honey. Apparently, from what I remember, due to their bees vulnerability and the fact that honey is not pasteurized, they outlaw the importation of honey. New Zealand clover honey is quite the sugary treat. He dumped me off onto the road that only leads to the Tongariro Crossing car park, still 7 km away. I could technically walk it but then I had 19.4 km of mountainous track awaiting me at the trailhead. Cars passed by kicking up dust with their tires to further shame me. Another full car passed me but after 100 m began whipping it in reverse. A French Canadian family with two young girls in the back offered me a ride in their back seat. I was quite surprised by their openness. They were awfully friendly and although the girls didn’t speak any English I would make faces and they would laugh shyly. Eventually I came across the reason for their change of mind. The dad was apparently going to hitch a ride to pick up the family at the far end car park and probably wanted to keep the good vibes in his favor. I wished them luck on their trek before beginning my own. For the most part, the beginning of the track was quite flat and relatively easy besides the bold sun radiating from above. I continued along the track amazed by the lack of bush and relatively limited vegetation. As I plodded along, trying to up my pace, I began to see more and more of the dark black and red rocks that were left behind in the latest eruption of Mount Ngauruhoe (known as Mount Doom), a summit 2290 meters high. Seeing two English speaking mates about my age trying to set up a selfie, I offered my assistance. They didn’t need my help but offered theirs instead by way of a photo of me with Mount Doom in the background. We came to some unspoken understanding to continue the walk together. The first major stop on the trek was Soda Springs, a sulphur-infused waterfall, which gave off its peculiar scent when I took a quick shower under its cascading flow. The path began a steady incline to the valley at the base of Mount Doom. All around me, the land was composed of limitless black rocks and those more colorful from the molten lava that once surged upon this very ground. The three of us being huge Lord of the Rings fans, we agreed that you can’t come all the way to Tongariro National Park and not climb to the top of Mount Doom. The trail marker estimated a three hour return which seemed reasonable for a detour from the main Tongariro Crossing path. The hike to the top of Mount Doom offered no legitimate walking path; you got up any way you could. Since there were not trees or bush, just a lot of soot and rock, I could clearly see the entire way up to the peak of Mount Doom. I had climbed mountains before and this incline did not bother me at the time. Leaving no time to reconsider, I trudged on and upward. The Kiwi had grown up doing these kinds of hikes so he found easy footing and quick passage upwards. The Australian moved at a similar pace as myself but I was clearly the anchor. The incline itself was nothing out of the ordinary but the “track” itself was a loose compilation of soot, dirt, pebbles, volcanic black rocks, and the occasional medium boulder. Hiking on this loose mixture, I felt like I was walking a stair-master from hell. Every step I took, I slid back down; all I could think about was how little progress I was making. The incline steepened and with it my fears of falling backwards to my death increased. No longer was I hiking. This quest turned into a screwed up mix of treacherous hiking and rock climbing; I was literally walking on all fours. Since there was no bush or vegetation to block my sight, I could always see the summit of Mount Doom forever close yet seemingly untouchable from where I stood or rather slid. I am shaking my head as I relive this experience. Halfway up, I looked off to my side and saw just how steep it truly was. Images of a flightless blogger tumbling downwards haunted my mind. If it weren’t for the two mates I met, I have serious doubts whether I would have completed the journey up. I felt as though I were climbing the mountain twice or thrice over with all the repeated steps I had to take while searching for footing. The loose rocks never seemed to end. Constantly, I had to gauge whether a rock was truly stable before putting my faith in its grip. Long after, Ryan the Aussie, and I reached a medium sized snow patch which seemed quite odd but nevertheless I had to do a snow angel to cool off my burning exterior. Logan the Kiwi was long gone and up to the top of Mount Doom. We, on the other hand, had a fair bit left. At one point, we took a break at a small patch of snow that was too stubborn for the molten heat of Mount Doom. The sight of snow seemed too far-fetched and unreal that I had to make a snow angel to prove its existence. Sweet, chilled relief! I probably should have ignored my impulses but I had to get a taste. It was the best and most necessary snow cone I have ever had. Sadly, I had to leave my frozen nirvana for the gates of hell and the sun scorched mount. The loose rumble further pissed me off. I managed to reach the top not quite as energized as I once was when at the base. However, the view from the top was well worth all the pain and agony I put up with to reach this point. Looking down at the crumbled mess below and onto the volcanic valley further down, my legs trembled on this narrow crown of the volcano. Glancing over into the volcano’s gaping mouth I saw varying shades of red and pink etched into the molten stone. We completed a lap around the mount’s upper crust taking in all the views. First of all, we were now standing fully above a fluffy sheet of clouds way off into the distance, those white streams too threatened to approach Mount Doom. From here we could also see a great deal of the Tongariro Crossing, including the blue lake that filled one of the park’s several craters, Mount Tongariro, and the ultimate mish-mosh of color from a deep orange to neon yellow. Not to be missed or ignored, we had an unfiltered view of Mount Ruapehu dusted with a full coating of white. I felt as if I were standing toe to toe with this behemoth, no longer one of the minions down below. It’s peak was fully immersed in snow while streams of the stark white frost cut ran down its sides guided by the cut ridges of the mountain. We took breaks to take photos of all that I saw while they shared some of their supplies with me, the unprepared American (peanut butter, a banana, and a liter of water can only go so far). They taught me how to take panoramic photos, which came in handy when covering such wide and varied landscapes such as this, and time-lapse, which gave a cool affect to the clouds the quickly moved into and out of our sights. Most interesting for me was the lesson on the rule of threes of photography. I always heard this saying but not until today did it all make sense and allow me to be a better photographer. The lessons of life can come in the most peculiar ways and places. The contrast between the land below, covered in a mat of green and a few deep blue lakes, and the volcanic dry land that refused admittance to any wildlife or vegetation was quite astounding. I saw my first geyser atop Mount Doom, dancing wildly in the window. This escaping heat was not what I wanted on a sun torched day as today. The steam felt like a blast of air being released from a boiling pot of water but unfortunately it was not odorless. The steam is sulphur-infused and so it has a smell that resembles that of rotten eggs. After enjoying all that the views had to offer we began our descent. Logan raced down, floating and skiing across the surface, and arrived at the bottom in a flash. Knees trembling from the thought of losing my balance and ending my trip on Mount Doom, I took the more precarious approach. For a good third of the way down I rode my booty across the rocky surface. Being so intimate with the rocks, I was stunned by how light they were in weight; the rocks almost felt hollow. The loose fitting rocks sounded like tiny shards of glass clinging today as they fell. Speaking of falling, every time a rock got unhinged from the rest, it sped along and gained speed as it traveled downward. Imagine that chunk of earth hurtling towards you. I was afforded further great views of the Crossing while I prayed that I would descend with my life intact. Eventually I manned up and skipped down the mountain. I reached level ground and went just short of kissing the ashy underbelly of the Crossing in relief of my survival. The hike continued back onto a legitimate walking path in between Mount Doom and Mount Tongariro. Onto the quiet desert of the volcanic valley floor, I tilted my head upwards to the peak that I once stood atop of. On the left side of Mount Doom I saw rocks stained blood red by the last eruption as if they were seemingly streaming from the volcano’s mouth. Comprehending what I had just accomplished, I thought that if Gandalf asked me to go on a quest to take the one ring to the top of Mount Doom in Mordor to save all of my Middle Earth, I would tell him to f*** off and find another ring bearer. I promise that will be the last nerd humor for this post. A little girl maybe ten years old that I recognized from the top of Mount Doom was skipping along as if the completion of Mount Doom didn’t even faze her; kind of a depressing moment for my ego. The Crossing continued along red laden craters and sulphur enriched lakes. The lakes color was unique: it began as a perfect Crayola blue before fading into a greenish blue until it reached the golden banks of the circular “beaches” that they bordered. Once near the Blue Lake I had had enough of all this water without me being apart of it. I needed a swim, some kind of relief. This one wasn’t as potent as the rest were as far as sulphur goes but still not completely safe. We dipped in anyways and were shocked by the chill; how can water sitting amongst volcanoes and thermal vents be so utterly cold? The main stretch of the Crossing had ended and with it brought on the quickly cover of the bush. Puffs of steam waved in the air from random points around this contrasting bush land. At its highest point before the descent we could see Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, outwards and into the distance. The three of us went through a lot together. They are great mates, sharing their rations of food and drink. For stumbling across a random pair of guys, I could not have done any better. They pushed me onwards and upwards and our shared humor carried the day. The three of us broke down parts of the LOTR movies, books, and history, further cementing our nerdiness and fandom as we analyzed all the ins and outs of the series. Being further helpful, they gave me my last hitched ride for the day as they dropped me off directly in front of my hostel. The rest of the evening was a joke since I was so beat and dehydrated but I had a good excuse for kicking back. What a heck of day! This one potentially might have been my best and most favorite part of the trip.

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