It felt like it had been a while since I'd had an outdoor adventure. Since Fitz Roy I'd hung out in Buenos Aires and then Auckland, and while traveling around the north island was fun, I was ready to get back into some serious wilderness.
Having waited a couple extra days in Taupo for the weather to clear up so we could go skydiving, we got to the town near the Tongariro crossing a later that I would have liked. We arrived in the evening, just as the info center was closing and they told us we had to book a shuttle for the next morning if we wanted to do the hike. We didn't have any days to spare because we had to get to Wellington to take the ferry to the south island. Feeling rushed and a little stressed, we decided to go ahead and do the hike the next morning and booked our shuttle.
We got up early from our campsite by the nearby lake and drove to where the shuttle would pick us up. After about 30 minutes, they dropped us off at the start of the trail, with about 50 other people getting ready to do the same hike. This was frustrating, I really don't like being around so many people when I'm hiking, preferring to be alone or with a small group, but the weather was nice and the trail was beautiful, so it didn't bother me too much.
We ate some breakfast and set off on the most beautifully maintained trail I've ever seen. Nearly the entire thing was gravel lined with 2x6 boards, and stairs built into every incline. After hiking through mud and rocks in Patagonia, this was a cakewalk.
An hour long hike brought us to the toughest section of the trail, a half hour climb known as "The Devil's Staircase." Again, compared to the hiking we'd done a couple weeks before, we were not phased. Sam and I passed pretty much everyone we came to hiking up, pleased with ourselves that we were in such good shape.
At the top of the staircase, the start of the pass through the mountains, we found ourselves looking up at an awesome red volcano, which (with some added CGI) was known in "The Lord of the Rings" as "Mount Doom." We had been told not to climb it if it was cloudy, but at the time the sun was shining and we could clearly see the top of the mountain, so we decided we couldn't pass up the opportunity to climb such an iconic mountain. We began our long trek up the steep slope to the summit.
At first, the terrain was solid and there was a decent, although steep, path up the side. We followed it for a while before the ground became too soft to hold a trail, and then we just aimed for the peak and hiked upwards.
This was incredibly tiring hiking. At fairly high altitude, with terrain on which my feet slipped back 6 inches for every 12 inches I stepped up, I got tired really fast. And to add to that, before long, a solid blanket of cloud rolled in and covered the mountain, making it impossible to see more than 20 meters in any direction. We knew it was easy to get lost on this mountain in the clouds, but we had come so far we didn't want to give up.
After 2 hours, hiking farther and farther up, having no idea how far we'd come or how much we had left to climb, my legs barely working, I was ready to quit. I told Sam this, and he insisted that we keep going. "Lets just go a little farther," he said. Reluctantly I agreed. After hiking a bit more, I looked up and saw rocks sticking up that looked very much like the top of a mountain. Excited, I hiked up to them only to find that behind them were more rocks even higher up.
Each time we got to what looked like the top, we found that there were higher rocks than where we were standing. The climb seemed to go on forever. Not only that, it was incredibly windy and cold. I thought volcanoes were supposed to be warm! We kept going and going, however, and eventually the terrain started to level off. At long last we found ourselves on a treacherous rocky ridge, with a broken off sign post marking the summit, completely surrounded by clouds, and the coldest most incessant wind I have ever felt. After about 30 seconds of looking at the non-existant view, we were ready to head back down.
Little did we know, the adventure had just begun.
The beginning of the decent was easy, being on solid rock, but after a few hundred meters, the rock gave way to the lose sand and gravel that we'd been climbing nearly the entire way up. After some trial and error, I found a very efficient way of half walking/half sliding down the gravel which could be quite fun. The problem was all of a sudden I'd hit a solid patch and nearly be thrown to the ground. Or sometimes the rocks were too big to slide down, but not stable enough to walk on, which made navigating them gracefully nearly impossible.
It was in one of the sections that I lost my footing completely, stumbled sideways on the slope before landing on my butt on the ground. But where I landed was smooth packed earth, and I suddenly found myself sliding extremely fast down the mountain. Unable to dig my feet into the ground, there was nothing I could do but stop myself. Terrified, I had visions of sliding right off a cliff or into a big rock which I couldn't see through the clouds all around me. After about 50 meters, sliding faster and faster, I finally hit a patch of deep lose sand and dug my feet into it with all my strength, finally coming to a stop. I then heard Sam yelling for me, unable to see me through the clouds. "I'm Okay!" I yelled. I then heard him saying to the camera that he thought he'd just lost a friend.
I stayed sitting on the ground while he carefully made his way down to where I had stopped, and when I finally stood up, found that I had sand pretty much everywhere, and a very bruised butt. At least I'd stopped safely, though. I shook myself off, and we continued our decent.
Leading the way, I kept trying to follow paths where other people had come up or gone down the mountain, but it was nearly impossible to stay on track. Feeling like we were too far north, I kept heading in a path which felt like would take us back to where we'd started, but there was really no way to tell. I cursed myself for going off trail without a compass. I've been hiking too long to make a mistake like that.
After a while I became increasingly sure that we were not going in the right direction, we had hiked a long way up the mountain, but I knew we'd descended more than we'd climbed. Yet still we couldn't see through the clouds. With nothing else to do but climb down, we continued.
After what seemed like forever, the clouds cleared enough for me to see where we were and I realized we were way off track. We were at a point probably a kilometer south of where we needed to be, and way lower on the mountain than where we had started from the established trail. We had the option of going further down to a section of trail that we'd already hiked, or hiking along the mountain back to where we had started. We were both quite anxious to get off the rocks as soon as possible, so we decided to hike down to where we knew the trail was, and rehike half of The Devil's Staircase. I was frustrated to have backtracked so much, but mostly just glad I knew where we were.
When we finally reached the trail, exhausted, we ate possibly the best tasting lunch we've ever had and laughed at what we had just done. Reluctant to move, but determined to get to the shelter before dark we continued the hike to where we would spend the night.
The rest of the trail was amazingly beautiful. We hiked up across the ridges of two volcanoes, with craters and sulfuric lakes the whole way. It was still cloudy, so we couldn't really see the views of the valleys, but the hazy cloud filled sky added to the atmosphere of standing somewhat precariously atop calm but active volcanoes. Almost like we were surrounded by smoke. We even saw signs telling us what to do if one of the volcanoes suddenly erupted, which apparently could happen at any time. We joked that it would quite an exciting vidcast to film us fleeing from an erupting volcano. Luckily there will be no such episode.
A few hours and kilometers later, we reached the shelter and found that it was definitely worth the extra price to stay inside than to pitch a tent that night. It was on the verge of raining, cold and windy, but inside we found a furnace, bunks with mattresses, and even a stove with which we could cook. Grateful to be inside, we immediately threw down our bags, ate some dinner and got to know some of the other hikers staying in the shelter with us. Sam and I both fell asleep at about 8:00 that night. It was a great end to an eventful day.