Tongariro Alpine Crossing & The Lord of the Rings

I was seventeen and going nowhere fast. I still lived in my parent’s cellar and made attempts to show up for my Introductory Course to Literature at the Community College. My friends who had more on the ball were in “real” universities. I had already lost my first job due to an inability to show up at all. I was doing the easy slide south. But that was also the summer of The #Lord of the Rings. I picked up a tattered paperback of The Fellowship of the Ring at this funky used bookstore- not realizing it was a classic, an underground touchstone of the 60’s-I just liked the cover art. One night I snuggled in, pulled up and under this insanely bright blanket that I had picked up in Tijuana, and turned the first page. I remember every crack of a branch, the smell of camp fire smoke, the threat of discovery. I ran down the path with #Frodo, shadowed by enormous wraiths, claws digging through the air for my soul! I was convinced Strider was up to no good and Gandalf was the Second Coming! I was absolutely absorbed. I never left that cellar- I pissed in a bottle. My sister placed leftovers at the top of the stairs. I quickly read The Two Towers and The Return of the King and sprouted an adolescent beard, weeds amidst pimples. Entranced I read ‘til my eyes didn’t see straight. This was how I wanted to be, on the very pulse of life, digging every treasure from every moment. You turn another page and your life takes a different path. That was where The Lord of Rings brought me. If Frodo could make it through Mordor and destroy the one ring to rule them all, I could finish college. And I did. I became a teacher of literature and art and spent my summers tramping around the globe. I’ve made my life an adventure. (And by the way, I think Samwise was the true hero of the story…).

Flash forward thirty five years…I am in #New Zealand and trekking with my niece, a killer hiker. #Peter Jackson had just finished his Rings trilogy and the cliché that the movie doesn’t live up to the book is not always fair. In this case, the two were equally superlative; it was simply a matter of difference. We were in Kiwi land for a little spelunking, but were not going to miss The #Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was Jackson’s choice for the Land of Mordor and the sinister Mount Doom, where the one ring would be destroyed. It was an excellent choice. Located on the North Island in the Tongariro National park the trail curves through thick alpine vegetation and crosses sharp, crenellated peaks. Stunning landscapes surround you, primeval in their stark beauty. We were astounded at every step, eyes ever widening in wonder. I could not believe that I was following the footsteps of Frodo and Samwise. Scenes from the books and the movies mixed in my imagination. It was a pleasant day in Middle Earth. The sun had shooed away the clouds. I saw where Frodo and Sam stopped for a bit of pipe-weed and eavesdropped on their conversation: “If this nice friendliness would spread out in Mordor, half our trouble would be over.” Alas, it was not to be. Darkness spread its leathery wings over the sun.

The Tongariro trek crosses alpine terrain: the weather can shift dramatically. The temperature drops and black clouds blot out the sun. There is a fiery vein beneath New Zealand that goes to the heart of the earth. (The country gets a healthy boost from geothermal energy). Ancient lava flows and ghostly mud pits, geysers and Sulphur pools dot the terrain. Fumaroles release poisonous steam like dragon’s breath. It’s as if just beneath the ground an enormous cauldron of witch’s brew was on the verge of boiling. The three active volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngaurhoe, and Ruapehu rise up from different sections of the trail with a stern authority. It fits Mordor perfectly. And it was at just such a moment, when darkness swallows the light, that I turned to my niece:

Frodo: “Go back, Sam! I’m going to Mordor alone.”
Sam: “Of course you are, and I’m coming with you!”

She laughed, but also looked at me as if I were a silly old sot.

Even with the fickle weather, the Crossing was spectacular with a sort of stripped bare beauty. In fact, I’d rank it as one the best hikes of my life and I’ve hiked all over the world. It’s not every day you get to navigate around volcanoes.

We trekked onwards and then there it was, Mount Doom. Actually it was #Mount Ngauruhoe, its summit swatting away pesky clouds. My niece, this hiking machine, looked up, “Wow! Let’s go.” “Well,” I said, “It’s getting late.” I would never admit that my legs were a wee taxed. “OK,” I said, but she was already gone, bounding up the slope like some crack-crazed gazelle. Climbing Ngauruhoe is not an easy task; your boots slide on the loose scree of ash, tephra, and lapilli and you lose a half-stride for every two made. About an hour into the ascent, I caught up with my speedster, sitting on a little rock outcropping. My, my, I thought, she’s actually winded. “This sucks,” she gasped, “I keep falling backwards.” “Take baby steps at an angle. Tack a bit. You won’t lose as much ground.” I demonstrated by inching forward and then up the slope. She caught me in fifteen minutes; her technique flawless. Ah, I thought, ancient wisdom is not always wasted on the young.

Near the summit of this still active volcano, there’s no sign of orcs or wraiths. Steam and Sulphur fumes rise from the red-rimmed crater. It has that awful-awesome beauty that Romantic poets were always trying to capture. Words fail to describe the sweeping, monumental views in every direction.

“Outstanding,” my niece almost whispers.

“Absolutely,” I say, “Absolutely. But before we go we need to destroy the one ring to rule them all.”

She gave me that look again that made me feel that she was merely tolerating an old, daft uncle.

I pulled from my pocket a soda pop ring I had picked up on the trail, ceremoniously held it aloft, and dropped it into the crater.

“Whatever,” my niece said and then she was off, bounding down the side of a volcano.

Considerations: The Crossing is not an easy hike. As someone who has hiked a fair bit of the world, I’d give it a strong 6 on a scale of 10, with 10 being, say, Denali. It’s about 12 miles long, and will take a strong hiker a good 5 hours. Most people do it in about 8 hours. Add in another 2-3 hours if you want to take the side trail to the summit of Ngauruhoe, i.e., Mount Doom. There is little or no drinking water on the trail. If you’re lucky, water can be had at the huts at the beginning and end of the trail. The weather is fickle, so bring layers and gaiters, even if there’s nary a cloud in the sky! The Crossing traverses the park, so you have to arrange transport. Both Ketetahi Carpark and Mangatepopo Carpark will drop you off on one end and pick you up on the other. Hiking boots are a must! The terrain is trickier than it at first appears. Considerations aside, do this hike. It’s worthy of anyone’s bucket list. Happy Trails and Frodo lives!

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