(Originally published on swampyankeewannabes in Janurary, 2005)
We’ve just climbed Mt. Doom, otherwise known as Mt. Ngauruhoe, and it’s worth it. . We’re not in Hobbit country, that was further back in Waipua and sheep country. This is Middle Earth, pure, imposing, volcanic, beginning. There’s an outer edge with active vents where Lionel posed over the vent with his wedding ring, poised to throw the One Ring into the fire. He decided against it though, and so we made our way up to the crater. Red rock surrounds the very top of the cone.
The way up was ferocious. It’s an almost vertical climb in mostly sifting ash, impossible to get good footing or any good handholds, also death to anyone with a fear of falling, which I have. I’ve gotten over it though in recent years, self defense really, since Lionel keeps taking me on walks with less than secure footing along sheer drops. It takes two and a half hours to reach the top. It takes half an hour tops to get down.
We got up at five again this morning, and this time the guide didn’t even bother to explain the weather, it was obvious that it was going to be a gorgeous day. On good days like this, 500 people will cross this track, a good deal of them will run it, for some reason known only to them. It takes 7-8 hours on the crossing alone, not counting the scramble up Mt. Ngauruhoe. At first it was cold, chilly air and no sun, and the valley was well graded and at times boardwalked for easy walking. We got to the Devil’s Staircase and the royal treatment stopped; up this long and steep track over boulders and drops, then up to what you thought was the top only to discover that you’re not done yet. It’s all lava rock and pumiced and black, odd shapes pushing up out of the ground. Up we go and the sun finally comes out at possibly the worst time—while we’re working up a sweat trying to get up the Staircase. Then it evens out and there is Ngauruhoe, classic cone shaped volcanic mountain.
So here we are up on top of it and it is time to go down. Going down, it turns out, is easy. First you slide down the snow top between the crater and the outer ridge, then you pick a good spot with mostly ash and not too many large rocks and you ski your way down on your boots. Sometimes you’ll knock a rock out of its slumber and it will start to tumble down the mountainside. “Rock!” you’ll yell, and hope that the others downhill from you will take up the call. I dislodged such a rock from the very beginning and it fell, gaining speed, bouncing over a snow field, finally stopping a thousand feet below. You could get seriously hurt on this mountain. But how often do you get to climb a volcano? So we swish our way down in record speed, conveniently forgetting that it took so long to get up here. It’s almost like skiing only I only have boots and no snow, and we reach the bottom 3 and ½ hours from when we started. 3 1/2 ! We must have spent some time up on the cone itself, getting distracted. Anyway we’re now going to be late for the bus, but there’s no help for it, we go on.
We cross over an impossibly flat area in a valley, which looks like an old crater but apparently was formed by glacier. Then we head back up towards the Emerald and Blue lakes and Red Crater, up another steep incline with loose soil. It isn’t as bad as before but it’s no picnic after Ngauruhoe, and our thighs are cramping a little bit in protest. It soon passes though, and we’re at the Red Crater. It’s certainly red, and eerie, with an eroded lava dyke coming out of its side. The dyke is gray inside and red outside, an eerie contrast. We start down again, through more of the sifting ashy stuff, slowly, since Mom has the same fear of falling that I do. She’s not enjoying this part at all but I am – there’s craters and lava flows, vents and green lakes surrounding us. No vegetation graces this area, sometimes an odd flower or grass stuck under the rocks out of the wind, but nothing more. The side of the trail steams and sulfur fills the air again, then we pass by the green lakes and head through another thankfully flat area until we start to go up again. A lava flow once stopped in its tracks halfway in its journey across this valley, and it looks as though it were yesterday, since the lake that it stops at it steaming at the edges, as if it were trying hard to cool off the rock.
The weather has changed a bit with fog rolling in fast from up the mountainside, and the view gets restricted. We’re back in alpine shrub country and the track has ceased to be so steep. There’s another whiff of sulfur but I can’t see anywhere it would be coming from, so we move on.
We wind our way across the mountain in this fashion for sometime, hitting boardwalk finally which means we’re close to other infrastructure, mainly the hut where we’ll get more water, and it becomes quite clear where the sulfur smell is coming from. A place identified as the Kehutia Hot Springs, Private Property, forbids entry to trampers. It’s steaming furiously and I’m not sure I want to get too close to it anyway.
After the hut we make our way down, getting quite close to the steaming vent which apparently outputs a stream, or maybe the stream just runs through it. It’s not hot water, but it’s certainly not cold, and it’s soft to the touch. Moving through this area we see more vents, more sulfur pits, and then we’re out of volcano country, probably for good.
By this time we’re exhausted and I start counting to myself as a way to keep pace. We leave the alpine shrub and enter the forest, which smells sweet and cool and surely signals that we’re getting close to our destination. But it’s another half an hour until we emerge to the other side, where our concerned bus driver awaits us. We’re an 1 ½ late, the fault of Mt Ngauruhoe, and we’re mostly unrepentant. It was a twelve hour hike for us, and we spent it well. We’re exhausted though, so it’s a good thing tomorrow we’re doing nothing but driving.