A Date up Mt Doom
I'm coining the phrase 'Adventure Date' for this excursion up New Zealand's Mt Ngauruhoe
As we reached the crest of that first hill, up onto the rocky volcanic plateau, we looked back over the short distance we’d come. The ground sloped away, back down the path we’d taken that wound its way through the protected vegetation of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park. Far away in the hazy distance, we could just make out the peak of Mt Taranaki on the West coast. Turning back to face what we’d yet to tackle, we shared a shy smile, both feeling content in our surroundings.
My partner Ali and I had only been dating for a few months, swept up in a summer romance of life in a small kiwi beach town; stealing time for hikes up waterfalls or sunrises on the beach, before I set off for a solo thru-hike along the North Island of New Zealand. With plans to meet on the south island for Winter, we wanted to meet before, somewhere in the middle of my journey: tackling Middle Earth’s Mount Doom, Mt Ngauruhoe, part of the Tongariro Crossing.
The Tongariro Crossing is a somewhat gruelling, full-day hike across a vast plain of volcanic rock; a smattering of green and turquoise lakes break up the otherwise monotonous terrain, but the smell is atrocious - overwhelmingly like rotten eggs, escaping in gassy plumes from beneath the surface. The altitude gain is minimal, just enough that you’re treated to incredible views across to almost the very Western edge of the island.
Reaching the top of that first incline, we find ourselves standing on the edge of what looks like a crater rim - the flat, open plateau stretches before us, encircled by jagged cliffs of dirty, volcanic rock. Looming to our right is Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom), the deep blood-red of what was once molten lava staining the side, ominously marking the route we’ll take. The side of the volcano immediately accessible has been worn away into tracks and grooves from the ascent of many climbers before us.
You wouldn’t think it, but Ali’s scuttling little legs had taken him quickly over that short, first section of rocky terrain faster than I could keep up. I felt surprised. This 5’6 little man was scurrying up the hillside like a Hobbit carrying a ring. I had to ask him to slow down. I tried to make a joke out of it, make it into a game. How dare he. Weren't we on a date?
We take a moment to rest at the base of the volcano, marvelling at the Martian-like landscape we’ve found ourselves in, before slowly making our way through the spiky rock formations to begin our ascent.
Mt Ngauruhoe is an optional extra, tacking on a good few extra hours to the beginning of the day - it’s also technically active, though the last eruption was in the ‘70’s, and this only adds to the sense of daring. The cone of the volcano is coated in tephra, a gravelly, dirty substance which is actually layers of ash, all making it almost impossible terrain to ascend.
The incline is so steep we spend most of it on all fours, sinking our hands and feet into the ground to gain enough purchase to haul ourselves up a few feet, only to find ourselves slipping backwards. It’s a constant struggle, our physical and mental tolerance being slowly eroded away like the ground beneath our feet. It feels like we’re making no progress; dishearteningly we look up at what is yet to be climbed, and back down to see what little we’ve covered. Is that all? To try and stand and rest for a second, looking down the descent and at the open view around us is disorienting - the gradient is so steep that our back is almost touching the slope behind us.
The ascent of the volcano can be tackled by anyone and everyone, in a free-for-all scramble to the top. The route is littered with small rocks, that every now and then are dislodged by another amateur climber to come tumbling past us. The larger boulders cause someone to scream “Rock!” as a warning to those below. It’s a real challenge, at times terrifying but exhilarating.
Eventually, roughly 100m from the top, the ground gently flattens for a small stretch before the final ascent of the more conical point begins. Skirting around and clinging to the truly monstrous boulders and chunks of broken volcano littered before us, we use them to race each other to the thin lip of the crater rim. Ali claims victory. Chivalry is dead.
It’s at the very top that we find a tiny spot to collapse and rest, exhausted and slightly overwhelmed to have accomplished the ascent. Looking down over the other side of the rim, directly into the basin, is to peer down a dizzyingly dramatic drop to a pile of jagged and broken pieces of crusty rock - part of the volcano’s rim, which has collapsed in to fill the bottom of this behemoth, and serves as a reminder of the volatile ground beneath our feet.
It feels precarious to stand at the top; we’re unsteady on our feet, feeling as if we’ll topple in if we take our eyes off the ground.
Displayed in front of us is a vast landscape of striking cliff ridges and the crossing’s acidic Blue Lake, framed in the distance by the immense lake Taupo, glittering from the early morning sunlight. The second, main volcano of Mt Tongariro lies directly in front of us, with Mt Ruapehu in the distance behind us to the south, snow coating its higher summit. It’s hard to describe the majesty of the scene. It’s breathtaking, and a poignant reminder of why this country is so special to us - the sheer natural beauty that can be found in every corner.
Naturally, standing at the top, for any Tolkein fans it conjures to mind scenes from The Lord of The Rings. I imagine a ring or two has been thrown into the volcano’s basin in tribute. But for us, we leave only our footprints, and depart with a memory that we’ll both come to cherish.