Encountering Mt. Doom: hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

15 - 2Completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in on March 25 was neither what I anticipated nor hoped for. My husband,  John, and I have been planning our trip to New Zealand for months and since seeing the trek described as “one of the world’s top single-day hikes” we had put it at the top of our to-do list.

New Zealand consists of two main islands and Tongariro National Park sits in the middle of the North Island. For people who are not trekking enthusiasts, the way that the park is most familiar is that it was the filming site of the fictional Mt. Doom in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are several volcanic peaks in the park. Mt. Ngauruhoe, an iconic and stark volcanic cone became Mt. Doom–from which the One Ring was forged and to which it had to be returned.

First, let me say that the 19.4 kilometer “Crossing” was more of a “climb” than a “hike.” If I had understood more about the nature of much of the trail in advance–I might have had second thoughts. I read through the website, did some other research, looked at the beautiful pictures. The incredible scenery was all there when I did the hike. But, not surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of pictures of the narrow hogbacks that had to be climbed or descended (probably because few people are of a mind or stomach to stop and pull out the camera under those circumstances).

15 - 3The track actually crosses between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, over the remnants of another volcano called the Red Crater. Climbing to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe is optional. Or accidental, in the case of a hiker we met on the descent. She became separated from her hiking club in the morning and took a wrong turn. The wrong turn took her to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe. She was in good enough shape, mentally and physically, to make it back down. Although she did tell us that when she realized her mistake she had a moment when she wanted to just sit down, weep, and wait for rescue.

Most of the first 4 kilometers of the hike is a steady uphill on gravel paths or wooden boardwalks (covered, in much of New Zealand, with metal grids to protect the wood and reduce slippage). There were occasional short flights of stairs. I knew that, somewhere up ahead, was something called the “Devil’s Staircase.”

A lot of people passed us going uphill–mostly younger, but not all of them. We’re not in it for the speed. We leap-frogged several groups, exchanging greetings and comments as we passed and re-passed.

At about 4.5 kilometers, at the start of the Devil’s Staircase there’s a sign that starts off:

“STOP! Are you really prepared to continue your Alpine Crossing trek?”
Is the weather OK?
Do you have the right equipment & clothing?
Are you fit enough?
If you have answered no to any of these seriously CONSIDER TURNING BACK

We started climbing.

We paused frequently in the thinner air for a breather, water, or to let faster climbers play through.

About a third of the way up, we paused again and let a couple pass who we had seen many times already. The day was fairly warm, and rather than piling on the layers of down and extra clothing I was carrying, I like they, had been removing layers. The woman was wearing a light-weight black windbreaker. Her husband was wearing a black, red, and white soccer jersey.

As he mounted the third step of the next flight, he made a sudden noise and I thought that he tripped. To my horror, he spun slowly around and collapsed with his hands flailing and his eyes opened wide. My husband and others ran to help the falling man–John started yelling down the train for a doctor. I had borrowed his iPhone to take some photos and pulled it out of my back pocket. To my surprise I had a signal and called 111 (New Zealand’s emergency number). I spent the next hour, until the battery ran out, on the line with Aaron, the dispatcher.

In short order we had a doctor and a nurse performing CPR on a 63-year-old Swiss man named Abe (or Herve, perhaps) Ingalls. They were joined by two more doctors. Aaron had dispatched an ambulance and helicopter within minutes. One of the hikers who stopped was a pilot. He was able to provide GPS coordinated and flying information for me to relay. He also identified a landing zone below on a lava field. Others directed the steady stream of hikers around the emergency site.

After an hour, the battery on John’s cell phone ran low. Aaron called back to another hiker who had supplied his number.

It took another half hour for the helicopters to arrive.

We don’t know what happened to Abe.

But we thought about him, and his frantic French-speaking wife, as we climbed and descended. We tried to focus as much as possible on being safe.

We felt like we had to finish. But there was no joy in it. There was no celebratory beer at the end.

We missed our bus back to our hotel–we had called to warn them about being late and why with some of the last of the battery. Other drivers had been alerted about us, but we had not shown up for then, either. Just after we arrived, Bruce, the owner of Piper’s Lodge where we were staying, who had arranged our transportation and packed our lunch, showed up in his SUV to find us.

I wept.

I had some good salmon for dinner–even though I was not really hungry. I drank a lot of water. I slept badly.

I did not pick up my traditional pebble along the path to take home. I was being a bit superstitious, I know, but I did not want to anger the mountain any more than it already was.

We have photos–but now they are painful tolook at.

Rather than triumph, we talk mostly about it being a sobering experience.

Mt. Doom, indeed.

4 replies »

  1. I’ve been pondering your post, Cat, probably because I’m a 61 year old male who does Ironmen and bicycle races, scubas, runs marathons, skis and snowshoes, occasionally rides a motorcycle, hikes up mountains, etc. And I do a lot of these things alone–running trails in the Sierra’s, snorkeling in the ocean, etc.

    I could only work up sympathy for you. It must be terrible to see someone die right in front of you. But sympathy for him? Not so much. When old guys do active sports, some of us will die. A few years ago at USAT (triathlon) nationals we saw an old guy die in the swim (actually we saw them haul his body out–we didn’t actually see him die.) Anyway, it had minimal emotional impact on me. We pays our money and we takes our chances.

    I cant really imagine how it feels to be you, or him, but I strongly suspect that if I was the one who keeled over, I’d appreciate you calling “111,” but then I’d expect you to step over me and finish the hike.

    • I’ve let this story sit for a month to give myself some space. I think you are right. My husband is a bit older than you–we hike, ski, bike. We do our best to stay in shape and to know our limits. He’s fond of his grandmother’s saying, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

      Five years ago in Scotland, we climbed Goatfell, a near-mountain (about 150 feet short), on the Isle of Arran. It was before we both went on the “stupid diet” (so-called three-years in), so I was 20 pounds heavier. But it was a great hike and climb. On the way up we were passed by a 75-year-old who’d had a double-bypass and a knee-replacement. He was originally from Scotland, but had lived in Colorado for over a decade–so he climbed much more often that we can. In the end I was happy to have been in his company. Our goal is to go back every few years and repeat the climb as long as we can.

      As you said, we need to finish the hike. Thanks for the perspective.

    • Mike: thanks for the link to the article about the death of the hiker. I’m not surprised to read that he was already dead at the scene.