I had no plan to climb either of the summits accessible from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (aka the formidable Mordor from Lord of the Rings) and had not allowed any time to do so. In my perpetual penny pinching, I had booked the cheapest bus with just one drop off and pick up time. Looking back, I still wonder how I came to be sliding down the loose scree of Mt Ngauruhoe on my backside.
Our bus of six strangers, all collected from their hostels at an ungodly time in the morning, were dropped off at the start of the crossing whilst the air was still cold and crisp. The low sun shone through the cloud that crept along the earth. Spirits were high and eager.
As I approached the base of Ngauruhoe, famed for it’s role as Mt Doom, I recalled the exuberant way my hostel companion had talked the night before about the climb and found that my feet were already carrying me off the main path up the old lava flow.
The ascent, made up of loose scree, slipped and tumbled beneath me, forcing me to scramble, like Sam and Frodo, on my hands and feet. Progress was slow. Each time I stopped to rest and take in the increasingly spellbinding views, another climber would pass me, then I him. We competed in this unspoken race all the way to the top.
I can’t actually recall who won in the end, likely due to being so awestruck upon reaching the top. The views were phenomenal and well worth all the slips and scrapes we had endured, but what really filled me with joy was the affinity we climbers now shared. I sat myself down on a craggy red rock on the edge of the colossal crater and watched as strangers shared their lunch, water, and in a somewhat futile effort, their face wipes.
After revelling in the climber camaraderie and the otherworldly landscape above the clouds, I became very aware of my pick up time creeping ever closer, with most of the 19km hike still to go.
Instructed by a fellow climber, I went leaping down the scree, using gravity to my advantage - I was flying. Unfortunately this was a skill I had yet to master. My right leg folded back under me, the rocks tore at my bare legs. I flung my arms out to slow myself to no effect. I surrendered to the fall and slid to a halt. Bloodied and bruised, I’d never had more fun.
Covered head to toe in dust with blood trickling down my arms and legs, I responded to the gasps and looks of horror from the hikers at the base readying themselves for their climb with a big grin and an exclamation of, “It’s worth it, enjoy!”.