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Alex: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

October 28, 2011

Yesterday, I did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was life-changing in a way I thought not possible.

I am not a fit man. I am technically obese (I’ll spare you my rant on that system). I also do not handle heights well. I’m not petrified by them, but I certainly do not seek them out. So the idea of an 20-kilometer alpine mountain crossing was not the most attractive idea I have ever heard. I am so glad that I did it.
I’m having trouble articulating this experience in the usual way, which is to say circuitously. So, I’m going to cut straight to the action, and hopefully that will spring my brain into its usual florid, overly philosophical tone.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.3 kilometers long. It climbs up between two mountains, Mount Ngaurahoe (Mount Doom) and Mount Tongariro (not Mount Doom, but also awesome). It takes somewhere in the ballpark of 7 hours, if one does not summit either summit. Experienced a walker as I am, this was massively daunting to me.

But I did it. I soldiered on up the full hour of stair climbing. I kept my cool when I felt as if the wind would literally rip me from the side of the mountain. I walked in shorts in snow up to my knees. I saw massive heights, and in the face of them choked back my abject terror and took in the most incredible scenery I’ve ever seen.

We were unable to summit Ngaurahoe, as it is quite steep and quite snow-covered, and requires crampons andice axes, of which we had neither. We did, however, summit Tongariro. It was perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. The snow was deep, the wind was strong and the heights were dizzying. The sky was clear, and the view in every direction was overwhelming. As I crossed a small, snowy ridge blasted by the wind, with nothing on either side but a steep slope down to a rocky demise, I had to keep my hood closed tight around my head just to limit my periphery and keep my cool. Only once we reached the summit and I was able to sit and hold firmly on to some rocks could I relax enough to keep my heart from beating out of my chest.

The view was absolutely worth every moment of terror. From here, one can see what seems like the entire world. The desert on one side of the mountains, and the rocky scrubland on the other. Down to the forest, and lakes Rotoaira and Taupo. It is truly magnificent.

On the descent from this summit, I saw the the huge red crater and the gorgeous emerald lakes, just beginning to peak out from underneath their frosty winter covering. I was assaulted by the smell of sulfur from the many volcanic vents in the area. I slid down treacherous loose gravel trails.

After all of this there was more walking. Lots more. We descended down past the snow line, and further down to where the vegetation began again. Before we knew it we were walking through sub-tropical forest.

Every part of my body hurt at the end of the day. I was sun-burnt on every exposed piece of skin. My hips, knees, feet, legs, and back all ached from a level of exertion they rarely, if ever see. I am still sore, and I suspect this burn will last some time.

It was fantastic.
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