Dec 13

Tongariro Crossing 2

by in Drawing & Writing

Worried we’d miss the alarm, I woke up at 3:30 and cat-napped to 5:00. When Antje woke up at 5:00, her parched lips held the same unspoken question as mine. ‘Why the bottle of wine?’ Our legs were still tired from running + biking. Stupid.

Still, we were the first off the bus into the cold, mountain air. It was sunny with high, paper-thin clouds. What luck! It was 7:05, and Mt. Doom loomed.

When Antje did the Tongariro crossing four years ago, she had to run the last four miles to catch the last bus – which she did, by a few seconds. We were intent on not doing that again, and power-walked the beautiful “Soda Springs” section, with a few pauses in there to scoop handfuls of freezing cold water onto post-wine-bottle morning glow-face.

At the base of “Devil’s Staircase” are two toilets, and they caused me to pause. The owner of our hostel had promised that there’d be running, potable water wherever there were toilets on the trek. There wasn’t. It was alright, though. There was a hut later on that would have it, and until then we had one liter of water and two Powerades.

The water was gone by the base of Mt. Doom, as we prepared ourselves for the climb. Annoyingly, Mt. Doom is an out-and-back ascent that doesn’t shorten the trek by an inch. It adds around two miles to the Tongariro crossing, most of them vertical. Antje had described the climb as being like the story of Sisyphus, and she was right.

For every step taken on the volcano, about a quarter is lost to slippage. The mixture of pumice and ash gives easily, and it’s very, very steep – steep enough to require hands as well as feet. It feels (and sounds) like climbing a mixture of charcoal briquettes and charcoal ash, all of it dusted red. There’s no trail.

A Kiwi father-son duo had embarked at about the same time, and their “trail” became ours. At about the halfway point we stopped talking to them, and we had to pause every twenty steps or so to catch our breath. A Dane overtook us – “Inconceivable!” We pressed on, though, and it was heart-breaking. But somehow, someway, we eventually made it to the cone.

Up top, the Kiwi father grabbed his son by the shoulders and, even though they were clearly of European stock, they touched foreheads and noses, per Maori tradition, grinning all the while, right on the edge of the crater. I wish I could have taken a picture of them on the volcano and later mailed it to them. That was a moment. Afterwards he explained the geology of the volcanoes and the nearby fault zones, first to the son, then to all. Wellington, he claims, is at a much higher risk for earthquakes than Christchurch. His son asked, “Isn’t there a bridge in Seattle that’s made for earthquakes?” “Not that I know of,” I said, “but we did have the Tacoma Narrows bridge fall way back when.” The dad knew that one. “We use it to teach our physics students about resonance.” He was a teacher, then.

As Antje and I drank Powerade, the Dane bounded over. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” He was wearing a hat that said “Maledives”. I told him I’d proposed to Antje there, that this was our honeymoon. “Congratulations! That’s great, really great. I loved the Maledives, absolutely spectacular.” He explained the geology of the Maledives in perfect English. The Kiwi teacher overheard, and interrupted when the definition for volcanic words such as “pyroclastic flow” came up. He had a different understanding. They sparred for a while, but the Dane layman was forced to concede. He seemed pleased: he had learned something new! He bounded happily off. His name was Nikolai.

One advantage of a steep slope made mostly of sand-sized materials: You can more or less ski down it with heavy bootsteps. At one point Nikolai got himself going too fast and started galloping, arms flailing. A horrible, tumbling face-plant seemed imminent. He kept the gallop going, though, all the way to the bottom of the volcano, in a third of the time it took us. By the bottom our legs were jello. We had completed 3 miles of the 12-mile trek.

As a reward we drained the last of our Powerade – the last of all liquids, in fact. “That’s OK,” I said, “there should be a water refill station.” “No,” Antje said, “I don’t remember that.” Uh oh?

From there it was flat, expansive South Crater, where they filmed the final, fatalistic charge of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings. Then up to Red Crater, which erupted 14 years ago, and down to Emerald Lakes. We tried to eat, but were mostly thirsty. The sun was beating down, but the air was cold, and our legs were shot. When we got going again we saw a sign that said, 9km (5 1/2 miles). “Good,” I said. “there’s only 9k left.” It was the other way around. We’d completed 5 1/2 of 12 miles.

The trail passed a lake and then slalomed for miles downhill toward a hut where, I hoped, there’d be water. Nope. Just revolting toilets that said, “Keeping the flies away is as easy as closing the lid!” Other trekkers had full, 1.5-liter bottles of water in their packs; they didn’t have hostel owners who told untruths. My lips had dried out. The physical and psychological despair felt at this hut is comparable to a marathon at mile 19… only with the water-cup bearers, in this case, withdrawing whenever you approach.

“OK, let’s get this over with.”

It snaked torturously, and you could see the path twisting far below. Nikolai came bounding down. “Hey there!” He had also ascended Mt. Tongariro, which the leaflet had said was not possible to do without missing the buses. And yet he was jogging down the mountain to catch the early bus home. “Best of luck! Have a nice honeymoon!” He was a Great Dane.

The trail entered jungle, and next to it was a cold, rushing creek with signs that said, “Unfit for drinking.”

It flattened out. We were getting close. We turned the corner. Steps upward. The trail descended slowly again, then flattened out. One of Antje’s toenail was going, and she had four blisters. At some point I had remembered that on the bus-ride out there’d been a cooler with ice-cold Cokes for sale. Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola classic. Voices ahead, “I think we’re close.” Then… more steps upward. Oh god. Around every single corner was the parking lot. Things were getting sluggish, delirious. The creek looked delicious.

Finally, the unmistakable sound of the real parking lot. Trekkers were sprawled out everywhere, instantly asleep with open mouths. It looked like a refugee camp, with the first arrivers having taken the shady spots. I made directly for the bus-driver. “Do you know where I might buy something to drink?” The bus driver looked around. “You know, if your normal bus were here they’d have something. But they had to run off and pick someone up – someone got lost today. Sorry about that. Normally he’d be back by about 4:30 [45 minutes from now], but it’ll probably be 4:45, maybe a bit later.”

When the bus did come, it had no drinks for sale. Other red-faced Tongariro crossers piled in behind us.

Now, one sees (or hears) a lot of pick-up attempts in hostels around the world. But from the back of the bus came one that was truly unique:

English guy: “–subway.”

Swiss girl: “Really.”

At this point it seemed pretty clear that he was talking about transportation. He wasn’t.

“Yup. Subway, McDonalds, KFC, and then Burger King. Subway’s actually more popular than McDonalds, at least in England.”

“I never eat at Subway in Switzerland. Only when I am traveling. Then I like it.”

“How much does it cost in Switzerland?”

“I don’t know, maybe 10 francs. I don’t know how much in euros.”

“It’s about 1.3 francs to the euro.”



guy: “Is that a six-inch or a foot-long?”


“I was asking how much a foot-long costs. In francs.”

“I guess 20. In Switzerland a large french fries from McDonalds is the same size as a small french fries in America.”

“Mm. I’m not so sure about that. French fry sizes are the same across Europe. At least at McDonalds. In New Zealand the sizes are a bit bigger than the sizes in Europe, though.”


“Except for the Big Mac, that’s the same. And it’s not really a Big Mac, is it? More like a Small Mac.”


guy: “And in America you do have other options. You can order a double McRib there.”

“That’s interesting.”

The end.



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4 Responses to “Tongariro Crossing 2”

  1. From Shannon Mariah:

    I love reading these (and am!), just don’t comment like some people in our family :) I love you both and am so happy we could help you do this wonderful, amazing, trip of a lifetime. xoxo

    Posted on December 13, 2011 at 16:59 #
  2. From Esther:


    i like :)

    oh and btw: i didn’t get that joke with the lightbulb. I’m german.

    Posted on December 13, 2011 at 17:29 #
  3. From Roxy:

    I’m… sorry?

    Posted on December 14, 2011 at 01:33 #
  4. From Grady:

    Conor, I was half expecting you to say you were picked up by the Eagles when you ran out of water because that is what happens to Sam and Frodo, but was slightly disappointed to hear you had to walk instead. haha. Jealous you got to climb Mt. Doom. Love reading these stories.

    Posted on December 17, 2011 at 22:55 #