Strange Trails

Been awhile, and a lot has happened, but today’s adventure needs to be told.

This morning saw me up at 4:45.Me and my grandparents were supposed to meet a van for pickup at 5:30. We were signed up for a “guided walk” through a national park here in New Zealand. We met our van and I just watched the dark countryside roll by as we were driven out of the town.

When we got to the company’s headquarters however, it turned out that “guided walk” meant different things to different people. The rest of the patrons were gearing up in Gor-tex hiking boots, hardshell jackets, and top-brand daypacks. What I thought was a glorified nature walk, was in fact a 8-hour, 13-mile, mountaineering trek that went up the side of “Mount Doom” (yes, the one from the Return of The King) through the volcanic crater, and back down again.

I had worn shorts! I had a packable traveling backpack, trail-running shoes, and one softshell without a hood! Clearly, neither me or my grandparents were prepared for this. So I smiled at one of the employees, and explained the situation expecting a disappointing drive back to the hotel. Instead, he said that we could go the first few hours of the walk, as they were on relatively flat terrain and low altitude. “But, if you want to, we do have gear here that you can borrow if you want to go the whole way.”

My eyes lit up. I looked over at a woman about my age getting fitted for crapons. One of the guides loading up ice-axes. I’ve never been mountaineering. I’ve hiked, I’ve rockclimbed, but sport that had taken explorers to the top of Everest was completely out of my experience. And this was my shot to change that.

My anxious grandfather asked repeatedly if I really wanted to do this. “Relax, I can do this.” I said, big grin on my face. Although I wasn’t completely sure myself. I was given a thermal layer for both top and bottom, a pair of waterproof pants, gloves, and a wind-water-proof jacket. Then I was issued crapons, an axe, and a climbing helmet. I stuffed this, my water bottle, and a sack lunch into my floppy backpack, and thanked God that I decided to wear merino wool socks that morning.

We hit the trail. The first 2 hours were reasonably easy. A light drizzle and heavy cloud cover were foreboding, but the guides hoped they’d pass on soon. We were hiking through the results of volcanic lava flow from thousands of years ago. The brown and red bushes that covered the rolling hills that sat a the base of the mountain were covered in tick fog. It reminded me of the haunting tales of the Scottish moors. About halfway to the first climb, I recognised the landscape as the swap from the Lord of The Rings, where Gollum first encountered the hobbits.

We began out assent. It was just stairs, but there were a lot of them. I felt my ears pop several times as we gained altitude. The higher we got, the stronger the wind blew the cold drizzle into us. We passed drifts of snow. Not 12 hours ago I couldn’t imagine seeing the stuff in this Country at this time of year. The drifts turned into the dominant aspect of the mountain landscape as the climb got steeper and the temperature dropped.

The clouds still hadn’t broken, but we marched on. Our guide lead us off the obvious man made stairs onto the snowy mountainside. Soon white was the only colour in sight. We put on our crapons, and continued upward. 10 yards away I could make out the shape of a rock. Everything else, the sky, the mountain, the very world, was hidden by a white curtain of snowy fog. I remembered the stories of people lost in blizzards only a few feet from shelter. If I got separated from my party, there would be no way of knowing which way they were, where I had come from, or even what way was down the mountain.

Using our ice axes as walking sticks, we climbed the barely visible and narrow track up towards the volcano’s crater. The drizzle had turned to sleet, the wind howled at us, pounding the icy air into us, and threatening to blow us off the mountain. My gloves and feet were soaked through, my face was being ripped you the sleet, we’d been climbing over rough terrain uphill for hours, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Eventually, we got to the brink of the crater, and headed down into the base. The smell of sulphur filled my nose. In the hazy mist, I thought I could make out a familiar ridgeline. I knew those hours wasted watching LOTR instead of writing papers in high school was a long-term investment!

We made it through to the other side of the mountain, and started the slough back towards flat land. At one point, our guide said we could save some time if took the shortcut of sliding down the slope on our butts instead of taking a winding length of trail. We slung our backpacks in front, gripped our axes tightly to use as brakes, and took turns careening down the mountainside to the trail below.

The day was long, cold, wet, and tiring. I hiked 20+ kilometres today, literally up and down Mount Doom, all in borrowed gear. I was expecting an easy, brisk walk through a small park. Instead, I got my first experience with mountaineering, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my day doing.

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