On Wednesday, Ariel and I traversed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Or in other words, we attempted to simply walk into Mordor.
We had known this day was coming for months and even made some half-hearted attempts to “train” for it by doing a few hour-long hikes around New Jersey.
We were unprepared.
Our bus picked us up from the Park Hotel where we were staying at 7:30 am and dropped us off at the start of the trail around 8 am. We began our trek surrounded by hundreds of people of varying ages, from children all the way to their literal grandparents. Most of the people were in their 20’s. Disappointed to be surrounded by so many people but excited to get going, we embarked on our journey into Mordor.
We were told the bus would meet us on the other side at 3 pm and that if we were running late, we could catch a later bus at 4:30. If we needed more time than that, we could make arrangements for a private pickup for $150. No thanks. Generally it takes people about 7-8 hours so we had nothing to worry about.
The first kilometer was really easy. We were both thinking that the whole thing would be no sweat and that we’d easily make the 3 pm bus.
Somewhere between the first and second kilometer the trail began to turn uphill. It was still pretty easy, but there was a definite change. Ariel and I both have some respiratory issues, with her having full blown asthma and me having…something like asthma that I’ve never really gotten properly diagnosed.
We began falling behind people at this point. But still, no big deal. Nothing we hadn’t already seen on short stints on the Appalachian Trail or other hikes back home.
Then we came to this sign…
…which we had precisely zero respect for as you can see from Ariel’s expression.
Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t lying because this is where the real ordeal began. For the next two hours it was a nearly 45 degree climb of stairs. With our aforementioned breathing issues, that meant stopping every 20 steps or so to catch our breath. Now anyone who has ever gone uphill will tell you that is an absolutely disastrous approach to climbing. We knew this. It didn’t matter though. We had to keep stopping as our hearts were pounding in our ears.
To be sure, we weren’t the ONLY people suffering, but we were definitely among the worst. People were hopping and skipping along past us as we sat, panting. Some people even jogged and RAN past us. Lord how I hated those people.
The views though…
Absolutely spectacular. And truly otherworldly. This WAS Middle Earth.
At times the trail actually leveled off and we had bursts of energy and excitement. Highs and lows (literally) is the name of the game. We even got to take some fun pictures along the way when we weren’t feeling crushed by the experience.
The trouble was that after two hours, when we were in the midst of what I was calling the “plains of Gorgoroth” there was still one more major ascent. This time with no steps. We literally needed to pull ourselves up by chains.
Absolutely brutal. More than once we both thought about turning back. I was trying to keep it together and push us both across what I thought was the finish line. We took our last break, had our lunch in a rocky outcropping that was our only shelter from 30+ MPH sustained winds and pushed forward.
By this point it was clear that the 3 pm bus was never happening and that even the 4:30 bus would be a long shot.
Then, after one last push, finally, we were at the summit. From here we had an incredible view of the blue lakes, emerald lakes, red crater and of course Mount Doom or Mount Ngauruhoe for people who prefer real world names for their deadly volcanoes.
Unfortunately for us, what goes up, must come down. And unlike Frodo and Sam, there were no giant eagles to come and fly us back to Rivendell. Or in this case, the car park.
From the top it was a steep (around 30-40 degree) descent, on thick brown sand. Poor Ariel fell a couple of times, but luckily the ground was really soft so it was no big deal. And still people of all ages kept zooming past us, just casually jogging down, looking like they were skiing past us.
At this point I had developed some knee cramps, a heel blister, some pain in my groin muscles and thighs on the ascent, so going downhill was a relief for a while. Eventually though, the “downhill muscles” started acting up too and I started developing a blister on my right pinky toe.
The landscape also changed dramatically from the ascent as well. Whereas on the ascent, we were surrounded by volcanic rocks, on the downhill portion the landscape turned green, with some steam geysers emanating from some places on the mountain. It was very atmospheric and cool looking. At this point we were doing pretty well as the trail eventually leveled off and began lazily winding down the mountain at just a few degrees.
By the time we arrived at the next rest area, we felt great. With just a few kilometers to go – all downhill – seemingly at a leisurely pace, we felt like we might even make the 4:30 bus. Just to be safe, we called to find out if there was a later bus and lo and behold there was actually a 5:30 bus we could take for free.
Feeling great, we continued on down.
After about an hour of easy descent, we entered what I can only describe as Mirkwood. No this was not the film location. And no, Mirkwood is not a real place. But man, did it feel like we were trapped in an endless, enchanted rain forest with no way out. The air was utterly still and stifling.
And the stairs. My God, the stairs. Hundreds, thousands of stairs going down into the green gloom. Visibility varied from 50-100 feet at most as the trail made sharp 90 degree turns every few dozen steps. And all stairs all the time.
After about an hour of this, Ariel’s knees began locking up. I was barely in better shape. Our water was mostly gone. Feet were rebelling with every step. With no markers along this stretch we had no idea if we were even making any progress at all. Our pace slowed to a crawl, as Ariel was nearly unable to put any weight on her left knee and I tried to support her weight by having her lean on me as we trudged down, one step at a time.
By now it was becoming clear that we were among the last people left on the trail as we were all alone for 5-10 minutes at a time. At last we came to (what was unbeknownst to us) the last round of stairs. Ariel had to stop a few steps from the bottom and for the first time I started ACTUALLY worrying we wouldn’t make it. As people walked by I was asking them for pain medication and basically decided we would just hitchhike back to the hotel whenever we got to end. Instead of catching the bus, my only goal now was to beat the darkness.
But in the end, Ariel rallied and we got down the last few steps. From this point on the trail leveled off a lot and the last 20 minutes could even be described as pleasant if we weren’t both limping across the finish line. One of the couples that passed us (and graciously offered to drive us to our hotel) reached the end a few minutes before us and called out to us that it was almost over.
Suddenly the trail turned to the left and DAYLIGHT.
It was 5:40. The bus had waited for us. I had to take a selfie by myself at the end of the trail because Ariel just couldn’t stay on her feet anymore.
And just like that it was over. We won. A few days later and we are mostly healed. Ariel’s knee pains faded with some Ibuprofen and my only continuing injury was an absolutely disgusting pinky toe blister and a sunburned neck and face. Whatever, I’ll live.
So would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It really seemed like we got the worst of it when compared to everyone else. It seemed like if you had ANY climbing experience or were a regular hiker it was no big deal. But for people who are mostly used to hiking/walking on flat ground this was no picnic. You need to be prepared for a tough time. And if you can, spend some time building up your leg muscles in advance of the hike.
But if you’re up for it, the views are really and truly amazing.
In terms of supplies, I felt like we had brought about enough food/water to get through the nine hour journey. We had about five liters of water between the two of us, so we probably should have had another liter or so for the last stretch when we went into overtime. I packed two sandwiches, an apple, a granola bar, some carrots and a cucumber. Ariel did the same, minus a sandwich.
By the end of the journey I started feeling like I do at the end of a day of starving myself on Yom Kippur, but I’m not sure if that was due to lack of food or general over-exertion. Other people we saw definitely packed less than us.
You will definitely want a first aid kit with some band aids, anti-bacterial cream, pain medication. If your lips often get chapped, you’ll definitely want to bring something for that too. Also, don’t be an idiot like me – wear sunscreen on all exposed skin.
We both wore backpacks with water bladders and easy access straws. I really liked mine, an Osprey pack with the optional 3 liter bladder attachment. It was light and I barely even remembered I had it on. With all the pains I experienced, back pain was not one of them despite dragging around at least 20 pounds of gear (including 6.5 pounds of water). Highly recommended.
Most importantly you’re going to want to bring lots of layers. We went from thermal fleeces to t-shirts, back to fleeces and back to t-shirts by the end. The temperature changes were nuts.
Also something to keep in mind is the fact that there are only a few places to stop with toilets on the entire journey. That means unless you can hold it for 3+ hours at a time, you’ll either want to limit your water consumption or get used to doing your business in the field, often with little to no privacy. Although I suppose there is some novelty to being able to tell people you took a leak on Mount Doom.
Finally, don’t worry about making your bus. That’s a great way to panic, rush and get yourself seriously injured. And don’t waste your money on “making special arrangements” – first of all there are constantly buses taking people back so that even if you miss yours you can probably hitch a ride with a different bus. They’re not just going to leave you to die. And people who do these treks tend to be really friendly – I have absolute confidence that we would have gotten a ride back from someone who had a car in the lot.
And on that note, we didn’t come across any park rangers at any of the rest areas or anywhere else on the trail. So if you run into trouble like we did (hopefully not worse), you’ll have to rely on your own wits and/or the kindness of strangers.
I’d suspected, despite continual reassurances from local New Zealanders that we would be “fine” and that it would be no big deal, that we actually would be way in over our heads. It was that nervousness that had me asking everyone we met here what it would be like. The response was always something along the lines of “don’t worry, you can do it.” Well that was technically true, we DID make it and we did live to tell the tale. But if either of us had any kind of chronic knee or other leg/foot issue we would have been doomed.
In retrospect it was absolutely worth it. In the moment, it was a nightmare. Would I do it again? Not really – at least not without building up to it with a year or so of regular uphill hikes. Having said all that, if I could do it you can definitely do it. Just know what you’re getting yourself in to.
Because Boromir was absolutely right, one does NOT simply walk into Mordor.