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  • You know, I’ve never really hiked before. Granted the Midwest doesn’t exactly have an abundance of hike-able landscape either- so I’ve got a bit of an excuse. But being in New Zealand, a country full of mountains I thought to myself, “No better time than the present right?” New Zealand isn’t just a country full of mountains; the islands are actually situated along major world fault lines which actually created the beautiful Southern Alps in the South Island. Along with the Southern Alps it also created a plentitude of volcanic activity in the North Island. Sounding like a really safe place to come and visit right? Fault lines (earthquakes) and active volcanoes- check and check. Anyhoo, these two have created some of the most stunning mountains on the planet, and I wanted to climb one….or four.

    New Zealand’s Department of Conservation created this list of the 9 Great Walks in the country. The oldest and one of the most popular is the Tongariro Crossing. For my first hike, I decided to do the one way 6-8 hour trek through the national park. I mean, no big deal right? It’s just a walk…

    So my friend Ursula and I started the day off relatively early, around 8:30, and had our solid breakfast and made our meals for the day (only the best fuel ever- peanut butter and jelly). She packed out sacks and filled out water bottles while I went down to reception to figure out how to get to the start of the track. She looked at me like I was crazy when I waltzed in at 9:30 requesting directions.

    Reception lady: “Tongariro? Oh hunny you’re too late. People typically leave around 7:30 to get to the park. It’s about an hour’s drive from here.”

    Me *mouth gaping*: “What?! Some girl last night told me that it was like a 15-20 minute drive! Ugh! Oh well“

    Reception lady: “Are you still going to go? You’re really cutting it close if you are. It’s a 6-8 hour walk and you probably won’t get to the start until around 11, and the sun sets around 8 tonight. You have to be sure to finish the walk by sun down or else it’s dangerous for both of you.”

    Me: *blank face* “Awesome…..”

    I was far too amped for this hike to let a bit of a ‘late start’ deter me. So we set off! The hour drive was not entirely pleasant as it started torrentially raining as we got closer to the park. Are you serious?! My excitement turned to worry, then to complete indifference. Whatever. I’m in New Zealand about to do one of the best walks in the country. Rain? Please, I bought a portable rain jacket the other day. I can handle this.

    So Ursula and I set off in our leggings and hooded jackets to take on the Tongariro Crossing! The weather continued to suck and just as our friend drove off I realized I left my water ( :-/ ). An hour in, we made it to the first cabin and both of us questioned whether we should turn back, but the sun shined through the clouds and mist and we kept going. Right before we begin our ascent we reach a sign that says, “Are You Prepared?” and proceeds with a list of 7 things to have, of which we have 3. I’m here now, my ride left, and there’s no reception on this damn mountain, what else am I supposed to do?! So we begin our ascent.

    Two and a half hours in, and we’re climbing up the mountain in a cloud. We can see about 5 feet in front of us. I was starting to wonder if we were at the top. About 30 minutes later we reached a huge plain. The cloud was so low over the mountain that we couldn’t see where it ended. I felt like we were in that movie ‘Total Recall’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was all flat and orange-ish. Mid-way through the plain we come across another sign, this one reading, “In Case of Volcanic Eruption: Know What To Do” ……………………………………………………………………..seriously? We were way too far to turn back then, so we laughed and sat down for a peanut butter and jelly. Now let me tell you- there is nothing like the taste of a good pb&j at the top of a mountain. Seriously. It’s like manna fallen from heaven.

    After our lunch break we kept moving. We clouds started to move and we noticed a wall of rock ahead (guess we weren’t at the top). Now when I say wall, I mean wall. That last bit of the climb up was sooooo steep! We had to stop every 3-5 minutes because the air was so thin at that point. While gasping for air we started to smell sulfur, yet another reminder that we were on an active volcano.

    We’d climb, stop, climb, stop, for what felt like hours. The wind started to pick up. I kept looking down thinking ‘If one of these gusts catches me off guard, I’ve got 6,000 feet of rock to break my fall…’ Then, the clouds parted as if God himself didn’t want us to miss the view and there it was – Tongariro National Park. The whole 500 square miles of it. We both fumbled for our cameras. With frozen swollen hands I awkwardly snapped shots of the landscape. I couldn’t stop thinking, “I did it! I climbed a mountain!!” We met a French couple at the top and laughed with them about our lack of preparation (they had gear for days). While I was cold, I was so full of adrenaline had it not been for my frozen hands and runny nose I wouldn’t have noticed. Ursula and I hugged and congratulated each other and made some time for a few photo ops, but kept in mind what time the sun set and began our descent.

    The way down was basically a glorified slide. You had to lean back to keep yourself from doing a snowball down. We could see smoke coming from the side of the mountain and the smell of sulfur was incredibly strong. I was just praying that I didn’t feel the ground shake. At the bottom of the ‘slide’ there were these huge blue lakes. Soooo blue. I think the color stood out even more for us because we had seen the same red-brown-greys for the past 4 hours. They were absolutely still, not a single ripple. Gorgeous.

    The last 3 hours were beautiful. The sun came out to greet and warm us and the flowers began reappearing as we got further down the hill. It felt like a dream. Just me and Ursula, walking in an alpine field.

    Our day ended in a rainforest walk, complete with rushing streams and a moss covered floor. I had blisters on my feet and my thighs felt like they might fall off. I haven’t felt this alive in years.
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