The wind came out of nowhere, madly swirling around the desolate volcanic crater. A small knot of hikers inching their way up its steep side quickly heeded the warning of their seasoned Maori guide, Tom Ngato. They dropped to their knees and pressed their bodies against the jumble of black pumice, so no gust could fling them into the crater's rocky depths. With luck, the wind would subside as quickly as it had roared to life, and the group could carry on and reach the summit of Red Crater, tantalizingly close.
But 20 minutes later the wind was still relentlessly howling around the lunar landscape, scooping up handfuls of dirt and ancient lava bits, and flinging them about like a toddler having a tantrum. Ngato could sense the tendrils of fear slowly creeping into the hikers' psyches. Slowly, carefully, the group crawled back down the mountain. In the parking lot, they met a dazed Argentinian who had managed to reach the summit despite the gale-force winds. Still visibly shaken, he said softly, "I thought I was going to die."
Ngato's tale of this recent attempt to hike New Zealand's famous Tongariro Crossing was sobering, yet surprisingly exhilarating. I certainly had no death wish, but I like to challenge myself -- not in a "Climb Mount Everest" way, but perhaps in a "Hike the Tongariro Crossing" way. I quickly determined to reach the top of 6,175-foot Red Crater, highest point in the 12-mile Crossing.
The Tongariro Crossing is considered New Zealand's best one-day trek, and one of the best in the world. A tiny, curving ribbon in the vast, 200,000-acre Tongariro National Park, the trail traverses Mount Tongariro, which isn't actually a mountain or single volcano but rather a complex of volcanic craters that have erupted at different times in the past.
The oldest lava began roiling about 275,000 years ago, while the most recent eruption occurred in 1975, when Mount Ngauruhoe -- Mount Doom to "Lord of the Rings" fans -- blew its top.
The trail also winds through soft alpine meadows and past burbling mountain springs, curves around tiny emerald lakes and offers some of the most impressive vistas you're likely to see anywhere.
It's partly the pretty, innocuous scenery you pass early on that causes hikers to discount the Crossing's dangers. Add to that that most hikers attempt it during summer, when the pleasant weather results in a 70 percent success rate, and that you can drive right up to a car park (that's a parking lot in Kiwi-speak) and start hiking.
Tony Parker, a former Crossing guide, recounted the story of one fellow who was only two or three miles into the hike when a cold rain began to fall. Casually clad in jeans -- a big no-no, as wet cotton is the worst thing to be wearing on a chilly day -- he quickly succumbed to hypothermia. A woman was hiking around the volcanic vents when she slipped down a rocky incline to her death. "She basically took a 2,000-foot slide on a cheese grater," Parker said.
Tongariro demands respect, but doesn't always get it. And that can be a problem.
Base camp: A car park
I, for one, was going to take things seriously. Rather than hiking solo, I'd signed on with guide Stewart Barclay, who assembled a group of eight. I ticked off his list of recommendations: Dress in layers. Check. Wear hiking boots. Check. Wear or carry a raincoat in case the weather changes. Check. Carry a quart-and-a-half of water. Check.
Crossing day dawned sunny and beautiful. But as our van crunched along the gravel road leading to the Mangatepopo Road Car Park, I began to feel uneasy. While the sky was a bright blue, thick clouds smothered the tops of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, right where the Crossing passed. Wispy threads of an eerie cloud vapor also rolled slowly down the mountains' sides, right toward tiny dots, people walking along the trail. My imagination now in overdrive, I half expected to see those silky fingers coil themselves around a hiker or two and roll back up into the clouds.
Barclay's voice broke my reverie. The hike would take eight or nine hours with stops for photos and lunch, he said. We shouldn't have any problem making the ascent because the winds were blowing at a moderate 30 kilometers (18 miles per hour). "If they were at 70 or more, you tiny girls would act like kites, and off you'd go," he laughed.
Our first pit stop would be Soda Springs, where we'd find our last porta-potty for hours. It should take about two hours to get there. The first mile, along a crushed gravel path, wound through scrubby terrain in various earthy hues: terra cotta, dun, sage.
By the second mile, the volcanic landscape began to emerge. Our path became covered in ebony cinders, and we had to take care not to stumble on the nubby, black rocks scattered everywhere. In the distance, inky mounds of some kind of volcanic residue rose toward the sky in lumpy, lopsided pillars. Barclay pointed to the rocky walls rising in front of us. "Where it's dark, without moss or lichen, those are the more recent lava flow tracks." A subtle reminder of exactly where we trod.
En route to Red Crater
By the time we reached the porta-potty, the sun was gone. The terrain was now dark, scarred and forbidding. As a light mist settled over us, I walked over to a large warning sign that yelled, "STOP! Are you really prepared to continue your alpine crossing trek?" then listed reasons it might be wiser to turn back. I asked Barclay why the steep section we were about to begin climbing, affectionately dubbed the Devil's Staircase, was lined with blue-tipped poles.
"Those are to help people find the trail in winter, or if the weather's bad, or if they get stuck here at night," he said. All of which happen regularly.
We climbed some 650 feet to South Crater. "We're in a real lava crater now," Barclay said with a mischievous grin. "Let's hope we're having a lucky day."
A large snowfield blanketed much of the crater's bottom. We crossed it, and then we were there. The base of the summit. "Chuck another layer on now if you're a wee bit cold," shouted Barclay above the wind, which suddenly began buffeting us from all sides. "We've got a so'wester now, and our southern winds come from Antarctica, so it will be cold."
It wasn't so much cold as a strange kind of chilliness that seemed to seep inside me and wrap itself around my very soul. Shrugging into my final layer, I prepared to face my Everest.
The climb was achingly steep. My breathing became deep and labored, and I barely noticed the winds, sometimes annoyingly tossing bits of icy snow, but never coming close to pushing me off the trail. An hour later, we all stood at the top. We'd done it. But instead of feeling triumphant, I felt a small pang of disappointment. That was it?
And then I really looked around. The views were stunning, despite the heavy, gray cloud cover. This was what I'd really come for -- to walk among volcanoes and admire their barren beauty.
I drank in the jet black mounds covered with ribbons of bright, white snow. The delicate pools of water, including the famous trio of emerald lakes. And immense Red Crater, which, at 3,000 years old, is the most recently formed feature of the Tongariro Crossing, along with Mount Ngauruhoe.
Suddenly I took another look at the crater, stained blood-red from oxidized iron in the rock. It appeared to be steaming. It was steaming, Barclay said, and if we felt the rocks beneath us, they'd be warm, too. "Remember, this is an active volcanic vent," he said. "It's going, 'Hmm. Yes. When should I go?!'" But Barclay's jokes couldn't get to me now. I had reached the top of the Earth. And I was still in one piece.
Descending Red Crater
After sliding down the sand-like black scoria on Red Crater's far side, we traversed another snowfield, passed a few more lakes, and then began our quad-busting descent down the mountain. The only time we had any trouble was shortly after we'd left Red Crater, when the path suddenly narrowed and hugged the mountain; there was nothing on the path's right side but a steep dropoff. Further complicating matters, a tiny avalanche obscured all but about 5 inches of the trail.
We made it through safely, and a few hours later, after passing through a stretch of colorful vegetation and then, quite surprisingly, a lush, green forest, we emerged at the Ketetahi Car Park. The hike been strenuous, but manageable. So I couldn't claim any bragging rights, especially when Barclay told us only 5 percent of summer hikers sign on with a guide, compared with 95 percent in the winter, when you need crampons and an ice ax, and maybe an avalanche beacon. Hmm. Winter. Crampons, ice axes and avalanche beacons. That sounded much more like an Everest expedition.
Maori legend says Tongariro was a mighty warrior who won the Battle of the Mountains on this very spot. I swore I could feel his spirit urging me to come back in the winter and give it a real go.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness from her home in Sun Prairie, Wis.