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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On the slopes of Mount Doom


The day dawned gloriously for the Fellowship of the Tramp. The morning sunlight mixed brightly with the mists rising from Lake Taupo, serving to coat her surface in an enchanted silvery maelstrom.

I had journeyed here, to this scenic lake at the foot of the North Island Volcanic Plateau, with another member of the Fellowship the previous day. Our quest had been in the planning stages for weeks, but now it was finally time to finish what we had set out to do all those months ago.

Not to be taken lightly, our journey was something on a scale I had never before attempted. We were going to scale not one but two mountains on this day, first starting with an ascent up the rocky slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe - known in another time as Orodruin, or Mount Doom. I would soon find out just how fitting a name this last one could be.

After conquering this first task, which was by no means simple, we were then to make our escape from the rugged landscape by trekking across the saddle ridge connecting Ngauruhoe to a neighbouring mountain, named Tongariro. This passage would take us past volcanic craters and sulfurous pools, before finally winding through tussocky hills and the bush before leading to safety on the far side.

Sarah and I made the journey to the lakeside on the previous day, she on her fast mount called “Toyota” and I on my "Mitsubishi". Together we navigated the twisting roads that wound through New Zealand’s dark foothills.

We came upon three of our companions in the township of Bulls as we made our way. Giving Toyota and Mitsubishi a drink and hitching them up outside of a Turkish inn, we stepped inside. On our way in, we passed a sign suggesting that we be ‘Responsi-Bull’ and dispose of our rubbish properly. Clearly, this was a town with a sense of humour, something much-needed in surviving these rugged environs. This was a town I came to like quickly.

Within, we found our friends already seated by the hearth, trying to banish the autumnal chill from their bones. There sat brave Iain, slayer of many a fierce tramp in his time, including the devilish Kilimanjaro. Next to him sat Al – a fellow conqueror of Kilimanjaro – himself a proud and accomplished tramper if ever there was one. Yet he would not be joining us for the last part of our quest, as Al was still nursing a serious injury sustained in a prior journey. Still, his presence served to give us all a sense of hope and his devotion to the Fellowship was beyond question. On my right stood Glen, who like myself was a new addition to this courageous band. New though he was to us, Glen was no stranger to the ways of the outdoors, being a veteran of some of the most daring mountain quests the world had to offer.

Sarah and I took our seats at their table and shared a feast of lamb and potato, washing it all down with a helping of ale. We could not tarry for long, as we still had many miles to go before we reached base camp on the shores of Lake Taupo. Saying our farewells, we all mounted up and resumed our journey.

Many hours later, under a brilliant night sky whose stars were left to shine even brighter in the presence of a new moon, we reached our destination.

As we unpacked our mounts, we were greeted by Chris, whose father was providing us with our much-needed shelter for the weekend endeavour. Although the youngest of the group, Chris was no less game than the rest of us for adventure, and it would be upon the wisdom of experiences such as his that the rest of us would rely in order to make sure we survived our test on the morrow.

Chris’ companion, Ursh, was also already at camp and she had thoughtfully secured provender for our pending assault on the mountains. Inside, the larder was fully stocked with varieties of fish, meat, cheese and vegetables – and more than a few tankard-fulls of ale – to help sustain us in our quest.

Rounding out our Fellowship was Simon, who had come from lands far to the north to join us here on the eve of our quest. He is Sarah’s betrothed and is perhaps the most keen and confident member of the Fellowship. Absent from his vocabulary are such words as ‘can’t’ and ‘impossible’. His sturdy presence would prove invaluable to me on the journey ahead.

At last, the Fellowship was complete!

That night, we regaled each other with tales from prior conquests in order to help pass the time until it was late enough to retire. One particular story that got a hearty laugh from all was the tale of the ‘Fish Slapping Incident’ in the faraway land of Africa. Al cast a spell with his Tome of Supreme Power and took us all back in time to witness said event. There were two members of his party, both nearly too drunk to remain standing, squaring off against each other on a beach somewhere in Africa. One of them was wielding a large, dead fish; the other unfortunate soul was unarmed yet still he seemed eager. At the behest of an unseen moderator, the fish-wielding rogue suddenly grabbed its tail with both hands and slapped his comrade full on the face with the dead fish! Whether this was enough to knock him to the ground or if he merely fell over due to uncontrollable laughter, it was not clear. We were all so amused by the spectacle that Al kindly wove the spell for us another time.

There was a palpable energy in the air and not a hint of fear. Had I truly known what lay ahead of me the next day, I may actually have been apprehensive. But that would only have hurt my efforts, for I needed to be clear-headed the next day, or I would never survive. The Fellowship would crumble if we did not all play our parts!

Even the realization that I had forgotten to pack my Boots of Sturdy Climbing failed to put a dent in the convivial atmosphere, for I was reassured by the veterans of the Fellowship that the lack of even this excellent artifact would not be enough to slow me down.

I drew first watch that night as we all took to our separate bivouacs, and after I was relieved by the next watchman, I immediately fell asleep in a contented and eager frame of mind.

Such a mood was enhanced superbly by the dawn spectacle of the mist-shrouded Lake Taupo, and I knew that today was going to be nothing short of legendary. Perhaps not for my mates in the Fellowship, for such a quest – respectable tho’ it was – was something well within their grasp but one that remained daunting to me, the most inexperienced tramper of the lot.

It was on this morning that I was also introduced to the mysterious, invigorating energies of Elvish Vanilla Creamed Rice. A thick gruel fashioned more for manly appetites, it is a delicacy I find I will be sure to include in all of my future tramping quests. Inexplicably, the women of the Fellowship found this nourishing substance to be rather repulsive, but I shared the view of my fellow lads in that it was like having dessert for breakfast – but a healthy one!

As we mounted up and rode out to the base of the trail that wound its way to Ngauruhoe’s steep aspect, the Fellowship was a mix of emotions. Initial elation at the lack of any clouds in the sky turned to brief shock and horror at the sight of no snowfall atop either Ngauruhoe or Tongariro. The mountaintops were bald, and this would serve to make the ascent up Ngauruhoe slightly more difficult, if not much less scenic. Nonetheless, the Fellowship remained undaunted in the face of these unusual circumstances.

The faint blue outline of hulking Mount Taranaki hovered ominously on the horizon. For today, it would have to remain a jealous (or haughty) observer of our trek, knowing that it would not have a chance to either humiliate us or be conquered by us – for the now.

Almost as soon as the rest of the Fellowship had strapped on their gear and readied for our dual mountainous assault, I was overcome by my constant desire to record everything I see. Immediately I produced one of the many artifacts I had procured for this quest from within my pack. It was the Canon Hi-Resolution Pictograph of Prowess, and it would scant remain untouched for long when in my possession on this day.

The Fellowship, among other things, was founded upon a deep sense of fraternity. This comradeship would be demonstrated time and again upon this day as in this instance, when my mates just laughed off my penchant for compulsively recording events and allowed me to lag behind at times so that I could portray things for posterity.

“Spot the tourist!” said Ursh, mocking me in a friendly manner.

I wielded the powerful artifact several dozen more times before we were to even reach Ngauruhoe. I have enchanted the best of the images it recorded and made them available for permanent viewing at this location. I warn you, friend, that these are potent enchantments. So a strong and fast connection to the magical ethernet that surrounds us will serve you best here, for the images are great in number and rich in detail.

Impressive though the magical recordings are, they simply cannot do justice to the awe-inspiring spectacle of standing before these mountains in person. Even should you choose not to follow in our footsteps and ascend these massive hills on your own one day, they do warrant a closer look beyond what my paltry images can supply. You may contact me through any means of magical scrying device that you may possess should you wish me to escort you to these epic mountains one day in the future.

But back to my tale. Before we reached the point where the trail forked – the lefthand path leading off to Tongariro Crossing and the eventual way out, the righthand path a sharp ascent up the scraggy slopes of Ngauruhoe – we first had to ascend something called the Devil’s Staircase. It was here that I would have my first true test, my friends. Many times over the previous months had I ascended the steep but short hill behind my home, the so-called Cannon Point. But never had I done so with a pack, nor for over a sustained distance and period of time. So it was upon the aptly-named Devil’s Staircase that I first encountered my own mortal limitations.

I was able to make it to the top of this steep climb on my own, which zig-zagged back and forth in front of and above us. Large, awkwardly-shaped boulders jealously guarded the path, forcing us to negotiate it with exacting difficulty. The rest of the Fellowship tackled this first obstacle with fluid ease, yet other questers in groups separate from our own were also attempting this climb on this day. A few amongst them were also with me in lagging behind periodically, stopping to catch our breath and rest our weary legs. More than once on this day would I take advantage of these breaks to unleash the power of the mighty Canon, and I found it to be a good excuse to take a break here and there. It was also at these times that I benefited heavily from the indispensable Water Bottle of Life and various handfuls of empowering Scroggin and Fruits and Nuts of Nourishing Goodness (In Small Bits).

After finally slaying the Devil and his annoying Staircase, we drew up at the base of Ngauruhoe and plotted our assault. While a few passers-by marveled at our prowess in desiring to not only finish off Ngauruhoe but its brother Tongariro on this day, I grew a bit tense about my own ability to handle this feat. Some of those who heard of our quest and shrank from the prospect were younger and fitter than I, and the last thing I wanted to do was prevent the rest of the Fellowship from completing its quest. After voicing my concerns, I was quickly reassured by the rest of the group that I could, in fact, make this climb and still press on to Tongariro afterwards.

Willing in spirit but unsure in body, I proceeded up the slope with the rest of my mates. After advancing about one third of the way up, crab-walking left and right in a maddeningly slow manner, it started to become clear to me that I would not make the summit of Ngauruhoe in my current state.

Not wanting to continue to hold up the rest of the expedition, I volunteered to abandon this trail and wait for them to ascend and return before journeying on to Tongariro. Thankfully, Simon and Iain would have none of it, so Simon offered to carry my pack in order to allow me to better make the ascent.

Not being a prideful sort of person and wanting desperately to climb this mountain, I yielded my pack to Simon and carried on. It took some more encouragement from my mates here and there along the way, and several more stops in order to let my aging frame recuperate, but I finally topped Ngauruhoe.

The final fifty meters of our assault lead us nearly straight up a slippery slope made up of loosely-packed volcanic rock. These jagged fragments were various shades of black and crimson, and had I not been so focused on overcoming my body’s nagging complaints I may have had the chance to enjoy their unique spectacle in greater depth. But they did not even get a taste of the hard-working Canon.

The views from the top of Ngauruhoe’s crater rim far outclassed anything these tiny rocks had to offer in comparison. A smoking vent steamed continuously on another ridge to our left. The yawning crater below us screamed mutely of eruptions long-past. Icicles now dotted the rim of the crater, which bore a large open notch on its northern face where a section of it had fallen away long ago. I could now see for miles and all of us basked in the abundant sunlight. We revelled in our successful completion of this first part of our quest, undoubtedly the most difficult part.

Cliché as it may sound, I had achieved not just a physical summit of this Mount Doom on this day, but also a more personal summit. Overcoming my own mental and physical doubts and being in the presence of such positive and supportive friends proved to be a far more engaging and lasting experience than any such enchanting image that I might capture. This I would take and keep with me always. Though I did not have an enchanted ring of infernal power to toss into the crater, such as those famous young Hobbits had done in this very spot eons ago, I was able to toss a rather large and heavy monkey off of my back and into the pit below. In a manner of speaking, of course, as I could never do such a thing to a real monkey!

The descent back down Ngauruhoe’s face was a treacherous one, often being nothing more than a controlled slide on one’s backside. By the time I reached bottom, I had mastered two new techniques – the Double-Runner Foot Slalom and the Hands-Down Arse Slide – each with varying degrees of success. While I continued to improve as I made my descent, I fear that not once did I look very graceful. I fancied I rather looked like an undead, as if I were some zombie that had crawled out of the crater at the top and come a-shambling down the mountainside. My legs certainly felt as if they were two dead wooden posts – and just as flexible.

The ascent of Ngauruhoe would claim one of our Fellowship, however, as Ursh had sustained many blisters and could not continue. Though she could easily have handled all that Tongariro had to offer, it was a long slog and one she had conquered on many a previous occasion. Since there was no practical reason for Ursh to sally forth and with the largest obstacle in the Fellowship’s path already overcome, she retreated to the main camp. Keen as he was to continue, her partner Chris wisely chose to retire with her, as he too had already mastered these mountains, among many others. If nothing else, they would be able to form an admirable rearguard with Al, who was already remaining behind and bravely protecting the Fellowship’s camp while nursing an injury of his own.

After cresting Tongariro and viewing its alien landscape, we were assaulted by sulfurous odours, which added a new dimension to our quest. Far from overpowering, the stench was enough to remind us that we were truly in God’s country at this point, and that to tarry too long this far from comfortable elements would certainly make even the hardiest of us perish.

Although the clouds began to stubbornlly roll in as soon as we had made Tongariro’s zenith, we were at least not robbed of some stunning views of the turquoise volcanic lakes dotting the landscape. In fact, the clouds steaming past and surrounding us served to add a spooky, other-worldly dimension to this already unique vista.

Not long after climbing the rim of Tongariro did Iain begin his own personal assault on the mountain. He would now run the rest of the way of the quest – of which there remained four-plus hours of hiking to tackle. Although buffeted by my own newfound success on the day, I could not yet hope to achieve the level of fitness currently displayed by the other members of the Fellowship. Perhaps with sustained hard work I could one day also run a part of this trek, but for now my goal remained to do it a second time without having to yield my pack. As the oldest member of our Fellowship, I could easily rest on this as an excuse for my struggles. But instead of choosing to dwell on such a negative perspective, I chose to instead acknowledge the fact that I had still climbed both mountains on my own and also without having ever done anything this difficult, even when I was a younger and healthier adventurer.

Before we could gain the other side of the bush and ultimately the field where our mounts had been secured by Al to await our return, we first had to negotiate the winding track under cover of darkness. Whereas the absence of the moon in the night sky helped to afford excellent views of the Milky Way the previous evening, it now served to make the last leg of the journey all the more treacherous. Fortunately we had included yet another kind of necessary artifact for our quest, some Headlamps of Righteous Illumination. Equipping them thusly to our foreheads, we followed their generous beams of soft emerald light through all of the twists and turns of the encroaching vegetation. Dangerous roots and sudden changes in elevation were not a concern as we made our way through the bush in veteran tramper style.

So as we strolled down the other side of Tongariro and I beheld large rays of sunlight shafting through the clouds and illuminating the valleys below us, I took heart in this fitting sight. In the foreground, another volcanic vent steamed moodily from within the hill to our left. Yet it paled in size and impact when viewed against the awesome landscape below and before us. It served as a fitting metaphor for my experiences with the Fellowship that day: my own personal doubts and inexperience were left fuming in the background amidst a fresh new landscape of possibility and achievement.

One day a new Fellowship will form, and I will be there to partake in yet another quest. My time here in this magical land Down Under has now truly begun to be spent in earnest. I, as your humble explorer, cannot wait to see what is around the next bend and atop the next hill.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Sir Edmund Hillary said...

It was not the mountain we conquered, but ourselves

4:57 PM  
Blogger Brooksie said...

Precisely, Sir Edmund! Thank you for the inspiring quote. Cheers :)

6:35 PM  
Blogger Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Thanks for sharing and allowing me to vicariously participate in the e Fellowship of the Tramp.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Brooksie said...

Hi, Nick! Glad you enjoyed this post, and thanks for reading. I hope soon to have more things like that on here, so stay tuned!

11:45 PM  
Blogger DanaBurger said...

wowsers Brooksie.. haven't been here for a while but i'm enjoying the new layout! looks like you got some talent there! i'm in no mood to fix mine up.. so the blue Banana's gonna stay for a while lol!

7:04 AM  
Blogger Brooksie said...

Hi there Dana! I'm sorry I've been gone from the 'blogosphere' lately, but as much as I like my new template, I can't take the credit for it! A great service called Blogs Gone Wild did this for me; I just provided the artwork from my favorite magazine growing up. You've done a nice job with yours, though, as at least it's above and beyond the 'standard issue' Blogger template! Cheers, Brandon

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Vangie said...

You write very well.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Brooksie said...

Why thank you, Vangie! :)

9:49 PM  

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