Julia gave herself a true baptism of fire when she decided to overcome her doubts and give hiking a crack – so was it worth it?

Out of the Comfort Zone and Into the Cold

I’d never understood the appeal of hiking. By the time I arrived in Lake Taupo in New Zealand in June one year, I’d spent a good chunk of my young adulthood backpacking through Europe and Asia, avoiding all the stuff I considered too physically laborious and outdoors-y. 

I considered a twenty-minute walk up a steep, cobbled incline to an ocean viewpoint a hike, and often complained the whole way. Multi-day hikes seemed like sheer lunacy – carrying gear, clothes, and more than a lunchtime’s worth of food and water on your back for days on end, only to reach something I could just see on Google Images? Absolutely not.



But when I landed in New Zealand, I realised that in all my efforts to avoid a Southern Hemisphere winter in the years since becoming an adult, I’d never seen snow. I was keen to put my big-girl pants on and step outside my comfort zone, and even more keen to make a snowball. It was getting kind of embarrassing that I’d spent so much time in parts of the world that boasted world-class natural landscapes and completely avoided them because I’d simply deemed myself as incapable of being able to do so.

I decided that I’d hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. How hard could it be? 

The night before the trek, I traipsed around the hostel and collected items of clothing from fellow travellers that would layer on top of my Kmart leggings and light down jacket, to tie together with my well-worn, nil grip, Doc Marten boots. To me, hiking boots were superfluous, expensive, and ugly. The morning of, I chucked an apple, a 750ml bottle of water, and a servo sandwich into a backpack. A first aid kit, a map, or anything to help me be remotely sun-safe was off my radar.


A Snowless Winter

I didn’t know much about the Tongariro Crossing, but I did know you needed to use crampons (although I didn’t have the foggiest what crampons looked like) and an ice pick (which I barely trusted myself to keep on my person without lancing off a bit of my own thigh). 

The shuttle company that took us to the beginning of the track was due to provide these bits of equipment. As we unloaded from the bus, the transfer company’s representative – let’s call her Sandra – asked the group if anyone wanted a walking stick. We replied that we would, as well as some crampons and an ice pick.

‘Crampons?’ she replied, incredulously, ‘But there’s no snow!’

I felt naïve, having previously pieced together that winter + high-ish altitude + Google images of white mountains when I search ‘Tongariro Crossing in winter’ = snow.

We could see them in the bus’s luggage area, amongst all the other equipment she deemed unnecessary. Despite our protestations, she shook her head and magnanimously handed each of us a singular walking stick. 


Facing Potential Demise: Going Up

We began the 19-something kilometres in high spirits, which grew higher still when we traversed the section of the hike affectionately known as the Devil’s Staircase – named so for its intense cardio pain – with less trouble than we expected. 

But our hubris evaporated as we continued on. It seemed ridiculous that the only section of the hike named after old mate in hell was the staircase. If I had a say in which part deserved such a namesake, it’d be the dangerous incline up to the peak of the crossing. Lucifer’s Ledge, as I retroactively named it, was a volcanic ridge with steep, long drops on either side. 



This is where the crampons, an ice pick, or even just some newer Doc Martens would have come in handy – we cleared this section on our hands and knees, yelling back and forth to one another about which jutting rock was secure enough to balance the balls of our feet on to push us upwards towards the peak. It was like a slapstick skit, except not at all funny; sometimes we completely lost our footing and slid a metre back down the way we’d come, hands sliding over ice, terrified to lose balance and fall down the side of Satan’s Slipe’n’Slide.

Breathless, nauseous, and shaking like leaves, we were rewarded with sweeping panoramas of ice-covered volcanic terrain, and sparkling emerald and blue lakes in the distance. I got to make my snowball, rendering my hands too cold to open my sanga.

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Facing Potential Demise: Going Down

We began to descend. As the laws of physics, love, and skydiving denounce – what goes up must come down, and we had to descend the same steepness that almost led to disaster on the incline. We began to trek down the sloping hill towards the emerald lakes, and a voice boomed out from behind us.

‘Hey! Hey!’ We turned, startled. A man stood at the front of a group about fifty metres behind us. 

‘You can’t go that way! A bloke fell down there last week and broke his leg!’

Rosie and I looked at one another, confused. Neither of us had a clue what ‘that way’ meant. It all looked like an even downward slope to us, covered by a thick blanket of snow. 

‘Where’s your guide?’ He yelled down to us again. We replied with cartoonish shrugs. This man appeared to be a guide – and a concerned one, at that. A retrospective squiz at the official Tongariro Crossing website tells you that guides are ‘essential in the colder months’.

Catching every third word he yelled into the wind, we based our revised path based on his exaggerated waving and hand motions. We were faced with the same Lucifer Ledge-esque exposed ridge as we were on the way up. We adopted a crab-walk style of bum-scooting down the icy volcanic peak instead. At least if we tumbled downwards, it would be in the direction we had to travel anyway.

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Gaslit in the Carpark

As we hauled our exhausted, cold, and burnt bodies into the finishing carpark, our best mate Sandra was there to greet us. She asked us how we went, and we replied, through exhausted breaths, that it was actually quite difficult, due to all the snow and such.

‘Did you take any photos?’ Smug that we were about to be proven right, we handed over Rosie’s iPhone 3, packed with photos of our alpine adventures. She didn’t get it back until an hour into the bus ride, after Sandra had finished figuring out how to Airdrop all our panoramas to herself. She told us they’d be great on the company website. The word snow was never uttered again.


A Redemption Arc

I’m now the proud owner of a Jetboil, a tent, and scars on my feet from gnarly blisters acquired during my most recent multi-day hike in Victoria (I still haven’t quite accepted the fact that hiking boots may be a good investment). 

Thanks to all the devil-adjacent parts of the hike, I finally realised that I did have the mental wherewithal to truly commit to experiencing the outdoors. Or perhaps Sandra’s withholding of the crampons was part of her master plan to grow our resilience. Either way, I reserve my complaining for actual hiking these days – those cobblestone paths have got nothing on me now.