Alden Boon

Taking On Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Developing PTSD: Post-traumatic Stairs Disorder


There is an unusual flurry of activity under Taupo’s twilight canopy. Even before the first crack of sunlight, travellers attired in nylon are already breakfasting. Some spread butter over bread and then conceal them in ziplock; others give their bottles a rigorous shake. Minutes tick away as the 5:15am roll call approaches. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing and its arduous 1,886-metre-high peak beckons.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing New Zealand
Tongariro Best One Day Hike New Zealand
Tongariro Mount Doom New Zealand
Tongariro Mount Doom New Zealand Lord of the Rings
Tongariro Alpine Crossing New Zealand

An hour of scenic drive took me from Taupo to Mangatepopo carpark. After a quick run to the toilet and a last-minute glove purchase, I steeled myself to take on the 19.4-kilometre tramping track. I regarded the heft of my backpack — comprising my camera as well as sustenance of water, donuts, unbuttered bread and a bagful of nuts. And of course there was my physical weight, brought on by a sedentary lifestyle and unwise food choices. “Don’t think, just feel,” I thought to myself. Ill advice, for I would soon feel every sinew tear and every trickling drop of sweat.

The track opened with a vast flatland of many leagues. I set my foot upon the stabbing gravel, and so began the first step of my thousand-mile journey. The ground alternated between rocks and smooth boardwalks, the latter of which I gladly welcomed. Tawny tussocks blown by the wind swayed in cadence. The sun shone, but the cold dulled its potency, so that its only effect was colouring the landscape to a golden sheen. “This isn’t so bad,” a fleeting thought entered.

Not long after, Mount Ngauruhoe loomed up yonder: the very — and only — reason why I had uncharacteristically signed up for this hike. Silver-streaked and glorious it was, immortalised in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as Mount Doom where the One Ring was made, and unmade. Many stopped for a requisite photograph, as did I, ostensibly: it was my first of many rest stops.

I continued, this time lured by the music of Mangatepopo Valley. Waterfalls have become a favourite natural beauty of mine to chase, and this visual treat came as a surprise. Falling from a sheer grass-clad cliff the water sang, calming and clear its swishes were. Much as I wanted to, I could not tarry. I left the comfort of the valley. And thus began my misery.

Mt Ngauruhoe Tongariro Mount Doom
Hiking Mount Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, requires scrambling finesse as the tracks are layered with ash, scoria and andesite lava flows. No clear path runs from its base to summit.
Mt Ngauruhoe Tongariro Mount Doom

Fight or Take Flight

Fellow hikers out-strode my steps, and very soon they vanished from sight.  By now, the stony, undulating terrain was gnawing my feet. Tight knots formed in my right calf. One thought inundated my mind, as my eyes spied the surroundings. Where was the cautionary “STOP” sign: the halfway mark that urges hikers to consider turning back? I had yet passed it, which meant I had not even begun the gruelling punishment that is Devil’s Staircase. I had yet passed the point of no return, and already I was weary.

The notoriety of Devil’s Staircase is known to all who wish to conquer Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It starts at 1,400 metres above sea level, and climbs relentlessly upwards for 200 metres. Flights after flights of stairs cut through twisting paths and leave nary a space for a respite. Near the end of the Staircase is the glacially-carved South Crater, where the optional path to the summit of the 2,287-metre-high Mount Ngauruhoe also begins.

“Nope,” said I as I turned away, however inviting the landscape looked.

If the Devil’s Staircase was tough, then the next clamber up towards Red Crater was tormenting. The mountain’s splendour had become a drab-hued menace that mocked and taunted me. The picturesque water streams and snow-covered mountains were no more. In their stead were craggy unpaved slopes of loose gravels that tested my judgement. Often the edge of the precipice veered sharply, and there was nothing that separated me from death. One misstep would have ended me.

Then came a vertical hurdle so steep I had to splay my body and pull myself up, my hands clutching onto a chain. Surprisingly, this feat was easy for me: I relished my new crutches. But the road mercilessly climbed on, and after every mirage of a peak came an elevated ridge to scale. I teetered after fellow hikers along slush-laden paths. The howling wind brought with it a bitter chill, and whittled my will. I pressed against the lee of a boulder to seek refuge, every respite only killing what little momentum I had. I was wholly defeated.


Tongariro Alpine Crossing New Zealand
The highest point of the Crossing: Red Crater. Oxidation of iron dyes the rock with a crimson-red colour. Fumaroles also line the crater, from which a suffocating sulphuric smell emanates.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing New Zealand

Very Far to Fall

Hubris it was that led me to think I could take on the Volcano as an unfit neophyte, and hubris would be my undoing. I soldiered on, with the Red Crater behind me, and the sweet promise of continuous descent renewed my resolve.

As I stood at the very tip marking Tongariro Alpine Crossing’s peak and also descent, my white-hot enthusiasm was curtailed. What goes up must come down, and before me now was a precarious downward track of black scoria. The volcanic rock had the malleability of sand, so that each step however careful became a careless slide. On either side of the track no railings stood, so again a fast tumble to death was not impossible. Hikers before me began falling on their behinds, taking hard hits like flies meeting the onset of a swatter.

Just then, a curtain of mist drifted into view, blearing my vision. Figures became mere silhouettes. The Emerald Lakes ahead were shrouded in fog, and so the light at the end of my tunnel was extinguished. Inch by inch I tottered, the distance to the base still very far.

The mist outstayed its welcome, but eventually it was whisked away by the wind. Now I discerned the numerous ways I could die: careening off the track to a sudden death; careening off the track and falling into the Emerald Lakes’ acidic pools so that my body is forever dissolved; and hitting my head against the hard rocks jutting skywards like knives.

Where to put my foot I did not know, and I was stuck like a prey caught in a spider’s web: every small manoeuvre led not to freedom but impending danger. Already my pants were blotched with black, my palms caked with dirt. The pain in my shins burnt hotter, not one of fatigue but constricting numbness. Fear gripped my heart, and I rued my decision to do this. I would so gladly trade this for another round of Devil’s Staircase or Red Crater agony!

Tongariro Emerald Lake
The famous Emerald Lake: Dissolved minerals flowing from Red Crater imbue the water with a bright colour.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Emerald Lake
Wisps of vapour billow from the explosion craters.
tongariro Emerald Lake
Tongariro New Zealand Hike
Looking back at the sinister scoria slope.
Tongariro New Zealand Hike

The never-ending road back home

After what must have been many ages of the world, my feet finally reunited with solid pavement. O’ how blissful it was to feel the touch of ground! To make up for lost time — I had to catch the last bus at 4:30pm, or it would be a very expensive cab ride home — I began picking up speed. I brimmed with optimism: I still had two hours left on the clock and it was all downhill now. How naïve I was to think my harrowing experience was over.

A stretch of flatland I now traversed, and then horror awoke in me again. I blanched as I reached the edge of a winding ascent leading to North Crater’s summit. Less treacherous the road was, no slippery slush to sidestep for one, but all my strength was already spent. By now my water supply had depleted, but my back relished the lightened load. I felt the occasional rumble of hunger pangs, but I had barely desired to stop and eat. On my way up, I sat on one of the boulders, as did a fellow hiker, whose head of white hair betrayed his age. “I thought that was the end of the climb,” he gasped, pointing to the Red Crater which stood proudly. “I know,” answered I, furrowing my brows. Behind me, the sea of blue and red and other t-shirt colours had greatly dwindled.

Through new peaks, zig-zagging paths and personal nadirs the route took me. There were many stairs, which I cursed at, but glorious views of faraway mountains and pristine lakes returned once again, and encouraged my heart.

Then, I espied something that evoked unbridled joy: Ketetahi Hut. A lone shelter nestled in the heart of nowhere, rising taller than beds of overgrown grass, recalling to memory civilisation. It housed the mountain’s only toilet facility. The end was now not very far, I thought.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing New Zealand Hike
The sweeping expanse of Tongariro Alpine.

A silent victory

The final part of my journey cut through a verdant podocarp forest. I gained speed, and then my pace was hindered by ascending paths that loomed suddenly. My mind was now a complete blank. I was no longer thinking, nor feeling, as if my soul had vacated its vessel. The only sound I heard was of my laboured huffs and puffs. I could not appreciate the rare stillness nor the lush shrub stippled with sunlight. Nor the trees and their drooping branches that seemed to reach out like motherly hands to caress me. I lumbered along, lost in infinity. The distance to the end was unreachable.

And then, just as my last thread of hope frayed, a row of bollards came into sight. Unceremoniously they stood, demarcating between the trail’s end and civilisation. Such inexplicable joy they brought to me, so that I doubt I should ever look at their kind again without flitting mish-mash memories of fear and accomplishment conjuring up.

I did it: I had conquered Tongariro Alpine Crossing.


The next morning, a cacophony of door slamming and foot shuffling awoke me. I checked the clock: 5am. Instinctively I knew what the ruckus was about, and did not mind it. “Good luck,” I muttered under my breath, and crept back under my blanket.


Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.