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Julia Musto Headshot

Mountain Climbing On a Whim

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I used to be a collegiate athlete. I spent hours every day at practice, working out, and trying to stay in shape. At peak physical performance, I fractured some bones and tore some ligaments in my left ankle. A year and a half later and I'm going to the gym, but barely.

It got to a point a month and a half into the school year where I just didn't care about my body as much anymore. Finally, it got to be spring break and my friends and I were headed to New Zealand for 10 days. We decided to go see Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings before we returned to Sydney. Mount Doom is officially called Mount Tongariro, and is part of the Tongariro National Park.

When we finally reached the National Park, I found just how unprepared I was. There was a notice in my friend's hotel that said that I'd need layers of clothing because the winds would be at 65 mph and the temperature at the top of the summit would be -2 Celsius. I found myself doubting my abilities with all the anticipation and nerves. I didn't even know if I could physically make it up the mountain what with my newfound cellulite.

Yet, 6:30 am rolled around pretty quickly. I threw on four upper layers, two bottom layers, and my Nike flyknits. We made the decision to stop at a convenience store down the road, and boy did that save us. We stocked up on jerky, canned refried beans, apple sauce, and water. I also purchased a beanie. That beanie probably saved my ears from hypothermia; my hands were not so fortunate. We set out to the carpark with a less than encouraging warning from a visitor's guide about wind, with an electric air about us.

Getting out of the car, I could see why a shirt, a flannel, a jacket, and a windbreaker were necessary. The wind was so strong I found myself being unable to see. The mountain was imposing. Beautiful, but bigger than anything I had ever taken on.

The first part of the Tongariro Alpine crossing is grasslands, rivers, and little hills with stairs and boards to walk on. It's designed to ease you in. There are also some volcanic rocks, and the walk is almost picturesque.

Halfway through I was sweating like a fool and we had to take three water breaks to make it to the outhouses near the rocks, and the "point of no return." (Coincidentally at the sign that read this, someone had written "You shall not pass!" in sharpie on the bottom.) We had reached the base of the mountain.

My brother hiked Mount Kilimanjaro a few years ago. He made it all the way. I told myself that if he could do it, I could do it too. I told myself that all 19.4 km. I guess it helped.

The day before I had visited Te Puia in Rotorua. During our Maori cultural tour, I had purchased a bone koru necklace. The koru is a spiral shape that symbolizes new life, growth, strength, and peace. I was convinced that wearing the necklace as a kind of talisman would help me in times of weakness.

We trekked up the steep rock paths and stairs and felt the air getting harder and harder to breathe in. Going up the side of that was probably the easiest part because we came out to a large crater. We were essentially walking in a cloud on the moon, but were only at 1590 M.

After an inordinate amount of selfies came the second hill. Here we stopped for sustenance. Without this refuel, we wouldn't have made it up the next part. Next to the rock we were sitting on was a rather steep looking hill that was obscured by the fog. There was nowhere to go but up higher. It was before this that I noticed my hands had turned from white to purple tinged. It's very hard to climb up a mountain with your hands in your pockets. Especially a mountain that requires you to propel yourself up the rocks by a chain attached to another rock. I had to put my hands in my pockets for the easier parts without falling. The easier parts weren't that easy.

There's a Japanese proverb that states, "Fall down seven times; stand up eight." It's safe to say I fell at least 10 times during the climb up and down. In fact, a lot of getting up and down the mountain was spent concentrating on where my feet were going, and if my weight was balanced. I thought about that for a while after. If you're not balanced and careful of where your feet are going you cannot get up or down the mountain.

What it took for me to climb the mountain was a mental image of victory, and the willpower to persevere. When we reached the top, only half of the battle was done. The idea that I was halfway there was enough to keep me stumbling down toward the amazing Emerald Lakes. Unfortunately for us, we had to continue on to the carpark, but seeing what we saw at that moment was rewarding enough for me. I felt accomplished. I felt like I was invincible. I valued myself. Although the mountain was the hardest thing I've ever had to do physically, I knew that I'd remember that moment forever: looking out and seeing the vastness and greatness of what we had done, and holding on to it.