As we set off the only sounds are the crunch crunch of boots and poles on the gravel path. Whilst the sun is over the hills beyond, there is still a few remnants of whispy clouds hanging around in the folds of the mountains and foothills. The path snakes off in the distance and a few fellow walkers highlight the way.
The first few kilometres are easy; gentle uphills and rolling foothills, the air is still cool and the legs are still fresh. We watch the kilometre markers come up quickly and feel good, the day walk is a little less than 20 kilometers, how hard can it be we wonder? Maybe the difficulty has been oversold…
We move into the Soda Streams area and are walking on boardwalks. The landscape either side is more fragile and there are springs, lava, moss and red tussock. There are ample reminders that Mt Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1975 affecting this area. Ruapehu eruptions are even more recent and showing signs of increased activity even as we walk. The walk however is still gentle and beautiful. We’re flying along and feeling confident.
We soon reach the start of the Devils Staircase. Everyone stops for a water or break and to brace themselves for the stairs. It is advertised as 90 minutes of uphill slog. The many flights of stairs are interspersed with steep incline walks. You can get glimpses above of people rounding the nearest summit and wish it was you, but when you reach that point you realise there is more, and then you do it again. We are stopping to rest more regularly, one or two flights of stairs and then a re-group; this is when you need to dig deep.
I hadn’t really focused on why they call this part of the trail the Devil’s Staircase. It sounded like a marketing ploy or an exotic exaggeration. The devil has become a slightly mischievous naughty character a hint of chilli or at most an irritation (the devil is in the details) and so the reality didn’t hit me until about two-thirds of the way up.
This staircase is the devil as in hell. It’s a hell of a staircase – hundreds of stairs, and to only that, but the terrain is increasingly rugged and harsh; the volcano is now alive, with fantastic coloured pools and steamy vents and rivers of ash and rock scree. It is both hot and cold. The sun warms the black aerated rocks which then radiate back up to heat and dry us out and the bitter high winds that had closed the trail for the last 4 days were chilling and require a jacket as protection from the icy cold in exposed areas.
I start telling myself stories, making promises with myself, bribes and other motivational tactics. I know I am deluding myself, but I still do it. Whatever it takes.
We tell lies for all sorts of reasons and most of us cover them with another lie…the story we tell ourselves to justify the lie. Clearly the are two types of lies. The ones we tell other people, and the ones we tell ourselves including my current favourite; the motivational delusion. Out here in the wilderness there is no-one to lie to – effectively reducing type one to non-issue.
On the mountain if you lie to yourself about how you are feeling, how you are coping, if you know the route, or even if the expensive designer boots you bought to impress the salesman were a good buy, the devil quickly quashes your delusions…
The feedback is immediate and obvious. I’d known the devil’s staircase was going to be tough, I just avoided the issue by telling myself a story.
After experiencing this fresh burst of honesty about the present, maybe I was in a better place to examine any other stories I like to hold about myself.
They may have come from other people (often our parents or early teachers) and may never have been exposed to the cold light of day. Tony Robbins once said “people act in ways that reinforce their version of who they are” (more of less) and that stuck with me.
Do we decide what type of person we want to be and then we go about constructing that reality? But what if that persona is not who we really are? What if that person was someone we looked up to when we were 18.? What do we think of that person now?
What if our persona is a fake? Is a mid-life crisis when we wake up and realise that the life we have constructed is not giving us joy, is not full of integrity, or is not who we really are?
We all seem to be pondering our own weighty questions as we continue upwards..