New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing: A Journey not unlike Therapy
It was the middle of the night, I was in a foreign country, and I was meeting a man I did not know who promised to guide me and my family through a treacherous valley, into the mouth of three volcanoes. It was billed as a “journey of a lifetime,” the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 22-kilometer trek that would cause me to dig deep within myself and would challenge every fear and anxiety that resided within.
As we briefly shook the hand of our guide and started down a midnight-darkened path, I questioned for the first time that night, the sanity of this expedition. We were following a man we did not know into a long and personal journey. Once we started, it would be difficult to turn back. And very few knew of the path we were taking.
It was a journey that called for trust and interdependency and would necessitate relying upon the skill and integrity of a man we just met, to take us deep into a place we longed to find, but could not reach ourself.
And so we followed, blindly into the night.
As a clinical psychologist, the irony of my holiday journey and the one I ask my clients to take everyday back home struck me hard, and resonated with every apprehensive step I took. Longing and needing, new clients step into my office and only after a brief introduction, entrust me to take them on a journey of their lifetime. Just as I walked blindly into the darkness with my stranger-guide, my clients walk blindly into their darkness, with me as their guide.
A Deceptively Easy Beginning
The first part of our trek was easy, even enjoyable. Our guide introduced us to foliage and animals that were previously unknown to us. Things we had never seen before, or at least never paid attention to, were pointed out and explained. Our guide educated us and expanded our understanding of this new land. And as a result, we grew more comfortable in his care and even more excited about our process.
While challenging, I found myself experiencing a growing sense of confidence. Perhaps this journey was going to be alright. Perhaps we would make it. Perhaps, just maybe, we would actualize all we had hoped to find.
As I eased into the comfort of this sentiment, my tension loosened and I felt myself relax. Just in time to hear our guide say, “As we come out of the bush, it’s going to get a bit windy.”
A New Layer of Reality
Blasted, we were hit by 30mph winds whipping straight at us. The force of the wind added a menacing resistance to our already strenuous upward trek, and unpredictable gusts threatened to blow my petite 11-year-old daughter off the sheer end of an unseen cliff. Only 45 minutes into our approximate 9 hour trek, I asked our guide if we could expect the winds to subside. And he calmly replied, “Actually, they get worse.”
My therapeutic mind marveled once again at the parallels between this challenging Alpine Crossing and the journey my clients traverse therapeutically. It tends to start out easy and, just as you get comfortable, your psyche unexpectedly throws you into more challenging terrain. A deeper level of pain that renews your apprehension and causes you to, once again, question the sanity of your choice to undertake the journey.
Working hard to distract myself, and combating a rising sense of concern along a path that was now irreversible, I told myself to “trust the process,” much like I ask my beloved clients to trust theirs.
As we walked further on into the depth of the night, I searched for a positive to reinvigorate my enthusiasm amid the painful darkness of the cold and the wind. A gift amongst the challenge, which I assure my clients is always there.
Given the midnight start of our trek and the lack of civilization around us, the gift within this challenge became wondrously evident, as I looked up and into the remarkable clarity of a Milky Way-filled sky.
“Oh my gosh, I just saw a shooting star!” my 16-year-old exclaimed. “I just saw another.” “Me too!” squealed my 11-year-old. The sky was alive with a previously unknown awareness of a universe beyond ours. Deep. Breathtaking. Meaningful. We soon forgot our pain and remembered the why of our journey. A glimpse of the treasures that come only as a result of the courage to take the path.
Renewed, we emotionally recommitted to our journey and vowed to support each other through whatever difficulty lie ahead until we reached the other side, triumphant.
The Promise of a Reprieve
The promise of a reprieve in the form of a hut kept us going into the 3rd, and then the 4th, hour of our trek. Warmth, shelter, and a bathroom were familiar comforts that carried us through trying hours of darkness. Along the way, we experienced magical glimpses of rising thermal steam billowing out the side of our mountain-volcano, and the awe of our journey intensified.
And then, as the new-day sky began to brighten, we were given our very first glimpse of the path we had already travelled.
Jagged, steep, more dangerous than we had realized in the protection of the night, I was struck by a dialectical experience of fear and strength. Journeying in the darkness, we had trekked on paths that unbeknownst to us traced the edge of sheer cliff drop-offs. One misstep and we would have fallen off the side of an unforgiving cliff. The darkness had shielded our awareness of a frightening reality, and I couldn’t help but to wonder if it wasn’t more kind to remain oblivious in the dark. After all, you do not fear what you cannot see.
Seeing our path beneath us, however, within the multicolored backdrop of an awakening new day amidst rising volcanic steam, was also wondrous. And unspeakably surreal. An emotional uplift that gave us a fortifying sense of ability and strength. To know that we had already come this far, and to see the depth of our challenge triumphantly in the rearview mirror, gave us a quiet sense of pride and a growing faith that we could conquer whatever lie ahead.
We trudged on and reached the hut at hour 4, extremities numbed by the chronic cold and wind, but with our spirits electrified by the adrenaline of the task. We snacked and marveled and felt victorious at having made it this far.
And with our energies refueled, we headed back out into the predawn awakening sky.
A Mid-Journey Change
5 hours into our expedition, our guide alerted us that the sun was about to rise over Blue Lake. A midnight trek, our goal had been to meet the rising sun atop Red Crater, the uppermost point on the Crossing. Because of the wind and the slower pace of our family unit, Blue Lake was the new point of destiny. A perfectionist by nature, I struggled to let go of my preconceived notion of just how I had wanted this journey to go. This mid-journey change challenged my ambitious goal and threatened to color my perception of our “success.”
Once again, I reflected back on the words I teach my clients daily. The ability to let go and to allow graciously in the face of changing circumstances is a necessary component in life. Not only for survival, but perhaps more importantly, for the ability to experience happiness.
With a healthy dose of humility, I changed my emotional course and aspired to reach Blue Lake in time to experience the sunrise, while sitting and enjoying breakfast amongst the beauty of the moment. This image of anticipated glory kept us going through the barren hours of the night. Ecstatic to know we were close to our hard-fought goal, our family of four stepped up our pace and worked hard to meet our new, carefully targeted moment.
But not before our guide exclaimed, “It’s going to get worse, before it gets better.”
Worse Before It Gets Better
“Worse before it gets better!” Another psychological metaphor, so true that it has become cliché. The promise of the glory, coupled with the agony of the process. True in life. True in therapy. True on this trek.
“Worse,” as in 45mph winds in wide-open terrain at a point where the air thrust so angrily upward along the narrow path that was to lead us to our promised destination, that we literally could barely push ourselves forward.
Just when we thought we had given it our all, our guide asked us to give more. If we wanted to enjoy the bountiful results of our hard-fought struggle, we needed to dig down deeper within us and find the strength to continue.
And so we did.
Being blown this way and that, with adrenaline fueling our hearts and runny noses chapping our faces, we made it to Blue Lake just as a glorious sun gleamed and ascended from behind a volcanic cliff and into the sky. I have seen many a sunrise in my life, but none as meaningful as this. For when the journey is so hard and so barren for so long, it makes the beauty of the accomplishment momentous.
We gathered around for windblown photos, fiddling to click cameras with long-ago numbed hands and filled the morning air with howls of victorious joy. We had made it. We were triumphant. And it was time to eat!
Or so we thought.
A More Magnificent Space
“We still have further to go.” our guide announced. Further to go? How many times have I proclaimed this very sentiment to battle-beaten clients who have traveled so long and so hard, only to be told by me, “Your therapeutic journey is not yet over. Your work is not yet done.” That despite having finally achieved some semblance of normalcy and peace in your life, you still have “further to go” in order to attain your desired destiny of lasting joy and fulfillment.
Standing in the middle of this most magnificent volcano, I challenged my guide’s belief that we “still had further yet to go” in order to reach our desired destination of grandeur. Just as my clients who struggle with chronic depression or who have suffered horrific abuse early in their life have a hard time envisioning what love or kindness might look like, I was struggling to envision a more spectacular view than the one we were already experiencing.
Eventually the confidence of our guide, who assured us had walked this journey before us, won out. And much like I painstakingly will my clients to continue their therapeutic journey in order to experience a life more beautiful than the one they are currently living, our guide willed us to continue our trek so as to reach, “a space of even greater grandeur.”
Trusting, hoping, eventually believing, we followed. Pursuing the promise of a more fulfilling and magnificent space.
And we found it.
At the end of a seemingly endless, barren valley, we turned ever-so slightly and came upon three magnificent bubbling pools. Amidst rising steam coming off azure pools, the scene was most definitely, more spectacular than we could have ever imagined!
Giddy with pride and the glory of having endured this journey, we inhaled our hard-earned breakfast, and indulged in the awe of our accomplishment. Sitting high atop this active volcano, looking down on the path best known as “The Journey to Mordor,” we were physically exhausted, but emotionally exhilarated. The triumph of the journey filled our hearts and we sat soaking in the contentment of a physical battle hard won, just as our guide pointed to a distant spot high above the horizon and stated, “We are going up there.”
“Up there” was a straight up, jagged, sand-filled path that constituted the side of a very red volcano. So high and so ridiculously jagged was the path that I thought our guide was kidding. And when I realized he was not, I believed he was insane. “Up there?” I asked. “Yep,” was his irritatingly, matter-of-fact reply.
Just as I was ready to tell him how absolutely mad he was, three early morning trekkers – the first of the day – came into our view atop the very path our guide was proposing. It was 6:18am, and the day’s sun was merely an hour old. Yet the procession of “day trekkers” who were doing the Crossing in reverse, were beginning to descend upon our solo, tranquil journey. Immediately, the steadfast competitor in me was triggered, and I harnessed a familiar internal drive that told me, “If they can do it, I can.”
And up the path we trekked.
When the Need of Others Drives You
My husband and our guide led the way, with myself and my two daughters behind. Legs taxed and dehydration threatening any remaining strength, we dredged through fine shin-high sand, intensified by the merciless demands of a sheer vertical ascent.
Wind continuing to blow at a now 55mph level of strength, and a path no more than two people wide, this leg of the journey was elevated to the most challenging yet. More than a bit miserable and with newfound fear setting in, my focus was razor sharp and directed only on the path before me.
And then I glanced backward and saw my oldest daughter crouched down on all fours, desperately clinging to the earth beneath her. Eyes transfixed, locked down onto the ground beneath her, head down, creeping along in sheer quiet terror, she was desperately trying not to panic – or fall off the edge. Frozen, creeping, trying to remain breathing, it was then that I remembered my daughter’s extreme fear of heights.
In that instant I forgot myself and my fears and, instead, I went into action working to help my daughter survive. Love instantaneously morphed into adrenaline, and any personal fear or concern I had was overshadowed by an innate drive to support my daughter. In that moment, the enormous respect I felt for my daughter, as I watched her face-off what I knew was her most monumental fear gave me strength, which in turn, I used to help her.
A Journey Hard Won, Remains Always in Your Soul
At the top of what we now celebrated as the final and true end of our trek, a journey that would be the hardest and most meaningful challenge of our life spent together as a family; relief, amazement, and esteem filled our souls and became permanently etched within each of our spirits.
Independently, my daughters came to me and exclaimed sentiments such as, “If I can do this, I can do anything!” And, “That Black Belt test is going to be nothing next to this.” Sentiments that, for this psychologist-mom, made the journey all the more rich and filled with meaning.
What started out as an “intriguing” adventure that had called upon our hearts to take whilst on holiday in New Zealand, became a life-changing experience that will forever remain within each of our souls. A trek that reminded us of what we were made of, and what was possible if only we had the courage to take the path.
A path much like the one my clients traverse daily during their process. An adventure called, “therapy.”
Dr Julie T. Anné is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Eating Disorder Specialist. A frequent traveller who loves adventure, “Dr. Julie” sees the world through the lens of a psychologist and enjoys writing as a means to express the intrigue, beauty and inspiration of the healing, psychotherapy process. Dr. Julie is the Founder and Clinical Director of A New Beginning and Co-Founder and Clinical Director of TheHealthyWeighOut, both specialty eating disorder treatment facilities located in Scottsdale, Arizona.