Monday, May 6, 2013

When There Are Mountains to Climb... A Blog Without Bikes...

There are some experiences in life that, unsuspectingly, seem to provide blinding clarity surrounding what we are truly put on this Earth for. Experiences that just seem so purely good that your whole body tingles and you feel like you are in a dream, then you spend days and weeks afterwards yearning for that experience again, like the first touch from a lover. I've been fortunate enough to have these moments on a number of occasions recently, but none so profound as our trip to Mount Ruapehu just over a week ago.
This was our second attempt at this trip in the space of four days. The Thursday before, we had set out up the mountain in terrible conditions, hoping that the rain and cloud would abate as we gained altitude, but as it worsened, we were forced back down, cold, wet and a little disenchanted. Whilst we soaked in the hot pools at Tokaanu, we brewed up the idea to return for another shot at the mountain that Sunday if the weather was looking any better. So that Saturday evening, with a promising weather forecast for the following day, Edine, Craig and myself piled into Craig's car with all our tramping gear and set off for Craig's family bach in Kurutau, on the edge of Lake Taupo. I haven't known Craig and Edine all that long. We all met when I joined the Local Search and Rescue team a few months back, and I suppose it's hard not to get along with a bunch of awesome people who love doing something worthwhile with their time in the outdoors. I remember thinking to myself as we traveled through the dark that evening what a crazy notion it seemed to have landed myself in this exact spot, and how fortunate I was to be there. I was infinitely excited about our trip for the following day. It was so refreshing to be making a special trip to go and do something without my bike (although I still love my bike dearly).
After a couple of hours worth of "Uranus" jokes prompted by Edine's astrology studies, we arrived at Kurutau. With the full moon hanging over the lake, we headed straight for the beach. The moon was shrouded with cloud, casting darkness over the beach and making for some disappointing viewing, but our patience paid off after about 15 minutes when the cloud lifted and the moonlight danced across the shimmering water and lay itself across the beach. The stars twinkled in the night sky and we were hopeful for a clear outlook for the following day. There was no wind, but the cool night air nipped at our skin through our jerseys. It was a truly beautiful sight. After some more Uranus jokes, we headed back to the batch for some wine, scrabble (I won, of course... Not that I am competitive) and then a good night's sleep.
The following morning, I insisted on being down at the beach for the sunrise, as well... I must admit that I have the most annoying habit of believing I am a really creative photographer, and the opportunity to happy snap anything stunning and worthwhile will generally get me out of bed at the most ridiculous hour. I was too impatient to finish my cup of tea and bowled on down to the lakefront, leaving the rest of the crew to join me a few minutes later... The sunrise we saw was indescribably beautiful, and set the tone perfectly for the day that was about to greet us on the mountain.
As we drove towards Mount Ruapehu, I couldn't contain my excitement... It was a crisp, cool morning with barely a cloud in the stunning blue sky. We couldn't have asked for a better day than this... As we rounded the corner and the mountain came into view, the first thing I noticed was just how much snow was on it... In fact, I was surprised... Obviously, at an altitude of nearly 2,800m, you would expect that snow on the peak was likely year-round, but it seemed thicker than I was expecting, and lower... I remember saying to Craig, "wow, that's a lot of snow up there... We aren't going to need crampons, are we?"... Craig's response wasn't entirely convincing, but was good enough to not dull my mood "no, I don't think so... We should be right".

When we arrived at the Whakapapa skifield carpark, the scene was in stark contrast to our visit a few days earlier, and we wasted no time in kitting up and setting off up the mountain. The plan was to "hike" to the summit. It's funny, but for some time now, I had been considering doing an alpine mountaineering course... I had been doing a lot of reading, and the idea of that sort of challenge in an unforgiving alpine environment really appealed to me for some unknown reason (probably the same reason I race my bike in circles for 24 hours straight!)... Little did I know, I was about to get my first taste of it. We made quick work of the poled route which made it's way up the mountain to the top of the chairlift, stopping at the "Highest Cafe" to do some blister prevention for my lovely new boots. The climbing beyond this got a lot more rugged, and as we scrambled up rocks and scree, the snowline drew rapidly nearly and nearer.

We reached the top of the tow lift, which was about the same place the snowline began. The mountain loomed in front of us... A steep slope of icy snow speckled with boulders right to the top beckoned us towards it. It was such a beautiful clear morning and the outline of the white, snow-covered mountain against the blue sky was quite a dramatic image. As we stomped our way through the snow up the face, we could see Lake Taupo shimmering in the distance against the shadowy foreground of Mount Ngarahoe to our left, and to our right, Mount Taranaki dominated the horizon in the distance. Rocks covered in icicles glistened in the fresh morning light. Everywhere we looked was a postcard-perfect photo waiting to be taken.
As we climbed higher, the route became steeper. Even though it was a beautiful morning, the air became colder and as such, the ground we were traversing gradually turned from soft snow to hard, slippery ice. I was so glad I had invested in a decent pair of boots the day before, and that I had taken the risk of wearing them new that day, because there is no way I would have made it much further without a solid pair of boots. The ice was hard enough that we were forced to kick steps into the slope so we could make ground up towards the plateau. I took my turn breaking ground on a couple of occasions, but Craig was our humble savior up on the mountain that morning... With his size 13 boots and a good strong set of legs, he stomped and kicked out steps for Edine and myself to ascend as safely as possible. The poor guy must have been stuffed by the time we reached the plateau, but I think he secretly loved the hard work! We kicked at the ice, and shards would break off and spray in our faces. As the slope grew steeper, we were all acutely aware of how precarious each step we took was. The ice got so hard that the steps we were kicking in were maybe 2cm deep as we traversed the icy slope below us. I remember looking down at one point and trying to imagine how I would stop myself falling if I slipped... And I realised there was no way I could. If one of us fell right now, we would slide the full descent back down into the rocky snowfield below (best not to think about it). The problem was that having already climbed to that point, we were committed to topping out... Retreating down the icy slope at this point with no crampons or ice axes would have been far more treacherous. It was tough work, made even tougher by the potential consequences if we got it wrong... It had been quite some time since I had been placed outside my comfort zone like this and I was loving it!

It was quite a bizarre experience up there on that slope. I don't have a lot of experience on ice and I was intrigued by just how different it was to work with and how your whole perception of risk needed to shift substantially. We had to exercise the utmost caution... A patch of snow that we could quite comfortably step into may lie only 5cm from an icy section of the mountain that had been denied warmth by a rock blocking the sunlight. These sections of ice were hideously slippery and were to be avoided at all costs. After some awkward moves and sketchy moments, we finally pulled ourselves over the top of the slope onto the plateau, where we could relax and make light-hearted jokes about how ironic it would have been for three search and rescue volunteers to have to be rescued off the mountain because they weren't carrying the right gear for the conditions... Lesson learned... Next time, crampons and an ice axe will be a must for this trip! The question still remained, though, how we were going to descend the slope again in a few hours time...

We set off across the icy plateau, which was a vast, relatively flat basin covered in ice with white, icy peaks jutting out around it. If you peered further across the end of the plateau, the edge of the basin would meet the view of the surrounding land far below and the occasional cloud that skirted around below the altitude we were standing at. It was absolutely breathtaking. We knew our bid for the Ruapehu summit was out of the question without crampons and ice axes, but we were keen to see the crater lake, which was located over the other side of the ridgeline on the far end of the plateau. On top of the ridge, we could see a hut. I knew that Craig was slightly worried about the time, and especially considering the fact that we were unsure if we could descend the mountain the same way we came up if the ice conditions remained the same. We attempted to approach the hut by climbing up one end of the ridgeline and traversing across. However, because the ridge undulated, the surface would quickly change from soft, climbable snow on one side of a knoll to hard, compact , unclimbable ice down the other side, which made the route unworkable without the right gear.

We descended back down the ridge and as we did so, I suggested to Craig that we try the face that sat just below the hut. It had been in the sun all morning and it was possible that the snow was soft enough for us to zig-zag up the face straight to the hut. Craig was a bit reluctant, and understandably so... We were quite slow on our feet on the icy surface and we didn't want to get stuck up on the mountain in the dark... I must admit I was quite persistent... I knew we weren't going to climb to the summit, but I was really keen to at least see the crater lake... So we headed over the the face and climbed it with surprising ease, reaching the hut and looking down on the stunning crater lake which was currently overflowing on the far side. I would have loved to have ventured closer to the lake for a better look, but it just wasn't possible to descend that side of the ridgeline which hadn't seen the morning sun yet... It was far too icy and slippery.
The hut that was perched on the top of the ridge was covered in ice and frozen shut, so unfortunately, we couldn't go inside. It was a spectacular sight. I can imagine that in the Summer months, this would be an amazing place to set up camp for an evening, watch the sunset, the sunrise and the full moon on the crater lake. I could have spent hours up there, but time was of the essence and we headed back down to the plateau to make our way back down the mountain.
I remember walking across the plateau thinking "wow... there's only a handful of people who will ever get to do this sort of thing... The majority of the population are missing out on something so, so special". Basking in the warm sun, with the cool ice beneath our feet and the blue sky that touched the green horizon far away from the mountain itself was just an amazing experience... Not to mention the awesome people I had the pleasure of sharing the experience with! What was supposed to be a hike had effectively turned into my first mountaineering trip (albeit it a fairly tame one) and I was completely hooked. I felt so incredibly alive right there on the mountain.
We sat at the edge of the plateau and enjoyed our lunch before we attempted our dreaded descent. To our delight, the sun had softened the ice so that the whole way back down the slope, we had lovely, soft snow to step into, as opposed to the hard ice we had experienced only hours before. In fact, the whole mountain had changed... The icicles on the rocks had melted, and bits of ice would break off the cliffs and tumble down the ice field (it was easy to understand why mountaineers always leave early in the morning to reduce the risk of being caught in an avalanche). In general, the whole mountain looked like it had softened. We arrived back at the car without incident and then made our way to the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools after a quick meal in Taupo overlooking Mount Ruapehu as the sun set... What a perfect weekend!!!
One of the best things I have done in recent times is join the local Land Search and Rescue. Never before have I met so many people in one place with so much passion, goodwill and lust for quality experiences in life. One of the other best things I have done is let go of someone I thought I loved because I knew they would never be interested in sharing my adventures with me. It may sound incredibly harsh, and it's difficult to explain, but in the last month, I have had the opportunity to share some amazing experiences with people who are very dear to me... The thought that I may have had those experiences and not shared it with the person, or people, that I love is quite daunting, and so it follows that really, those experiences feel so enormous because of the people we surround ourselves with at that given moment. I doubt that I would have felt so empowered by the experience had I felt that the person I wanted to share it with most wasn't there... And as it was, I wouldn't have had it any other way than to spend that day on Ruapehu with Craig and Edine... Like-minded souls witnessing a rare beauty that could only be created by that particular mountain, in that particular spot, on that particular day... It's fair to say that it was a unique experience untouched by anyone else but us, and I have found myself constantly craving another adventure just like it ever since... This day was, without a doubt, a day I will never forget, and a day that will touch me forever. These are the days that keep us coming back for more... The days which enlighten our souls... The days which fuel our adventurous flame forevermore.

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