Monday, July 1, 2013

Climbing Mount Taranaki - Icy Slopes and Blue Skies

It's been three weeks now since we headed to New Plymouth for a few days out and to have a stab at climbing Mount Taranaki, but it sticks in my mind like it was just yesterday. Mountaineering is a newly discovered hobby of mine, and whilst my skills on the ice and in the snow are still developing, my years of rock climbing, riding and adventuring in general seem to serve me well and instil me with enough cockiness to bite off more than I can chew. The thing I have found with mountaineering is that it picks me up and dumps me just outside my comfort zone... Something that I have missed for some time now... And I love it.
The idea of climbing Taranaki for my second ever alpine outing was a bold choice indeed. Taranaki is by no means an easy day out. It is known for it's sudden weather changes and slick icy slopes and has the reputation for being the deadliest mountain in New Zealand... My theory on this is that people die on this mountain purely because it is so accessible, and because they take unnecessary risks... I suppose a little bit like the Tongariro Crossing. In following with that, as long as we made sensible decisions and proceeded with caution, I figured we should have a relatively uneventful day out on the mountain.

I was lucky enough to have a week off in between jobs so we headed to New Plymouth just after midday on Wednesday, stopping along the way to check out the spectacular sunset, pick up members of our climbing posse, and to fill up at random petrol stations in small hick towns because Sarah didn't check the fuel gauge before we left Rotorua. We arrived in New Plymouth at a reasonable time, but by the time we picked up equipment and had a feed, it was getting rather late. Furthermore, I had been battling with aches, pains and sniffles all afternoon, trying to convince myself that I wasn't getting sick. We had allowed two days to climb the mountain, in case the weather turned out better on one day than the other... That was one thing that we understood perfectly clear... You don't stuff around with the weather on this mountain. Thursday was looking to be a fine day, but with high winds, and Friday was looking much more promising, but we decided to plan the Thursday as if we were climbing in case the winds abated.

We all awoke on Thursday morning at 5am and I felt like death warmed up... There was no way I was climbing a mountain today... We went back to bed and decided to leave the climbing for Friday. I was pretty annoyed with myself for being crook, but I knew it had been coming for some time now and I had been fending it off. Our first stop for the morning was the pharmacy. I remember walking up to the counter and saying "I have the flu and I intend to climb the mountain tomorrow... I need some drugs to ensure I will be able to do that". The pharmacist quite happily took my money for the cocktail of cold and flu tablets and herbal remedies he handed over the counter.
As it turned out, the winds across the top of the mountain were at gale force, so the climb would have been a no-go on Thursday anyway (which made me feel a bit better!). Because the slopes of Mount Taranaki are so exposed, high winds tend to sheer the surface, leaving it hard and icy. Locals refer to it as "bullet proof" in these conditions and even with crampons and an ice axe it can be treacherous. It is very possible to have a day which looks stunning, but is an absolutely heinous day to be on that mountain. We spent the day checking out New Plymouth, walking along the coast and even went up to the North Egmont visitor centre to check out our route options. It was actually really nice to get our bearings on the mountain. We discovered that the first part of the climb up to the lodge was on a steep access road. The ease of navigation for this part of the climb meant we could start in the dark without fear of becoming lost. We headed back to our awesome bach for the evening and drank wine in the spa overlooking the ocean and watching the sunset... The drugs had started to kick in for me and I was feeling confident that a good night's sleep would see me climbing the mountain the next day.

5am on Friday we arose to the buzz of excitement through weary eyes. Food disappeared down our throats and into our packs and we loaded everything back into the car then set off for the mountain. I was feeling 100% on the day before and I was completely amped for the climb. Conditions were still and we could see the stars shimmering in the pre-dawn sky... There wasn't a cloud in sight. We unloaded ourselves and our gear from the car, signed into the intentions book in the visitor centre and set off up the mountain with our head torches on. It was a cold morning, but the steep climb up the access road soon had us stripping off layers, removing beanies and unzipping jackets. A cool breeze licked at our sweaty skin as we climbed and as long as we kept moving, we were warm.

As the sky began to lighten, the white capped peak of Mount Taranaki appeared in front of us, seemingly hovering in the sky until the sun began to tickle it's slopes with the morning light. The dawn scattered an array of brilliant colors across the landscape before allow the sun to creep over the horizon, framing the silhouette of Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngarahoue and Mount Tongariro with a stunning red sky. And whilst I could try to describe just how incredible it was, or try to show you in a photo, there is just nothing that would do it true justice. As the sun rose further, it bathed the snow and ice-covered slopes of Mount Taranaki with a soft pink glow, then began to throw the shadows of four friends climbing the mountain against the ground... It was magic.
As we approached Tahurangi Lodge, the effects of the wind from the previous day were evident. The tussock was ice-encrusted on one side and features on the landscape had ice frozen to one edge... A dead giveaway of the direction the wind had been blowing from. The final track up to the lodge was an absolute pig of a climb, but once at the lodge, we settled on the seat to finish seeing the new day in whilst we ate the bacon and egg sandwiches we had prepared the evening before so we could have "breakfast at the lodge". For the record, I think they were the best tasting bacon and egg sandwiches I have had in some time!

From the lodge, we started up the poled route that is the northern summit track. This track is the easiest route up the mountain and is poled the entire way up except for the section  just shy of the crater where the Winter route flicks around into crater valley instead of continuing up "The Lizard", which becomes impassable in the snow. We soon came upon ice covering the route and continued to progress without crampons due to the stop/start nature of the ice... Eventually, we decided it was too sketchy, fitted our crampons and armed ourselves with our ice axes. This was the first time I had used my new Grivel crampons and ice axe and they seemed to do the trick really well... The crampons in particular were super light. As we ascended the lower slopes of the mountain, we removed and re-fitted our crampons a number of times, which was a bit cumbersome. To be honest, in future, I would probably just deal with having the crampons on the scree for the stuffing around we did taking them off and on.

We followed the marker poles up the mountain, but then a suggestion was made to move slightly off route to stay on the ice where we were getting better grip with our crampons, as opposed to the chossy scree that speckled the marked route. Pretty soon we found ourselves completely surrounded by ice underfoot. It was hard ice and tough to get comfortable purchase on in places. The marker poles disappeared over the ridge line and the slope we were on pitched up rather steeply. We continued on the route we were following, heading in the general direction of the marked route, but with no marker poles to guide us. The unnerving thing about being on Taranaki is that it is so exposed and there is little opportunity to park up and rest as there is no flat or undulating terrain on the mountain. From the moment you leave the carpark, you climb the whole day, then when you come back down, your knees get a hammering from the relentlessly steep descent. We found ourselves crossing an icy snow bowl that continue to increase in steepness. I felt ok, but I wouldn't say I was comfortable. I was keen to continue moving across the ice and cross over the ridge back to where the markers were. In hindsight, I should have insisted we move back across to the marker poles. It would have made it so much easier, mentally, for everyone in the group. None of us were seasoned mountaineers and that little trip across the snow bowl had been slightly unnerving for some members of our group. Having said that, though, we all arrived back on the ridge in one piece and had a little chuckle at our geographical misdemeanor.

At this point, there were a couple of members of our posse who had decided they didn't want to go any higher for the day. It was a beautiful day and they were happy to perch themselves on a rock and watch the view whilst Edine and I headed up further to attempt to obtain the summit. The view from the mountain was breathtaking. The unique thing about being high on Mount Taranaki is that the landscape surrounding the mountain is so flat... It makes for an incredible view... It nearly felt like the entire mountain was floating in an ocean of green. The sun reflected off the ocean in the distance and small whisps of cloud provided a backdrop that made it difficult to tell where the icy slopes stopped and the sky began. We could see the peaks of Tongariro national park the whole way up the mountain. It was just stunning. I remember commenting to Edine how inexplicably silent it was up here. It was bizarre just how serene it felt... Like it was not of this world.

Edine and I climbed on and the slope became steeper. It became evident that the time was drawing nearer for us to move off "The Lizard" and into Crater Valley, but we avoided doing so until too late, probably because Crater Valley felt so exposed. I had a very real understanding in my head of the consequences of a fall on this mountain. The hardness of the ice meant there would be minimal chance of self arrest, and the shape of the mountain meant that there were no flat spots or rocky strainers to stop careless climbers from falling further... The most likely consequence of a fall was to end up in the body catcher.

We reached a section where the rocks jutted out awkwardly from the ice, and the moved I pulled across the rocks was equally as awkward. This, understandably, did not instill a great deal of confidence in my climbing partner, so I offered to help her across that section. As I moved back towards her, one of my crampons lost it's purchase and my footing slipped out from under me, leaving me hanging on my axe on thin ice over the rocks. I didn't feel too worried about this until I made the mistake of looking down... My crampons were nearly dangling over the edge of a small rocky outcrop which dropped straight onto the icy slope which delivered it's passengers directly the (yep, you guessed it) body catcher. I scrambled as delicately as I could to dig my crampons back in and take a more solid swing at the ice with my axe to recover myself. I was also aware of how thin the ice was at this point and was wary to not fracture the section of ice I was attached to. My heart was beating like a jackhammer, especially once I realised that I was the only one who could get myself out of this little pickle I had gotten into. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do and I was grateful I had the opportunity to learn the lesson first hand and live to see another day. I suppose it's like falling off a bike... You only realise what your limits are once you push yourself to the edge of those limits... Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it's scary, but the lesson is there to be had if you are willing to put yourself into that situation. In hindsight, it probably wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time... This is the exact reason you have three points of contact whilst climbing and you always ensure you have two points firmly planted at any given moment... This was a shining example of why that is necessary.. So if one point slips, you still have another point to secure you.
I edged my way back across to where I had previously been standing and dug my ice axe and crampons in as hard as I could so I could relax for a moment and compose myself. It was at that moment that Edine said the words I was dreading... "I don't want to go on. I want to go down now". I must admit I was pretty gutted. It was my own fault for doing something as stupid as I had just done. To be honest, I actually felt more comfortable climbing up than down at that point and I could see on my GPS that we were only about 300 vertical metres shy of the summit. I just stood there and didn't say anything for a few moments. It was disappointing to come all this way up the mountain (and it is a huge climb up that mountain!) and not make the summit. "If you want, you can go the rest of the way yourself. I'm OK with that" she said... But I wasn't really OK with it... I wasn't experienced enough to be traipsing around the top of the mountain by myself. I made a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to talk her around and then started the descent.
I felt uncomfortable descending the hard ice. It gave me the heeby-jeebies for some reason and I was doing this awkward down-climb when a couple of experience climber literally came strolling past and looked at me as if the say "what the f@#k are you doing?" Seeing them strolling down the mountain barely even using their ice axe gave me something to follow suit on and I soon felt comfortable enough to turn around and start walking down. I'll admit my little "incident" freaked me out, and probably drained a good portion of my energy, but I was really disappointed we didn't reach the summit.
We met up with Tim and Sarah again and followed the markers back down the mountain. The marked route was definitely a more pleasant gradient than the original route we took up, but nowhere near as hardcore! As we descended, we noticed a thick cloud had begun to shroud the mountain. It was unbelievable how quickly the weather surrounded the mountain and we soon found ourselves in thick fog on the descent, barely able to see from one marker to the next!
The trip back down the mountain was super hard on the knees, and as we made our way back down the access track that joined Tahurangi Lodge to the North Egmont visitor centre, I found myself in unspeakable amounts of pain along the lateral side of my left knee. It was unbearable, and after refusing the generous offers of help from my climbing buddies, I suffered the rest of my descent back to the car. One of the things that makes Mount Taranaki such a tough climb is the relatively low height that the climb begins at. Because the mountain sits at sea level, the relative height of the base of the mountain to the peak makes it possibly one of the biggest climbs in the country, not to mention the relentless trudge upwards with no respite. Even leaving from the visitor centre at 800m above sea level meant that a summit campaign involved climbing a full 1700m in one hit... Not a meager task by any stretch of the imagination!
I still have a lot to learn about my new passion, but it excites me in the same way that back country missions on the bike do... Who knows, it may one day become a plausible replacement when I can no longer ride a bike!

1 comment:

  1. Babe, I think you'll be able to ride your bike for many years longer than you'll be able to mountain climb, but I know what you mean :) On another note, and I'll say it again, I'm glad Edine insisted on you guys coming down the mountain. You didn't make the summit, but at least you have another chance to try and make the summit x