Sunday, July 7, 2013

My First Summit - A Place That Seems Not of This World

I think I've mentioned on many occasions before that I have this philosophy about the people that come into your life... Some come and go, and never leave a trace of their presence, and some people will come into your life and change it forever in ways you have never imagined... So for the latter, what the hell do you get them when it's their birthday? Well, on this occasion, I decided to take my dear friend Sarah out on a mid-winter summit mission on Mount Ruapehu.
The week leading up to our mission involved daily visits to Metvuw and the NZ Avalanche Advisory site to scope out the conditions for the coming Saturday. We were looking to be in luck... Low avalanche risk, low wind and sunshine... But damn it was looking cold!!! The Friday evening, we made our way to Kuratau to stay at our friend's family bach (thanks Craig!!!), and after a rather late evening of sitting in front of the fire doing nothing much else than excitedly looking over topo maps for the millionth time, we rose early to head to the mountain the following morning (although not quite early enough for my liking!)

Our original plan had been to hit the mountain about 6.30am, but after our late evening the night before, we were on our way from the carpark at 7.30am, after seeing a stunning sunrise on the road on our way up to the snowfield. I was a bit disappointed that we hadn't had the discipline to be up and on the mountain by sunrise, but that was the way it worked out on the day! It was the first day of the ski season for Whakapapa, and whilst the snow cover was quite good for the time of season, they still had their snow making machines on, so as we made our way up the snowfield, not only were we encrusted with fine snow powder (we had these little ice caps on top of our beanies!), but we had to trudge through the powdery top layer (amazing for skiers and snowboarders, I'm sure, but not so great for walking through!).

As we made our way up the skifield, the sun began to bathe the mountain in all it's glory. We had evidently lucked in on another stunningly clear day and the blue sky sat modestly behind the shimmering of the sun as it crested Mount Ngarahoue and Mount Tongariro, colouring the two mountains in shades of pink and orange and making for some stunning photos against the shady early morning foreground on Ruapehu. We did this first part of the climb in our hiking boots with no crampons. The gradient of the slope was easily manageable and the soft snow made for good traction. Once we reached the top station cafe (which unfortunately was closed at this early hour), we strapped on the crampons and wielded our ice axes for the more serious part of the day.


Our planned route up the mountain was originally to follow the centre T-Bar, then cross the valley to the southernmost T-Bar and follow the Whakapapa Glacier up to the right of Quartz Knoll so that we popped out straight above the crater lake. As we made our way up the mountain, it became evident that the traverse we wanted to attempt was quite steep, and the snow a little soft for our liking, so we crossed back up to the left of Quartz Knoll. The top part of the climb just before the plateau presented us with some icy terrain that was such a deep blue you felt like you were peering straight through it as you walked over it. The crampons had surprisingly firm purchase on the ice, and we soon found ourselves deposited safely on the summit plateau.

The other thing that became evident was that we should have had insulation covers for the hoses coming from our Camelbak bladders, which were now frozen and useless as a source of hydration. Whilst we had been presented with a stunning day, it was still well below zero on the mountain, and eating snow yielded a surprisingly low amount of fluid (good to know!). A handful of snow would be lucky to give enough water to barely wet our lips. I was a good lesson to learn. Hydration on trips like this is of utmost importance and having a inaccessible water supply was certainly not ideal. Being relatively inexperienced in mountaineering at this point, we had also been doing a lot of self-learning, and the topic of this week had been avalanche safety. It probably wasn't a bad thing, but we had immersed ourselves in a constant state of paranoia that the piece of mountain we were climbing was definitely going to slide out from underneath us in a massive slab avalanche. I guess as you become more experienced on the mountain, you get a bit more intuitive about what is and isn't safe, but for the time being, paranoia will reign supreme until we know better!

The Summit Plateau on Mount Ruapehu offers a number of adventures that can be had in a day, but our mission today was to make our way around the Dome, past the crater lake and up the front face of Tahurangi Peak, the summit proper of Mount Ruapehu, which sat at 2797m above sea level. The plateau in itself is an absolute thing of beauty, especially when bordered by clear blue skies. A perfectly groomed, snowy platform that extends to the edge of the mountain in every direction, with numerous peaks scattered around it's boundaries. Our shadows became elongated and danced across the pure, white snow, making me look eight foot tall (definitely a first!). I discovered alternate uses for my ice axe along the way, including it's usefulness as a camera tripod, and also it's ability to hold my pack for me so it didn't slide down the mountain whilst I was "making yellow snow" (initially quite embarrassed by my weak bladder, I later discovered this is quite common practice, and it is actually really interesting to see how quickly the snow is penetrated by warm fluid... Sorry, too much information maybe???).

As we made our way across the plateau, we could feel the weather constantly shifting around us. There were places on the mountain where the cold wind was so unbearable we had to add layers, and places where the wind was non-existent and the sun beat down on our cold bodies, bringing them back up to temperature again (and melting the water in our hydration bladders so we could drink again!)... It's impossible to get up in the morning and dress for a day on the mountain, and the changing conditions on this day made me vow to put additional layers in a more accessible part of my pack. I'm still nutting out the best way to arrange my gear in my pack for these trips. I recently picked myself up an Osprey alpine pack (the Variant 52), and today was my first outing with it. I remember when I was packing it during the week, and I had put everything in it then was convinced I must have missed something because there was so much room... But it compressed down really nicely, and had a neat little spot on the outside of the pack for my ice axe and my crampons and some gear loops for random little bits and pieces. I was able to find a harness in my size, and the difference I felt at the end of the day compared to my old pack was astounding... Absolutely not sore spots and no shoulder bruising. It carried the load on my hips really nicely. I was stoked with it (and it totally looked the part, too!)

The crater lake up close was a sight to behold. In Summer, this lake is a stunning turquoise blue, but now, during Winter, the temperature of the lake compared to the surrounding snow meant the lake was covered in a fine swirling mist which dangled just above the surface. Apparently the water in the lake is too acidic to swim in (PH1), but to be honest, I don't know if I would have been too keen to get the swimmers on up there in zero degrees anyway! We skirted around the lake with Tahurangi looming majestically in front of us. In the distance, we could see two climbers already making their way up the face of the ridge, and as we got closer, we realised just how incredibly steep the ridge was. The previous climbers had pretty much kicked steps in the whole way up the ridge, and being new to this, I was unsure of what the protocol was on whether it was acceptable practice to use the steps someone else had kicked into a route, but it seemed silly to ignore them and make our own route up, so we enjoyed the climb up without having to worry too much about foot placement, which was nice, especially given the gradient must have gotten up to a good 70-80% near the top of the ridge!

As we neared the top of the ridge, I saw the two climbers poke their heads over the edge... "Thanks for kicking the steps in for us buddy!!!" I called out cheerfully. They smiled at me, and as I clambered over the edge, I explained to them that I wasn't sure if it was the done thing to follow the route of climbers who went up before us, but they didn't seem to mind. They were such lovely people, and the guy was telling us that he was on his final training trip before heading over to Peru to climb some 6,000m peaks (awesome!). He gave us some useful tips and then we watched them descend, taking special note of their front-facing technique down the steep ridge.

The view from the summit was magnificent. Our eyes feasted on 360 degree views which tantalised our senses in ways that were indescribable. To the south, we could see the Turoa skifield, the top T-bars visible in the distance like tiny power lines scaling the side of the mountain. To the other side, the north, we had an unencumbered view of the crater lake and the peaks that bordered the summit plateau. Everything was either white or blue, except for the little black dots making tracks in the snow as climbers worked their way towards the summit ridge. To the east, we could see past the summit rock to the gap between Ringatoto and Pyramid Peaks, which created a v-like border to the alpine desert below, a flat, green landscape dotted with patches of snow. Then finally, to the west, we could see the striking west ridge, stamping it's authority against the skyline then trailing off into the distance towards Te Ataahua Peak. It made me smile, like I had been let in on some cosmic wonder that the rest of the world couldn't see. It really did feel like we were standing on top of the world.

By now, there were strong winds blowing across the top of the summit ridge and cloud had encapsulated the peak, reducing visibility. A group of ski mountaineers had also just clambered up onto the ridge and it was getting crowded. We were pretty much on the summit, but hadn't climbed up the final summit rock yet. After conferring with Sarah, we decided that we were pretty stoked with where we had gotten for the day and decided to head back down. We dug our ice axe in and swung around to face the ridge, then down climbed in the steps we had climbed up in, turning around and using our heels to come down the final part of the ridge that wasn't so steep. When we got back down to the bottom of the ridge, we looked back up to see the cloud surrounding the peak had already disappeared... Amazing.

As we made our way back the way we came, I took the liberty of stamping out a giant smiley face in the snow... Right below the summit... As we made our way past the crater lake and back onto the summit plateau, the shadows had shifted with the sun during the day, creating a whole new landscape to the one we had seen that morning. The ground had softened, making for hard work through the snow... Some steps would stay on top of the snow, other steps would punch thorough to our knees, making for awkward walking. As we approached our descent, the view we had seen that morning, straight down the the flat land surrounding the mountain, was gone and had been replaced by a shimmering cloud that had shrouded the mountain during the day. The sunlight reflected off the cloud, just like when you are looking down on the clouds from an airplane... But it was just there, right in front of you, like you could reach out and touch it. The face of the mountain had softened with the sun, making the descent quite easy.

As we reached the top chairlift station, the weather had changed dramatically. It was quite bizarre, but whilst we had enjoyed a stunning day up on the summit, the skifield had endured a gloomy, cloudy day... And it was snowing!!! Our weary legs begged for a ride down on the chairlift, and we happily obliged. The cold snow settled on our aching joints as we were lowered back down to civilisation, where we removed our crampons, stashed our ice axes on our packs, and clambered into the car for the drive home.

It doesn't seem to matter how long I have been doing these crazy things, I never seem to stop being in awe of what our stunning world has to offer us... I never seem to stop learning new and interesting things... And I am constantly pleasantly surprised by just how awesome an experience can be when you share with the right people... Happy birthday Sarah! Hope you enjoyed the yellow snow cone I made for you!!!

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