Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Big Weekend, Even By My Standards - The Summit

The general consensus amongst people I know tends to be that I am a little bit crazy... My weekends (in fact, my weekdays, also!) tend to be jam-packed full of weird and wonderful activities and followed up with a barrage of equally weird and wonderful photos and some good lengthy story-telling (because that's just how I roll). Last weekend was no exception to this... In fact, it was a big ask even for the likes of me...
The craziness started about Tuesday of that week... I got a text from my buddy Edine asking what I was doing on the weekend because she had somehow ended up with the weekend off (a rarity in the industry she works in). I hadn't been on an adventure with Edine in soooo long (in fact, our last outing together was our Taranaki trip), so I was keen to jump on the opportunity to head out for some mountain climbing with her. My weekend was already looking pretty full, so I loosely committed a "morning" to "scoot up Ngarauhoe" (knowing full well this morning would quite likely extend itself well into the afternoon). I shuffled my week's training around so that Friday morning, I would get up at 4.30am (my favorite time of morning lately) and smash out my Saturday session, which just happened to be my 20min hill climb test followed by a two hour endurance ride. The proposed plan was much to Edine's delight... Apparently ripping the legs off myself up Mountain Road on Friday would make me "easier to keep up with" on Saturday (good theory!).

So Friday rolled around and I smashed out a good hill session... In fact, the best I had done since I got sick a month and a half ago (although still a wee way off my personal best). Then after work, I threw all my gear in the car, including my bike, then made my way to Turangi to meet Edine and car pool the rest of the way to our accommodation in National Park. After a slightly longer than planned drive (Edine remembered she left her jacket in her car when we were half way to National Park), we arrived at a modest little backpackers about 10pm. We'd booked a shared room, and were trying to figure out how we would sort out all our packing for the next day, and our 5am wake up, without disturbing the other people in the room (which, let's be honest, was going to be nearly impossible). So we were stoked when we opened the door to our room to realise we were the only ones in there that evening! Perfect! We got all our gear sorted, then hit the sack for an early wake-up.

Our arrival at the trail head the following morning was about half an hour behind schedule, but we were on our way by 6.30am. The plan was to hike up the first part of the Tongariro Crossing and then up Ngarauhoe. The early morning sky looked a little threatening, with quite a bit of cloud, which made for some quite ominous-looking photos, but we were hopeful it would burn off and give us another stunning morning for mountaineering. It was a cold morning, and the trail was frozen, meaning it was well below zero degrees. The full moon sat high to the west and shone through the clouds as they darted across in front of it. Our boots crackled on the ground and our breath drew patterns in the air.

Dawn broke behind the mountain quite modestly today. There wasn't a dancing array of pinks and oranges as I have seen previously on the mountain... Just a delicate stroke of pink painted over the white snow on the mountain we were about to scale, and some spectacular shadows in the foreground. I commented to Edine how it would be spectacular to get up early(er) and be on the plateau or up on the summit to see the sunrise... I'm not sure if she genuinely shared my enthusiasm for this plan, but she politely agreed that, indeed, it would be spectacular, then avoided encouraging my thought process on the idea any further.

The crampons came out of our packs and onto our feet at the foot of the set of stairs that goes up the Tongariro Crossing. At this point, we were clouded in and couldn't even see the mountain, but we had good faith that the cloud would be hanging below us once we reached 1500m, as promised in the weather forecast. We possibly could have gotten away with not putting our crampons on until the top, but it was nice to have good solid footing on the icy steps. I'm always in two minds about the way trails are adapted to make it easier for people to walk or ride them... It's wonderful that it encourages more people to get out and see our amazing landscape, but on the other hand, it also encourages people to go places where they could potentially be out of their depth, and it does detract from the natural beauty of the area. I'm sure that not all would agree with me, but my philosophy on the whole thing is that to see something so beautiful, you should have to work hard for that reward... Not just follow the highway that has been paved in front of you.

As we made our way along the track, we stopped on a number of occasions to readjust Edine's crampons which were behaving badly and kept loosening themselves. We were caught up by a father and daughter who were doing the same trip as us, up Ngarauhoe. They were awesome people, and whilst we both did our own thing for the day, we crossed paths with them on a number of occasions and did an email and photo swap at the end of the trip. It's always so awesome to meet other people who have that innate love of the outdoors.

As we arrived at the ridge where we turned right to head up the mountain, we got our first glimpses of the sun. The cloud that we had sat in earlier that morning now hung lazily below us to reveal a beautiful blue sky. Mount Taranaki poked it's head through the clouds in the distance to say g'day and watch over us for the whole day. We had a snack break, then trudged on up the side of the mountain. The gradient got exponentially steeper as we went and it was relentless, reminding me in places of the climb we did up Mount Taranaki a couple of months ago (Edine didn't think it was as steep as Taranaki, but I thought it probably was... We had just had more practice on the terrain by now and felt more comfortable with it). At times, I found myself leaning on my spare hand to keep my weight forward into the mountain. The other thing that made Ngarauhoe a seemingly easier mountain to climb was that the run-out off the bottom of the area we were climbing wasn't exposed like on Taranaki... A fall would certainly leave you battered and bruised, but there we no outcrops or cliffs to slide off if you slipped and couldn't get a self-arrest in.
The trudge upwards was hard work and I could feel every second of that hill test I did the morning before. My legs felt like they were on fire, but for some reason, all I could think of was how funny it would be to take the Yeti costume and my bike up the mountain for some crazy photos (I have no idea why that thought was occupying my mind, but it was much preferable to having a Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber song stuck in my head, and it took my mind off the burning in my legs).
As it was so early, the surface was icy, and the air was cold in our throats. I'd make little pacts with myself to walk twenty steps, or fifty steps and then have a breather before taking the next twenty or fifty steps. Whenever I turned around, I saw a glorious blue sky hovering over Mount Tongariro and it's craters... It never ceases to amaze me that you can climb so many different areas and faces of the mountains in Tongariro National Park and see completely different views and landmarks, and the terrain can vary substantially. The other thing I never get tired of is the amazing ice formations that gather on the mountains... Rocks that have become a canvas for the wind and snow to delicately carve stunningly beautiful sculptures during the harshest of storms for us to see glistening in the sun on days like this under a brilliant blue sky.

As we climbed, we would cross briefly onto areas of scoria that had been left devoid of snow or ice by the wind. I quite enjoyed these brief interludes from the endless icy face, but Edine preferred to stay on the white stuff... Everyone is different I guess! Finally, the gradient eased off and we popped up onto a flattish area that preceded the summit. Don and Kat were just ahead of us heading up the last section to the summit. The wind that blew across the plateau was strong enough to put me off balance on a couple of occasions, but we wasted little time in continuing on and making our way up to the summit to join our new friends. The wind up the ridge to the summit made me a little nervous on a couple of occasions. I guess been so small makes me a bit vulnerable to it, but once on the summit, we were able to tuck in behind the rocks for some summit photos and a look at the view spread out all around us. To the south, we could see the Ngarauhoe crater. To the east, the Kaimanawa Mountains, capped with snow. To the west, Mount Taranaki was still peeking above the clouds and seemed unusually close. Then to the north, we could see across Mount Tongariro and it's craters. The blue lake was snowed over and Te Maari crater was putting on a brilliant steam show after it's eruption about this time last year.

The summit area was quite small, so we did our sight-seeing then made our way back down to the plateau. The other thing that made the summit a little precarious, as Don pointed out, was the cornices that form over the edge of the crater... So it is possible to feel like you are standing on solid ground when you are, in fact, standing on an overhanging bit of ice... Scary stuff! By now it had become blindingly obvious to me that today wasn't going to be a "morning trip". The surface was still icy and Don suggested that we hang around the plateau area for a spot of lunch and a bit of an explore to wait for the face of the mountain to soften a little in the sun, making the descent a bit easier. His logic was well-founded, so we went for a little stroll around and found a nice rock for shelter out of the wind to sit down and have a feed (note to self... In future, if you choose to "make yellow snow" on a windy plateau, finding a place out the wind is a good idea if you don't want yellow boots).

The conversation and company over lunch was awesome and it was really nice to have a little posse of us up there. I was glad we had started out so early... As we looked back down on the southern crater of the Tongariro Crossing, we could see swarms of guided tours making their way across the snow... It was even a highway in Winter!!! We could also see other climbers making their way up Ngarauhoe... Starting so early had meant we had the privilege of enjoying the serenity on the summit by ourselves with a couple of other good peeps. Once we had finished lunch, we made our way back to the edge of the mountain and started descending... Don and Kat were pros at it and left us in their wake... And Edine was definitely a bit quicker on the descent than me... I must admit I actually find the descent off a steep mountain a bit daunting and I don't know why... Maybe because I am facing outwards and it makes me feel a bit more exposed? Maybe because my light weight means that my crampons don't stomp into the snow as deep as someone with a bit more weight... Or maybe it's just because I am relatively new to this and need to learn to trust my crampons and my footing a little better (probably the most likely of the three).
I remember having a conversation on the mountain with Edine about how mind-blowingly incredible it was to be up there... And how lucky we were to see and do such amazing things that so many other people would never have the opportunity to do. I got a lot out of the fact that my climbing buddy was as stoked on our adventure as I was.

The descent is always much quicker and it blew me away how much different the area below us appeared now, in the daylight, and with no cloud cover, than it did that morning. Areas of the walk back to the car were still covered in ice and on one occasion, I found myself searching for my footing as my legs slipped out from under me and I found myself sitting on a patch of ice that had somehow claimed the integrity of my grip. The walk back, after being on such a spectacular mountain, was a bit mundane, and had me playing a game of "are we there yet?!" much to Edine's disgust.

Back at the carpark, we bumped into our new buddies again and swapped contact details to share photos, then we got in the car and headed back to Turangi... Edine was heading down the other side of the mountain to go snowboarding at Tukino the next day, and I was on my way to Raglan that evening to meet Sarah and ride a mountain bike race the following day... Yup, I was only half way through the weekend and had a looong drive ahead of me... But that's another story in itself... Check out my next blog!!!

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