Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Years on Top of the Mountain - Alpine Camping on Ruapehu

I couldn’t believe I’d thought this was a good idea (to be fair though, that’s how most of the best adventures begin). My legs were nearly buckling under the weight of my pack and we had barely left the carpark. Putting my pack on to start with required massive feats of human strength combined with an awkwardness that made me looked like I had just done a great job of f**king up a complicated break-dance move. My pack was nearly half my weight at 24kg… I weigh 51kg… The laws of physics were lauging in my face. As we trudged up the mountain, the bulging pack on my tiny frame made it look from behind like there was a big red backpack that had grown legs and was walking up the mountain of it’s own accord. With every step, though, my body seemed to adapt to the incredible feats I was asking it to perform and felt more capable as we worked our way up the access road out of the Whakapapa skifield carpark. As I’ve said many times before, the body is merely a vehicle for accomplishing what the mind sets out to achieve. This was no different to enduring a 24 hour race. I just needed to keep moving.
I’ve been up Ruapehu countless times before, but this was to be my first alpine camping experience… On the summit… On new years eve. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to end the year and see the new one in. So instead of my usual day pack, I was carrying provisions for what was originally planned as two nights up on the mountain. My mate Craig was nearly equally as crazy as me and we trudged up the hill, making slow but sure progress. When the access track ran out, we were greeted with the task of rock scrambling and rock hopping our way up our route. The weight of my pack threw me off balance constantly and I could feel my lower back bruising from where the weight was sitting on my hips. Climbing the mountain in Winter is definitely an easier task, when snow fills the crevices between the rocks and you can walk straight along your route without having to pick the line of least resistance. We had decided to take the route that entered the Whakapapa glacier at the end of the southernmost chairlift because the gradient was much more palatable than the direct route up to the plateau.

I had finished work at 2pm on New Years Eve and we made a break straight for the mountain, arriving about 4.30pm, so by the time we were popping over the edge of the climb and overlooking the crater lake, it was 8.30pm and sunset was upon us. The wind had just begun to pick up, I was soaked in sweat and as the sun lowered itself behind the peaks surrounding the crater, it began to get suddenly very cold. Craig was a little way behind me down the glacier and I weighed up the pros and cons of taking my pack off to get my jacket and be warm or leaving the pack on so I didn’t have to put it back on again. I dropped my pack on the snow and got my jacket out (a wise call). The low evening sun bathed the landscape in an eerie light. The sky was still bright blue, but everything surrounding me was covered in shadow. In hindsight, arriving on the plateau so late without a pre-planned campsite was a bit of a faux-paux. As Craig appeared over the top of the glacier, there was an immediate urgency to get the tent set up and camp made for the evening. It meant that we would not be climbing any high points to enjoy a sunset this evening.

Our initial thoughts to camp above the crater lake were thwarted by the wind that had begun blowing through the glacier and out onto the lake, so we set off around the corner to see what we could find on the summit plateau. The weather forecast had been for rather strong north-easterly winds, reaching about 65km/hr in the wee hours of the morning. In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to this, but the evening was otherwise completely clear and absolutely stunning. With a degree of desperation, we searched out a campsight that would give our tent some shelter from the wind and found a mound of scree poking up out of the snow. At the time, it seemed less than ideal, but a better option than to still be walking around the plateau in the cold when it got dark. I got my snow shovel out and we dug a flat platform out of the ice. The snow had already begun to harden with the cool of the evening. Both Craig and I were becoming uncontrollably cold, especially our hands, which was a distinct problem when trying to pitch a tent whilst darkness was descending upon us. The wind was catching the tent as we tried to pitch it, forcing us to change our method of construction. I’d had the foresight to bring extra long tent pegs, but the ice was so hard that we struggled to get them into the ground, and when we did, they pulled out with relative ease. Craig carried boulders from the scree pile and placed them over the top of the pegs, then placed more boulders out from the tent to attach the guy ropes to. We were pretty sure it was a futile attempt to secure the position of the tent.
It was about this time that my mind wandered to other options. Could we sleep in the Dome Hut, about a hundred metre climb from where we were? Not really… Not in this wind, and certainly not in the dark. Heading back down the mountain wasn’t an option. We had to make the tent work for us. I found the level of commitment we had made our way into in a rather nonchlant manner quite startling. I felt a little out of my depth for the first time in a long time. It was liberating and rather frightening all at the one time.
Finally, with our tent pitched, we watched the final rays of light from 2013  disappear over the Kaimanawa ranges in a brilliant display of colours that split the horizon. We pulled everything out of our bags that we thought we would need and put it in the tent before stashing our bags in the vestibule. Having just put on every item on clothing I had in my pack, I sat in the entrance to the tent with the door open while Craig fired up the stove to boil some water for dinner. I was wearing an Icebreaker singlet, then an Icebreaker long sleeve baselayer, then another Icebreaker jersey on top of that, then my puffer vest and my jacket. I was toasty warm now, but keeping my extremities from freezing was always a challenge for me.

I didn’t really feel all that hungry but knew I needed to eat, so I cracked out a freeze-dried meal to feast on. By the time we finished eating, the wind had really started to blow and we settled into the tent, pretty sure that the only thing keeping it in place was the weight of our bodies. Craig is a big, tall, solidly built dude and I took comfort in the fact that he was lying on the side of the tent that face the prevailing winds, anchoring the bottom of the tent down… Something I’m sure my midget body would have done a very poor job of! We settled in for a celebratory wine and some dark chocolate covered ginger pieces. It would have been remiss of us to now haul some wine up there to celebrate the new year! The wine made me sleepy (and a little bit drunk), so I decided to lie down and set my alarm to wake me up just before midnight so we could see the new year in. The alarm really wasn’t necessary. As the wind picked up, it buffeted the tent, causing the tent to bend and bow over us as we lay down. It became obvious that sleep was going to be a rare commodity on the mountain that evening.
After watching the clock strike midnight, neither of us could sleep. The wind was getting stronger and we both lay silent in our sleeping bags. I had my sleeping bag closed over my head and had cocooned myself in to stay warm and every time I dozed off, I would be rudely awoken either by the tent sounding like it was about to take flight, or by the Dutch Oven kindly brought to me by Backcountry Teriyaki Beef freeze-dried meal. We both lay there silent as the wind picked up. It gave the tent an absolute battering. On a couple of occasions, the tent bowed over so far that it nearly lay flat on top of us and I thought the tent poles would almost certainly break. I was convinced the tent wouldn’t make it through to the next morning. I was running through in my head what could possibly go wrong and how we could react to that if it happened. I figured that if the tent poles snapped, we would just stay in the tent anyway until the morning. The one thing that was haunting me was the thought that if the wind got strong enough, could it possibly pick us up, tent and all, and blow us down the icy slope. It may sound stupid, but it was definitely in the back of my mind.
About 2am, the wind seemed to be at it’s fiercest. I stuck my head out of my sleeping bag and said to Craig “should I bring one of the PLBs into the tent with us?”… At least if something happened it would be attached to me and I could raise the alarm. We decided that was a good idea. Neither of us were getting any sleep, so we sat up and started talking. Sitting there talking with Craig instead of lying in silence listening to the tent buckle, bow and flap in the wind made me feel infinitely better. Inevitably, I needed to go to the toilet, and after much debate within my own head, I decided that instead of venturing out into the cold and wind, I would do my number ones in the vestibule of the tent and then put my shoe over it so noone stood in it. Craig was an absolute gentleman about it! Not long after, Craig decided to brave the elements to do his business. When he got back in the tent, I was expecting stories of near death experiences and clouded skies. Instead, he told me to look outside the tent door…
Despite the howling winds, the night was completely clear. Trillions of stars blanketed the night sky. There were no cities or bright lights nearby to interfere with the galaxies above us. I had never seen anything quite like it. I had imagined that for this trip, we would be sitting outside our tent drinking wine and cups of teas under a sky exactly like the one I was looking at right now. In hindsight, I wish I had gotten out of the tent and walked around… Checked out the views a little better. I think that the noise of the tent in the wind exacerbated our concerns… Like a dog that was all bark and no bite (not that I would recommend camping up there in those strength winds again in the future). I wonder if I had removed myself from the tent, if I would have realised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
So it was two in the morning and we were wide awake. I think by this stage we had resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no sleep for the night. For Christmas, Lisa had given me this cute little dinosaur matchy card game thingy (I think it’s called “Memory”, but I don’t remember). I had popped it in my pack and hauled it up the mountain with me with the vision that we would be sitting outside on the snow, having a drink and playing a game or two, but I daresay good-ol’ T-Rex would have been flying off the mountain this evening had I attempted to lay the cards outside. It was a great way to occupy our time with the wind battering our tent outside. For starters, dinosaurs are all kinds of cool, secondly, it kept us well occupied and last, but certainly not least, it made me think of Lisa. I wondered what she was doing for her new years eve in Vietnam.

The game degraded to the point where we were both randomly just picking up two cards with little regard for what had been turned over before. Nothing stuck in our heads longer than a few seconds. My brain was tired, and I said to Craig “I don’t think I’ll get any sleep, but I want to lay down and rest”. He agreed and we retired back into our cocoons to listen to the wind continue to give the tent a battering. It didn’t let up all night, probably getting the strongest around 4am. I think eventually we both got so tired that the wind became irrelevant and we started dozing in and out of consciousness until my alarm went off at 5am. I understand it sounds silly to set an alarm when you are barely sleeping anyway, but there was no way I wanted to miss the sunrise on New Years Day.

The tent was still blowing around but we could see it was starting to get light outside. “Do you mind if I open the tent door?” I said to Craig. He wearily agreed as I reached over, unzipped the tent, and then the fly. The sight in front of my eyes was indescribable. “Oh my God, look!” I said to Craig. Unbeknown to us, the position we had so hastily pitched our tent the evening before just happened to sit in the perfect spot to see our tent door frame the sunrise. Dawn had just come upon us, and the sky was completely clear. The surrounding peaks were silhouetted against a colourful early morning light display which danced off the horizon. It was stunning. All of a sudden, a night of no sleep seemed one hundred percent worth it. I strapped my crampons on to my boots and ventured out of the tent. It was so cold that exposed parts of my skin became numb in a matter of minutes. The wind had died down, and as I ventured away from the flapping of the tent, I could feel that serenity that I have always craved on the mountain. That completely silent void… Like a vacuum. It was so quiet that I had to click my fingers to convince myself there was nothing wrong with my hearing.

I strolled across the summit plateau, my crampons crunched in the ice and my breath created shapes in the air. I felt this connection with the mountain that I’d never noticed before. She was beautiful in the early morning light. As the sun tried desperately to break its way above the horizon, the peaks to the west of the plateau were bordered by a dramatic pink and blue sky, the pink washing from the sky and spilling down the perfectly white surface of the ice, making it glisten. As I strolled back towards the tent, no sooner had I rounded the corner of the Cathedral rocks than the first rays of sun began to border the clouds.

I stood and watched as the first rays of light on New Years Day spilled across the landscape in front of me. There was a blanket of low cloud that sat below us surrounding the mountain and the sun danced across it to meet me and fill me with warmth. As it rose higher, the cloud dissipated, allowing us to look across at the Kaimanawa Ranges. It really was an absolutely stunning sight. We went for a walk around the corner to the crater lake. In the early morning light, shadows elongated themselves across the steaming surface, cutting the definitive shapes of the peaks around it into the surface in different shades of blue. It always amazes me just how different everything looks under the light of the new morning… How fresh everything seems. As we hiked up to the top of the Dome, we could see shadows dancing across the whole plateau. It was 6am, which meant that right now, Lisa was in a completely different part of the world celebrating the New Year. I laughed at the absurdity of how vastly different our evenings would have been. Her in the middle of a city surrounded by people, noise and happenings… And me on top of a mountain with one good mate, completely isolated from the rest of the world.
The original plan had been to stay on the mountain for two nights, and complete the twelve peaks on New Years Day, but after the definite lack of sleep the evening before, we decided to go for a bit of an explore and then make our way back down the mountain in search of bacon and eggs. The last time we visited Dome hut, it was completely iced over. This time it wasn’t, so we cracked open the door and had a look inside. There’s a reason they say this thing is only for emergency shelter. Most of the hut is locked off, and from what I understand, houses volcanic surveillance equipment. So there is a tiny space inside the door where you could maybe lie on the floor if you really had to. There was also a geocache hidden above the doorframe and a waterproof bible (pretty much, if you’re stuck in here for the night, you’re gonna need it!).

We made our way back towards the tent as the wind picked up again. We knew that packing up the tent in the wind was going to be a logistical nightmare, but it had to be done. Craig had the stove out and was melting some snow for a cuppa and I was looking at this tent, bowing and flapping about in the wind, wondering what we were going to do about it. I was super impressed that the tent had lasted the night in those winds. I really thought that a snapped pole or a rip in the fly was inevitable, but it was still standing there, flexing about under the force of the wind. Overnight, the tent pegs, which we hadn’t been able to secure the evening before, had frozen themselves into the ground, so they had, in fact, ended up being very good anchors. I figured that if we left the tent pegged in and removed the poles first, we could then unsecure the tent from the ground bit by bit and just shove it straight into my pack… I’d worry about drying and rolling it when I got home. Bags packed and water boiled, we sat down on the snow for a cup of tea and then hauled our packs onto our packs and started working our way back down the mountain. Asides from the wind, which seemed to have picked up again, it was a glorious morning, and I was kinda sad we weren’t staying up there a little longer. Our decision was confirmed a good one though, when a couple of hours after we arrived back at the car, we looked up at the mountain to see it encased in a dark cloud.

As we worked our way back down towards the Whakapapa ski field, we found pools of frozen water in between the rocks. Probably about 400m below the level we had camped at, we found several pools covered in ice that was about half an inch thick. My mind boggled at the thought of how cold it must have been up where we were if it was cold enough 400m lower to create ice that was half an inch thick overnight… My guess is that we spent the night in temperatures sitting around minus 10 degrees. The chairlift running up and down the mountain was a welcome sight for our weary legs with our big packs and as we took the “cheats” way down from the top of the skifield, you could tell that people were wondering what the hell we were doing coming OFF the mountain at that time of morning.

A bacon and egg breakfast was nowhere to be found in Whakapapa, so we had to settle for bacon and egg pie (bummer huh?!). As we drank coffee and hot chocolate and ate pie, we mused over our first alpine camping experience and how tough it must be for the guys that climb big mountains and have to sleep in those conditions day-in, day-out. I’m obviously nowhere near hardcore enough for that just yet!

When I look back at that night now, really everything was fine, but the lack of familiarity with the situation made me feel a bit out of my depth, and at the time, made it harder to relax into the experience somewhat. It was funny seeing the reaction that people had to our photos after we returned from the trip. The sheer beauty of what was captured, especially in the early morning during dawn and sunrise, was overwhelming. Craig and I had done a stellar job of hiding the complete terror we had felt at moments during the evening and the morning. There are some experiences you just can’t share in unless you are present in that moment. I can’t wait to head back up there again for my next summit camping trip with what I learned from this one… It really is just another world up there… And something that very few get to enjoy or experience. I feel so very privileged to have seen the New Year in under the watchful eye of the mountain… I have a feeling that this year is going to be a great one!