Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Food For the Soul - Sunset, Stars, Sunrise

There's something foreboding about being on top of a mountain as dusk settles over the landscape. That sense that I shouldn't be there combined with the immense beauty of infinite silence that lingers as the last light of day glistens in the snow, like burning embers on a fire. Our tents sat atop the edge of Red Crater, below the summit of Mount Tongariro and were dwarfed by the immense presence of Mount Ngarauhoe looming in the background. It was a truly beautiful and unique sight.
Only hours earlier, we had set off from the Mangatepopo car park, just a little before midday... My sister Emily, Edine and myself. The timing meant we avoided the crowds on the crossing and enjoyed some serenity on our little excursion. We trudged fully laden with our packs up the crossing and across the Southern Crater as the early afternoon greeted us. Shadows of rocks shifted beneath the low afternoon sun. The mountain had, just a couple of days earlier, enjoyed a healthy dump of snow... It's first for the season... And the landscape was painted white in Winter freshness. 

This was to be only my second season playing in the mountains and seeing the snow renewed my excitement for the Winter to come. The cool air floated around me, caressing my arms with a gentle coolness. There was not a breath of wind, and the sky was such a deep blue, I was unsure whether I should be swimming in it, or flying through it. The afternoon sun felt warm on my back and as we worked our way up the hill, forced us to break into a sweat under our heavy packs. It flitted in and out from behind the peaks as it dipped lower in the sky, and each time it emerged, it burst out with a brilliant flash of light that permeated my skin and filled me with warmth.

The Tongariro Crossing is a beautiful place, and I think there are a lot of seasoned "adventurers" who probably avoid it because of it's popularity, which I think is unfortunate. At 19km long and approximately 830m of climbing, it certainly isn't a trip for the faint-hearted, but I suppose that if you want to avoid the crowds that arrive in droves on shuttle buses, you need to be creative about how you explore the space. My Winter trips have all begun at about 5am, and this was the first time I had camped up here. Some may label me crazy (and many do), but there is no mistaking the sheer beauty of this place in relative undisturbed silence.

We'd had two plans to choose from. If a brisk wind was whipping the top of the plateau, we were to camp at the Northern end of the Southern Crater. If we had somehow managed to score an evening with no wind, we would continue to the top of Red Crater and set up camp there for the night. As it turned out, we were lucky enough to find ourselves standing on top of Red Crater at about 3pm with not a breath of wind. The sky was still clear and asides from our own company, there was not another soul to be seen. We pitched our tents in the snow on a flat spot just off the track, piling handfuls of snow over the top of our tent pegs to secure them into the ground (I knew I would regret this in the morning when my pegs were frozen into the ground!).

Once our tents were pitched, we went about a bit of exploring and setting ourselves up for the evening. It was relatively mild, so a good time to strip down and put some thermals on underneath our outer layers, all the while marveling at this brilliant landscape that surrounded us. We chose a designated "pee spot" behind a large rock so that we wouldn't leave unsightly yellow snow holes in the landscape all around us... And just for the record, number twos were off-limits until we reached Ketatahi Hut the following day.
As we were setting ourselves up with wine, cheese and crackers for sunset, a couple of hikers appeared up the ridge line that ran along Red Crater. Edine and I, both part of Search and Rescue, were curious to check that they were adequately prepared for a descent in the dark in the snow... As it turned out, they weren't... And it happens often on these sorts of routes, where a route is very accessible but potentially dangerous in the wrong conditions. I'm glad we were up there, able to advise them on what to do and give them a light and some food to get back down to their vehicle (they had planned on using the light from their iPhone!!!), and advise Land Search and Rescue of their details and whereabouts in case they were reported overdue... I'm unsure how their evening would have turned out otherwise (when we arrived back at the car the next day, the light we had given them was under the front wheel as I had asked them to do, so we knew they had arrived back safely). That sorted, we had a sunset to watch!

We sat down with a glass (cup) of wine each and reclined into the snow and scree. The last rays of the day cast a warm pink glow across the slopes of Ngarauhoe and panted the sky a brilliant array of oranges, reds, blues and pinks. Mount Taranaki sat in the distance, a dark silhouette imposed upon a bright red canvas, wisps of cloud circling the centre of it's conical form so it's pointed summit seemed to hover above nothingness... And it was still... There was no movement, and no sound. It was a truly beautiful moment... One that filled my soul with energy and joy. I had full respect for just now unique and special this moment was as the last traces of light disappeared from the sky, leaving a colored glow upon the horizon.

We made our way back to the tents and boiled up some water for our freeze-dried meals and a cup of tea and whilst I waited for my bunsen-burner-like pocket rocket to bring the pot to the boil, I produced some crackers, cheese, and a rather expensive stick of venison salami. By now, the temperature had dropped significantly and I was torn between having warm fingers or enjoying tasty Camembert and salami goodness. In my inability to make a decision, I would make up a cracker for myself, shove my hands back into my gloves and then savour it's deliciousness before repeating the process. We made our meals and then stood around, a little lost as to how to spend our freedom on this fine evening atop a mountain.

The real party started when I cracked a couple of old glow sticks open. Not only did they create enough light that we could switch off our headlamps, but they were great for sword fights, hanging on stuff and sticking in our mouths to take photos that made us look like the incredible hulk. As we laughed and ran around (me more than the others... That one glass of wine made me a little sillier than usual!), we found ourselves warming up to enjoy being outside beneath the beautiful night sky. The new moon had only just begun to show, so the black canvas that was the sky served as a background for pinholes of light to punch through one by one. Before long, the entire sky was filled with stars and in the darkness and the stillness, I felt like I was wrapped up in them. The ground and the sky didn't seem to exist anymore. We were all just existent in this space that enveloped us. I've never seen so many stars in my life as I did that night. It was awe-inspiring.

I'm not a sound sleeper when I camp, and my sleeping bag that night was right at it's comfort limit, so whilst I wasn't cold, I wouldn't say I was toasty warm, either. I lay awake, listening to the absolute silence that surrounded me. Apart from the occasional rustle of one of my camping buddies, and the couple of times my sister got up to re-set her camera for the star trails she was taking, there was no sound, not a breath of wind, no possums creeping around outside the tent, and no rain. Whenever I spend time in the mountains, I always find myself intrigued by the lack of sound, and drawn to it. It's like nothing I have felt or heard anywhere else; and so much different from the sensation I feel on the bike. I drifted in and out of sleep until I heard my alarm start to tingle quietly in my ear... When I set it, I knew I would likely be awake, but there was no way I was missing this sunrise.

I was so incredibly tired, but my excitement overruled the urge to succumb to the effects of sleep deprivation. I sat straight up and leaned out of the tent to light the stove and boil some water. By the time I had made hot chocolates for us all, dawn was upon us and the sky was beginning to dance with a palette of early-morning colours streaking across the sky, changing so slowly that you wouldn't notice just standing there. The temperature overnight had been relatively mild for a mountain top. At I guess, I'd say it was probably about minus four-ish... Just cold enough to re-freeze the landscape around us, but not so cold that we couldn't escape the tent for a peek at the stars. The snow crunched under our boots as we made the short journey to the high point just near our tent. It was cold, and I cupped my hands around my plastic mug to keep them warm, playing a delicate balancing act between retaining the liquid long enough to keep my hands warm, and drinking it fast enough that it warmed my insides, as well.

Reaching the top of the high point that morning was probably the highlight of my trip. I love sunrises... There's something about them that makes me feel so infinitely connected and in tune with the environment around me. The snowy white peaks were bordered by a bright red, pink and orange sky and the furthest peaks sat against the background as silhouettes. As the sun spread it's fingers over the landscape, gracing us with a new day, flecks of orange and red reflected off the glistening snow.

The morning was so still that Blue lake, which was situated over the other side of the central crater from us, held the reflection of the slopes behind it like a mirror. It was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the mountain and it's own reflection. It was so beautiful and made me feel so happy and warm inside that it gave me goosebumps and brought a tear to my eye. I was in love with this feeling I got when I woke up on the mountain. We sat there for a long time after the sun finally crested the peaks, marveling at the way the low early morning light threw shadows across the perfect white landscape. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and our cold morning woes were solved by the discovery of some steam vents on the edge of the crater (SCORE!!!)

Finally our stomachs demanded that we return to camp for some food. It was at this stage we realised that we had (rather inconveniently) managed to pitch our camp right in the middle of the shadow of the high point, so our tents were the last patch of land to see sun for the morning. We ate, and then after a great deal of swearing and some ingenious use of my boot heels, managed to remove the frozen tent pegs to pack up and be on our way.

As we made our way back down the mountain, we passed the Emerald Lakes, each a different colour and a different temperature. One of them was frozen over and I took the opportunity to stand on the firm icy surface close to the edge. As we crossed the central crater, we noticed the sun had a wide, hazy, rainbow-coloured halo around it, which was quite a spectacular sight (and for some annoying reason, it also installed the song "Halo" by Beyonce in my head on repeat for the next three hours).

We made quick work of the descent, stopping for half an hour at the hut to refuel and rest our legs before descending through the native forest and back to the car. By the time we got to the car, the mountain top was clouded in... We were so lucky to get such impeccable weather. I felt so privileged to see the mountain the way we did that evening and morning, and even more privileged to share it with two of my favorite peeps! Winter is just about here and while most people are getting ready to hibernate, I'm preparing my ice axe, crampons, skis and alpine sleeping bag for some wicked outdoor fun in the brisk, fresh air!!!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Yesterday I Crashed My Bike

So I was riding in the forest this evening and this poem started to etch itself into my brain... I have no idea why... I never even really write poetry... So I got home and wrote it down to share...

Yesterday I crashed my bike
It’s something that I didn’t like
I found a tree and hit my head
It filled me with a sense of dread
The pain I felt just hung around
As I lay there on the ground
No one there to pick me up
I felt alone and out of luck
I vowed never again I’d ride
I’d lock myself up warm inside
So as to counter further threat
I’d fall again and meet my death
But once I locked myself away
I lacked the feeling that I craved
And the risk I thought had been so real
Now appeared to be no big deal

Yesterday I broke my life
A bit of unexpected strife
I couldn’t buy another one
This one I had no longer fun
I was upset it seemed so bad
But forced to work with what I had
I realised I could make it mine
And mould it from moments in time
Moments that were bright and clear
Were moments that I held so dear
The moments that I wished would stay
Those moments always went away
But awful moments were the same
They always went as quick as they came
A moment it was and all that it is
Good or bad, it is what it is
Those moments weren’t for me to hold
But to enjoy and let go, and learn to be bold

Today I climbed a mountain top
Eventually I had to stop
For there was nothing left to climb
Above me just the bright blue sky
And laid out right in front of me
Was the whole world for me to see
And things I never thought I’d touch
Those things were now within my clutch
The sun that shone upon my face
And once my only saving grace
Now warmed my brave and weary soul
And energised me as a whole
It finally made so much sense
This world that always seemed immense
Was something that I did create
Through those moments I made my fate

Yesterday I crashed my bike
In hindsight it was kinda nice
It taught me to get up once more
To create a life I could adore