Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Lonely Early Morning Foray on Ngauruhoe

"Good morning Ngauruhoe! Looks like you've put on a stunner for me today!"... It was 5am and I was standing in the dark and cold at the Mangatepopo carpark pulling my (surprisingly light, for a change) backpack onto my shoulders. It had been some time since I had done something which I deemed to be sufficiently crazy, and getting up at 2.30am, leaving Rotorua at 3am and arriving at the mountain for a morning climb seemed like a fantastic idea. I knew there would be snow up there... The weather had been terrible all week, and I was looking for an excuse to strap on the crampons for the first time this season. I love Tongariro, but the crowds that clutter her slopes during the day do my head in, so early mornings have become my time with the mountain... The fact that dawn and sunrise are my favorite times of day just make it seem like an even better idea.
So back to my conversation with the mountain. I have this thing I feel I have to do every time I head out for a climb... I feel obligated to show the mountain my gratitude for keeping me safe from harm whilst allowing me to clamber all over it and stab it with my ice axe and crampons. I wouldn't call myself superstitious, but it certainly can't hurt to keep the mountain on my side. The plan for this particular morning was to bust my hump up the start of the Crossing then up the side of Ngauruhoe to watch the sunrise. I had failed to pique the interest of anyone else for my early morning foray, so I was out on my own (armed, of course, with a first aid kit, spare clothes and a personal locator beacon)... Just me and the mountain.

I had my head torch perched on my crown, but I rarely used it the entire two hours that I was in darkness. The full moon beat down on my back, throwing my shadow across the track in front of me (and making me look significantly taller than I actually was). The mountain loomed in front of me, it's snow-capped peak glistening in the moonlight. It stood boldly against the night sky like a sentinel. On the rare occasion that the track came into shadow, I switched on my light. Shocked by the rudeness of it's intrusion into the soft moonlight, I would switch it off as soon as I could possibly get away with to continue making my way guided by the moon. It was calming and soothing for my soul and my body. Any stress or angst from the week prior dispersing into the atmosphere with every breath.

The lightness of my pack compared to previous trips when I had camped on the mountain was a real treat, the steps onto the southern crater seeming to disappear effortlessly under my feet as I rocked on up the side of the mountain. After stopping a couple of times for some photos (I had a new camera I wanted to play with!), I found myself at the foot of Ngauruhoe just before dawn and began the arduous trudge up the slope. I had the mountain to myself for the time being and in the distance I could see tiny spots of lights moving along the track I had passed over an hour ago.
Whilst there had been some snow, the lower slopes of Ngauruhoe were still predominantly scree and rock and I clambered my way up the face of the mountain in my boots. The transition from moonlight to sunlight nearly caught me by surprise and by the time the sky started to color itself with it's morning hue, I was more than two thirds of the way up the mountain. I stopped, took off my pack and turned around to greet the day from the upper slopes of Ngauruhoe. As I had made my way up, the peaks around the mountain had cast a dark silhouette across the sky. Now the peaks glowed a brilliant orange, and the landscape that still sat within the shadow was punctuated with the watery blemishes of lakes which looked like mirrors laid across the ground. A soft pink cloud streaked across the upper atmosphere and the steam from Te Maari crater billowed out of the landscape, creating a fluffy silhouette, bordered by a brilliant red sky. To the East, a flat landscape of cloud reached from the horizon to the edge of the mountain, and as the sun attempted to breach the cloud in it's excitement at the new day, the edges of the cloud shimmered like red ribbon.

A cool breeze licked at my wind jacket, cold on my body where I had sweated against my pack during the climb. My fingers and toes were numb, but the sun that morning clambered over the top of the cloud, penetrated my clothing and pierced my skin to deliver warmth to the depths of my soul. There is nothing quite like this... This energy the early morning sun delivers to my body and my entire being. The silence made me feel like one of my senses had been removed to heighten the exhilaration of the sight I was seeing and the warmth I was feeling. I could feel my face glowing orange as the sun lovingly stroked my cheeks, and it's reflection on the snow made the mountain look like it was on fire.

I often find myself enjoying these truly beautiful moments on my own, and I wonder if sometimes, the fact that I am on my own is what makes that moment so profound and so memorable... Like I absorbed that entire moment for myself because no one else was present.

I strapped my crampons on to continue the remainder of the way up to the summit on a strip of snow that ran up the face to my right... I would much rather cruise up the snow than battle with the scree and rocks. As I clambered up the last steep part of the northern face, I glanced across to my left to see another climber... It was actually kinda nice sharing the summit with another early morning trooper. I sat amongst the glistening snow and stunning rime patterns and pulled a bacon and egg roll and a thermos of hot tea out of my pack to enjoy some breakfast with a view. The sun was still low in the sky and threw shadows of various peaks and rocks across the snowy crater. It was a pretty epic perch for a meal! The sun beat down on the icy summit and kept me warm enough that I probably stayed there longer than I thought I had.

The descent was a slightly hairy experience. Instead of clambering down the scree and rocks, I opted for the snowy strip that would deliver me pretty much to the base of the mountain (after all, it is far more fun to play in the snow, especially when you have crampons and an ice axe!). The thought had eluded me that the cold early morning had frozen the tennis ball-sized rocks into the mountain side, and that as the sun danced across the northern slope, the ice between the rocks would begin to melt. As I made my way down the mountain, I felt (and heard) something whizz past my ear, then witnessed a rather large rock careering the rest of the way down the snowy patch I was standing in the middle of. As the ice melted, the rocks were being worked loose above the snow and once on the snow, they had no way to stop... I was playing Russian Roulette with the mountain.

I picked up the pace and started moving with a greater sense of urgency, turning around every ten steps to spot any rogue ammunition headed in my direction that I may need to avoid. It was incredible watching the rocks tumble down the mountain, pinballing off other rocks then skipping down the snow at impressive speed, leaving their impression in the snow as they bounced from top to bottom. By the time I reached the safety of the base of the mountain where the snow stopped, the snow slope I had just descended had become a landslide of fist-sized rocks. Mental not for next time... Wear a helmet!!!

I removed my crampons and stashed them in my pack with my ice axe and made my way back down the mountain, crossing paths with the thousands of jean and jandal-wearing "hikers" who grace the Tongariro Crossing day in and day out. I arrived back at the car well before lunch. A half day adventure and some energy for the soul... What a brilliant way to see in the Winter!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Snow, Sunrise and Skidz at Welcome Rock

There we stood, seemingly miles away from any sort of civilisation, on the other side of a peak we had just hiked over. A tiny mud hut sat in the centre of our view, dwarfed by the expansive backdrop of the south island mountains that surrounded us. We were insignificant blobs of human life enveloped in this landscape. Our bags and our bikes had been dropped next to the hut by the station owner, Tom. It was surreal to think that only a couple of hours ago, we had rushed out of Queenstown airport, squeezed our two bike boxes into the Mazda Demio we had hired (much to the amusement of surrounding bystanders), done a shop at what was possibly the most expensive supermarket in the country and then driven to Garston and assembled our bikes before hiking up through this massive backcountry station to a lonely hut that sat just below a high point affectionately named “Welcome Rock”. Standing there looking upon this stunning canvas laid in front of us, I felt like I was taking the first breath I had taken in weeks. The cool mountain air infiltrated my lungs and stayed there, despite the fact that I had already breathed out.
The mud hut was a pretty special find, but one that was obviously destined for Lisa and I… You could maybe say that the hut found us. Weeks before, we had been on Skype, trawling through the endless list of places we may want to stay whilst we were on our holiday together in Queenstown and Wanaka and we were both captured by the tiny little candle-lit cabin with an outdoor bath that overlooked miles and miles of rolling hills and mountains. Once we booked the hut, we then discovered that the area was currently the project of station owner, Tom O’Brien, who was building a network of mountain bike and hiking trails around the top part of Blackmore station, an area of historical significance that the family had placed under a voluntary covenant about 30 years ago.
Lisa and I approached the cabin. Outside, there was firewood stacked around, a bench seat made from old pieces of beech tree and about 50 metres away, there was an old bath perched on the hillside, next to our only water source, a piece of 25mm piping that came out of the ground. From outside, the hut looked smaller than I had expected, and my thoughts didn’t change when we opened the heavy old wooden door. The hut had two small windows and it took some time for our eyes to adjust to the dim light and we walked into the middle of the hut. To use the term “rustic” was an understatement. Spider webs hung in every corner. The stone floor finished at the bunks so that underneath the bunks was bare earth, the crumbly mud walls had been restored recently to preserve the hut, and the roof replaced, but everything else was undeniably original. The walls, window sill and mantle were lined with old wine and whiskey bottles, some of which had been used by previous occupants as candle holders, so they were encased in old, hardened wax. The open fireplace was obviously a more recent addition to the dwelling, and had a piece of rusted tin jerry-rigged so it was hanging across the opening of the fireplace, something we would later discover was essential to avoid filling our tiny bedroom with smoke when we lit the fire. It had a charm that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was beautiful, but maybe not to every person who laid their eyes on it. You had to appreciate it beyond seeing a small space, dirty floor and no electricity… It was, in my opinion, the perfect way to unwind at the beginning of a holiday.
I looked gingerly across at Lisa, wondering if my enthusiasm for booking the hut was now going to work against me. I was probably a little more accustomed to roughing it than her. She openly vocalised that it wasn’t quite what she was expecting but nonetheless, it would certainly be a new experience. We set about cleaning the hut out a little, wiping the wooden benches and sweeping the cold slate floors. As we cleaned, the coldness and darkness we had felt on originally entering the hut lifted and it became quite homely. We laughed about our first impressions of the place whilst we sorted our sleeping arrangements for the evening, which involved folding up the table and chairs to stash against the wall so we could lay the mattresses side by side on the floor in front of the fire as opposed to sleeping in single bunks. Once we had made our hut a cosy little home, we boiled the pot (on the gas cooker provided) and parked ourselves on a chair outside to take in the view. Despite the fact that it was only the start of March, it was cold, and we were rugged up in our beanies and puffer jackets with thermals on underneath. We lit the fire to warm the inside of the hut and passed away the rest of the day admiring the magnificent view and strolling along the trails that had been so carefully hand dug into the edge of the mountain.
Right on sunset, we found ourselves soaking in the bath, watching the sun disappear over the crest of the hill with a glass of wine. The location of the bath on the hill was obscured by the long tussock, and so was marked by an old cattle skull perched on top of a metal picket, which cast an ominous silhouette against the evening sky. The glow of the day was gradually replaced by the glow of candle light. We procrastinated leaving the warm bath until the cooling of the water made us shiver, at which point, we made a bee-line back to the warmth of the hut with the fire roaring inside.
We put together a small feast and sat perched in front of the fire. Whilst we ate, the warm glow of the fire and the candles created an ambience that warmed us from the inside out. Tea and wine was consumed (simultaneously, if I’m not mistaken!) and then we snuggled into our sleeping bags on the floor in front of the fire. It was hard to sleep, but for good reason. The flicker of the fire dancing on the other side of our eyelids beckoned us to watch it. During the evening, we awoke to a smouldering fire and a room full of smoke, so we got up and opened the door, the stars out in the night sky welcoming us into their space for the evening.
Early in the morning, I awoke to the pink glow of the sky gently creeping in the door. I went from barely being able to pry my weary eyes open to jumping up in my sleeping bag, full of excitement… “Babe, look! Look at the sunrise!” I said in a whispered yell. I clumsily tripped around the floor in my sleeping bag before deciding to discard it altogether and put on my clothes and shoes to exit the hut as quickly as possible and welcome the new day. Once I went outside, I realised I had a few minutes before sunrise proper, so I came back into the hut, now very wide awake, to offer Lisa a coffee, which she accepted as she crawled out of her sleeping bag and woke up in a more civilised manner. I dragged the chairs outside and plonked my cup of tea on the ground while I ran around in the crisp early morning taking photos of a stunning pink sky that bordered our gorgeous little hut. The silhouettes of the hut and the mountain and ourselves against that sky were just stunning.
Being in the mountains, the sunrise ended long before we actually saw the sun. By that time, we had managed to compile an incredible feast of poached eggs on toast, potato crisps, mushrooms and veges, some cooked on the stove, some on a hotplate we had chucked on the fire. Our ability to improvise with what cooking facilities we had was impeccable, and between us, we created a feast of epic proportions that would make your average city-dweller shriek with delight. We toasted our bread on the fire, then sat perched on our hillside outside the hut letting the warmth of the sun infiltrate our bodies. The valley below us plunged into a river and on either side, mountains climbed back out of the valley, green at the bottom and then sparser in vegetation the higher they got. It was a beautiful way to while away a morning… Nothing pressing to attend… Just chilling with my fave girl in the sunshine.
Once we conjured up the frame of mind to move, we kitted up and fetched our bikes from their perch leaned up against the front of the hut. The trail network up here is far from being finished, but there is still about 10km of hand built trail that has already been etched into the hillside. Tom and his crew have poured their blood, sweat and tears into these trails, benching them in by hand, breaking picks and shovels along the way. The tracks are a work of art, sprawled across this canvas of mountains and tussock. The quality of the tracks blew me away… Each one carved meticulously out of the slate and dirt, and then the slate used to create bridges and water egresses throughout the trail with careful attention paid to water drainage. The flow of the trail had been carefully planned to include particular landscape features… Berms built from large rocks that jutted out of the ground and bridges built from slate… It was highly impressive. When we reached the end of the current network, we could see fence standards dotting off into the distance, marking the way for future trails through the tough tussock which had been dug out by hand kilometre after kilometre.
Every corner we rounded and rise we crested presented an unhindered, perfect landscape sprawled out in front of us with a trail carved out into its vastness stretching to the horizon. Our tyres crunched over the stony dirt, weaving in and out of rock features. It was such a beautiful experience. As is quite common with mountain weather, the morning developed from a cloudless array of pinks and reds peeking in our hut door to an array of dark, menacing clouds. The temperature dropped significantly as we rolled back up to the door of the hut, just in time for us to stash our bikes and obtain some shelter before the skies emptied upon us. We lit the fire, made some lunch and a cup of tea and sat in front of the fire with the door open, listening to the rain on the tin roof, and smelling the freshness of the moisture soaking the tussock, the ground, and the nearby beech forest.
It was unusual for either of us to sit still for any period of time, and this moment of solace, urged upon us by the environment around us, and borne of the necessity to do nothing, was surprisingly welcome. We sat for what seemed like hours, happily silent in each others company, reading a book and letting the roar of the fire and the rain on the roof tell us their story. The contrast of our cosiness in the hut compared with what we could see outside made my whole body tingle with warmth.
Late in the afternoon, the rain ceased and we went on a small cross-country excursion around the land close to the hut. The landscape around us was dominated by tussock, and dotted with small rifts of beech forest. To the left as we stepped out of the hut was a small beech forest just beyond our long-drop toilet (which, for the record, I snobbed in preference of going eau-naturale in the bush for the time we were up there). We headed into the beech forest and stumbled around, laughing at one another as we tripped on fallen branches and slipped into ditches. We eventually popped back out onto the tussock well below the hut, then dipped down towards a small gully sidling alongside the next beech forest we could see. As we made our way through the tussock, we saw a wild Buck galloping across the next ridgeline, apparently spooked by our presence. We watched in awe as he gracefully made his way towards the safety of the forest, then disappeared out of sight.
After scrambling across the gully, we toiled back up the steep ridge on the other side and on to the track before returning to the hut for yet another cup of hot chocolate and some dinner before curling up to sleep in front of the fire again. By now, we had figured out the nuances of how to hang the fire cover to prevent the room filling with smoke so we could sleep snug with the door closed that evening.
The following day, I awoke to a morning that felt cooler than expected. Lisa was still asleep, so I decided to get up to light the fire and boil a brew so the hut was warm when she woke up. As I stumbled wearily out of bed, my eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light. It felt like daylight, but didn’t look like it. As I walked to the stove to get the kettle, I squinted as I looked out the small, cobweb-covered window… Was that a frost? No way!!! It was snow!!! At the start of March!
“Babe, wake up! It’s snowing!” I yelled excitedly at Lisa… “It’s snowing!!!” I yelled again as I struggled with my boots and ran to the door, as if it might disappear if I didn’t cast my eyes upon it immediately. When I opened the door, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The previous day, we had been greeted with a colourfully stunning sunrise. This morning, everything was covered in a thick layer of white… AND it was still snowing. I couldn’t quite believe just how blessed we were to have experienced this beautiful little patch of the world in two such strikingly dissimilar sets of conditions, yet each so beautiful in their own right. It felt so special.
I rugged up and ran straight out into the snow, cold flakes brushing my skin and turning my face bright red. The snow had fallen so delicately that it defined the entire landscape in only black and white… The contrast was so striking. Thick piles of snow rested on top of the tussock and the water we had run into the bath the night before had a layer of snow settling on the top. Our bikes were covered in an inch of snow. It was magical. I ran down to the beech forest, Lisa following behind me, possibly surprised (although probably not) by my child-like enthusiasm at playing in the snow. I made my way to the beech forest and watched the snowflakes settling on the top of the leaves and branches. It was selective in where it stopped, ignoring steeper surfaces and instead choosing to fall all the way to the ground. It was mesmerising.
Back at the hut, we made another gourmet breakfast and chatted about our impending departure. Would Tom be able to reach us in the snow to pick up our gear? In our state of pondering, we decided snow angels and a snowman were in order. I even sacrificed my Icebreaker beanie and my cool Adidas sunnies (and subsequently, my own warmth) to dress ol’ snowy, who looked kinda stoked to have some company. Whilst we played in the blizzard, we heard the familiar rev of a quad bike engine, and Tom pulled up at the back of the hut. It was strange seeing another person. We had only being up here two days, but it had felt like so much longer. We invited him into the warm hut for a cuppa before saying goodbye to Snowy and our beautiful little home we had grown to love over the last couple of evenings.
I excitedly grabbed my bike and began brushing snow off it, excited for the ride back down in the icy white-out. Lisa had never ridden in the snow before, but got the hang of it pretty quickly, bombing down the hillside like a pro, flicking up ice crystals behind her. It wasn’t long before we were low enough that the snow turned to mud and by the time we arrived back at the house, we were full of muddy smiles and giggles.

After a deliciously warm shower, Tom invited us in for a cuppa and a chat. He excitedly told us all about his project and his plans for the station. I instantly warmed to Tom. His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and it was hard to not get excited with him. He told us the station is under consideration as a possible refuge to release Takahe back into the wild. It was so beautiful to see that a family who had farmed this land for over 100 years wanted to partake on a journey of conservation and preservation of the environment.
While we were up at the historic mud hut at Blackmore station, we nearly lost all track of time, and what had been merely two days at the beginning of our holiday had seemed like a week away. Our senses were renewed and our souls energised by the surreal beauty of merely existing, cherishing each moment of basic isolation in this beautiful part of the world. Welcome rock is a very special place, and if you love some time out, an opportunity to experience a surreal landscape all to yourself or just some wicked trails, this place is a must. Check it out at