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!

1 comment:

  1. Loving the new look site Megan! It looks awesome and I trust that all the new adventures are too...