Wednesday, September 2, 2015

One Fine Night... Moondance on the Mountain

I feel the need to tell a story to go with the enclosed photos, which have, over the past few days, received far more attention than I expected. Before I begin, though, I would like to add a disclaimer that there is no way that any photo could have possibly captured the true and accurate beauty that sat in front of us that evening and that morning... Nothing could do it true justice... And the photos are stunning (what can I say, we had a very photogenic evening)... So I can only leave it to your imagination and my meager description to attempt to grasp just how impressive this sight really was.
A mate and I had been keenly watching the weather throughout the course of the week leading up to the full moon, hoping for a window of clear weather to do a full moon camp on Tongariro. When the Saturday night was looking average, we abandoned our adventure, only for me to reignite with enthusiasm on the Friday... Friday night looked good... In fact, so good, I was prepared to go it alone. A last minute text to my mate Eddy put me in good company, though, and our adventure was on.
The last-minute nature of Eddy's inclusion, and my own work commitments, meant that we arrived at the trail head just before 11pm. As we had driven along the road towards the mountain, the moonlight reflected off the landscape, highlighting the snow-capped mountains like a beacon in the middle of an otherwise flat landscape. My level of excitement welled up from the pit of my stomach through to my throat as we marveled at how clear the evening was, and how incredibly bright the moon was. We kitted up, including my 20kg pack complete with tent and alpine sleeping bag, and headed off up the Tongariro Crossing track. 
We didn't use headlights or torches. The landscape was so brightly lit by the moon that you would be forgiven for thinking it was the middle of the day and someone had applied a blue light filter to the sun. As we climbed through the first smatterings of snow and ice and onto the Southern Crater, we were greeted by a giant amphitheater of blue-white light. Behind us, another team of 3 was climbing up the mountain, to our right, we could see another couple of people climbing Mount Ngauruhoue, and in front of us, in the distance across the smooth, pancake-like crater, we could see a larger group climbing down off Red Crater ridge. It was a bizarre experience... All these slightly unhinged people out at nearly 1am on a Saturday morning, playing on the mountain in the moonlight just like it was the middle of the day. 
Despite it being so late (or early), our spirits and the mood was pretty high, as was everyone else's. We stopped as we crossed other parties to share in our excitement at being treated to such a stellar evening. As we made our way along the crossing, I found it hard to stop taking photos. I just wanted so badly to capture this beauty and share it with everyone I knew... But it was a vain attempt... Really, there was no way to truly experience the evening without being there... The cool light reflecting off every slope and surface, shimmering off the crystalline mountain slopes that surrounded us on every side, the crunch of our crampons on the cold, firm ice, the warmth of the climbs and the biting cold when we stopped for photos or a break, and the lengthy moonshadows that kept us company... It was all so surreal. 
As we crossed the Southern Crater and started climbing Red Crater, the windless calm we had been experiencing was replaced by a raging, icy cross-wind. Our jackets flapped around our heads and fatigue starting setting in as we battled with the icy slope that had been stripped bare of any snow. The wind carried the smell of the alpine scrub from below up the slope and into our nostrils. I felt so alive... Occasionally I would look behind me to see Mount Ngarauhoue standing boldly against the night sky, illuminated by the moonlight and bordered by twinkling stars. The addition of the blistering wind had added a foreboding and serious mood to this part of the climb, and watching the other parties on the mountain disappear into Mangatepopo Valley left us reveling in the fact that the mountain was now all ours for the rest of the evening. The descent into Central Crater brought us huge respite from the wind, and as we climbed up onto the ridge alongside blue lake, that was where we decided to make home for the evening.
It was roughly 3am when we started pitching our tent. I had recently purchased a new alpine tent and this was the first time I had pitched it outside of my living room. It was a frustrating exercise with frosty fingers, but we had soon set up our little abode (I was actually rather stoked with my purchase!). This was the part of the evening where I got some of my best photos. The wind had abated and provided the stillness required for a longer exposure time. Seeing our little yellow tent pitched against a background of shimmering mountains and millions of stars was quite a sight to behold. I just wanted to stay outside in the company of the evening. It was so indescribably beautiful.
We knew this was special. We knew how incredibly privileged we were to be here, in this place, in this moment, with each other. There is something that makes an experience that much more special when you have a reliable buddy to confirm that you are well within your rights to feel stoked. We lay down, but didn't get much sleep. My cup-a-soup and tea had me crawling out of my sleeping bag and leaving the tent to relieve myself every 30mins, and two hours later our alarm would go off.
It was time for the sunrise, and as if it were even possible, the beauty of the sunrise matched that of the evening before. We climbed a nearby peak and felt the first rays of warmth crest the Kaimanawas and the band of low cloud... Pink highlights danced around the sky to the west, and around Mount Ngarauhoue. The lower slopes of the mountain were spotted with patches of snow amongst the black scree, and all the ice and snow around us, which had been blue the night before, was now shades of orange and pink as the sun moved higher in the sky. From our viewpoint, our tent was merely a dot in a huge white expanse. How incredibly lucky we were to be able to experience and witness what could only be described as one of nature's finest moments.
After a quick breakfast and tent deconstruction, we trudged from east to west across central crater and took a backcountry route up over the summit of Tongariro and down a lovely little ridgeline to return home.
I remember driving into Mangatepopo carpark not even 12 hours earlier and thinking to myself "this is crazy... Who does this at nearly midnight?", but it was too late to plead insanity. We had committed to the adventure and we were rewarded justly for doing so. I thanked the mountain as we stepped back on the track to return to the car. What an incredible show you put on for us, Tongariro. How amazing it is to feel so small, insignificant and vulnerable, yet so incredibly empowered...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Exceeding Expectations - Bacon in Disguise

I was at a function a couple of weeks ago. It was lunchtime. I was hungry. And there were these little mini quiche thingys sitting on the table. Egg and bacon quiches... Delicious. I made my way to the table, salivating at the thought of bacony goodness. Then I took a bite and was sorely disappointed to discover that actually, it wasn't bacon... It was sundried tomato... How very disappointed I was. I looked around for the hidden cameras, wondering if this was some sort of sick social experiment, gauging the various levels of disappointment when people expect bacon... But get sundried tomato... I mean, I don't hate sundried tomato, but I think it's fair to say that if something looks like bacon, and you are expecting bacon, no normal person would then get a pleasant surprise to discover it wasn't, in actual fact, bacon that they were eating. No one eats bacon secretly hoping for sundried tomato.

But what about when you think you are settling for sundried tomato, and then "SURPRISE"!!! You find out that it is actually bacon? Well that, my friend is a happy day indeed.

I had a ride about a month ago that was just like that. My sister Emily, and her husband Dan were in NZ for a road-tripping holiday and I traveled down to Hanmer Springs to meet with them and hang for the long weekend. I've been to Hanmer Springs twice before, and both times to race, so I was looking forward to spending time soaking in the views, and hopefully riding the St James trail for fun, not for racing. We spent our first day on a sunrise hike up Mount Isobel (worthwhile if you like early mornings, a good climb and stunning views) and then I took Em and Dan out to camp at Lake Tennyson for the evening.

Lake Tennyson is beautiful... It's in the middle of nowhere, 50km out of town on a corrugated dirt road that disappears well into the heart of St James Station. I had an ulterior motive for a night camping out here. It meant that I got a shuttle out to ride the St James trail back into town... A tasty little 80km ride through some stunning backcountry trails.

After a morning of delicious sunshine, the afternoon turned pretty wild, and by the time we got to Lake Tennyson, a significant storm was brewing in the valley at the end of the lake, just waiting for the flood gates to open so it could come barreling across the water to where we had parked up to camp. Em and Dan had a campervan, and we spent the afternoon reading, playing cards and geeking out over topographic maps (ok, that was just me with the maps), watching the sky outside get angrier and angrier and feeling the wind buffet the campervan side to side. I had made a very poor attempt to pitch my tent where it was protected by the camper, and so I spent the night being jolted from my sleep every time the side of the tent slapped me in the face with the force of a gust of wind behind it (which was about every two or three minutes).

We awoke in the morning to a rather stunning sunrise. The way the pinks danced around the clouds created an ominous, angry-looking sky that made the thought of disappearing into the valley by myself for the day seem a little bit daunting. The storm that had been brewing in the valley on the other side of the lake seemed to be trapped there, but gale force winds were still swirling around the lake, in amongst bursts of rain.

I nearly decided not to ride that day. In fact, I went through the motions of putting my kit on and getting my bike prepared with the intention that something would happen at the last minute that would give me a genuine excuse to pike... Something more genuine than a bit of wind and rain. But nothing changed... The wind kept howling, and bursts of rain came and went. It became apparent that the decision was mine to make... And I was already in my riding kit with my bike out of the car... I may as well just ride. I was expecting it to be a bloody miserable day, by all accounts.

I threw my leg over my bike and battled into the head wind down the road, waving goodbye to Em and Dan as they passed me and disappeared into the distance. As I turned right onto the trail, a burst of rain and gust of wind simultaneously drowned me and nearly blew me off my bike... I had the feeling that this was going to be one very long day, and I spent the next 8km considering how feasible it would be to turn around and head back down the road with the possibility of hitching a ride somewhere along the way. But that just isn't my style, so I pushed on regardless, although not without first squeezing my backpack to confirm I could feel the familiar box-shape of my PLB.

It wasn't until I had been on the bike nearly an hour that I crested the top of the first climb at Maling Pass. From here, I could see straight down into the valley where the St James trail wound its way alongside the Waiau River. In front of me, where my wheel was pointed, there were patches of blue bursting through a tapestry of fluffy grey clouds. Behind me, the storm was still raging away in the valley, a dark landscape dimmed even further by the spread of dark clouds that seemed to reach from the sky to the ground. It was trying it's best to get past the Lake. But for some reason, that's where it stayed... It was like Mother Nature was giving me a massive high five for being a hard woman and getting out in it despite the weather. I smiled and rolled on my way down the rocky, loose, fun descent... Mother nature had just taken my sundried tomato and swapped it for bacon.

As I rode through the valley, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings. Everything felt wonderful. The wind frequently pushed at my back, multiple rainbows appeared in front of me, leading the way, and the long alpine grass swished along with the wind, like strands of silver bending in the sun. I felt so alive, and indescribably happy to be where I was right at that moment in time. The mountains surrounded me on either side like a surreal mural of scree-topped silver-green. And given the weather had been so poor, no one else had ventured out for the day, so the feast was all mine for the taking. I pedaled my way along the river, crossing raging torrents on swing-bridges, interrupting flocks of Canadian Geese, and popping my head into random huts along the way.

I remembered from racing the St James trail twice over the last few years that the bulk of the climbing on this trail happens right at the end, and the hills didn't disappoint. As I worked my way up the ascents, sometimes on foot, sometimes weaving back and forth awkwardly on my bike, I made up rude songs in my head about what I thought of the climbs at that particular point in time... At least it distracted my mind from the burning sensation in my legs.

Despite the fact that my untrained legs were feeling rather weary, I was nearly disappointed to reach St James Station at the end of the trail. I sat down on the fence for a bite to eat. A stiff breeze was still blowing down through the gully, carrying the smells of Autumn and the backcountry past my nose. I soaked in my surroundings before getting back on the bike for the 20km ride back to Hanmer Springs via the local trail network.

It was a rather moving day for me. Having deprived myself of true adventure for sometime now, I'd had reservations at the start of the day as to whether I was still capable of a ride that long, and whether I was capable of being hard enough to deal with a big day of bad weather, and I needn't had worried about either of those. We live in a world where we have the autonomy to choose again... To choose how we frame things in our minds... To choose how we filter the world and our interactions within it... To choose to take calculated risks... We can choose to hand back the sundried tomatoes and say "you know what? Today, I'll have bacon thanks", then make that happen. It's only when we choose to make moments great that life truly exceeds our expectations.