Winter summit of Mt Taranaki

Mt Taranaki has had a tight grip on my imagination ever since I saw it over two years ago. My first encounter was a lucky one as the giant meringue was in full view; it is well-known for becoming completely invisible on a cloudy day, which is most days in these parts. That day we went for a short walk up to Tahurangi Lodge out of the North Egmont Visitor Centre. It was in June and it had snowed so we could not go further than the lodge, without alpine equipment. At the lodge we came across two other people, fully clad in alpine gear, who were on their way down after summiting the mountain. We had a brief chat with them and I got the idea that one day I should try a winter summit too.   

At the time, I had no alpine experience and knowledge so I had to figure out if it was possible to get up there safely. Right at the start of my research, I found out that Mt Taranki comes second after Mt Cook in the ranking of fatalities in New Zealand mountains, with the majority of them occurring in winter. Somehow this did not put me off and after some more research I found out that the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club (WTMC) were doing an intro to alpine skills course, aka snowcraft. Not only that but they were also doing winter trips to Taranki which were graded as suitable for those who had done the intro to alpine skills course. I was late for the 2018 winter intake but signed up for next year.

I have described my experience of the snowcraft course at some length in a separate blog post. As soon as I was done with the snowcraft course I signed up for a Taranaki trip with the club; however, it did not go ahead due to unfavourable weather conditions which I discovered happens very often with alpine trips. Anyhow, the snowcraft course had brought to the fore a number of essential mountaineering skills I needed to improve on, ie map reading, navigation, everything to do with complicated gear and understanding the weather forecast. There was plenty for me to work on before next season. I used whatever opportunity there was to get better at those but then there was COVID-19 which put some spanners in the works.

As we got towards the end of winter 2020, it seemed like New Zealand had got on top of COVID-19 and life was starting to get back to normal so we could enjoy the outdoors once again, of course weather permitting. One happy day, I got an email from Gareth (one of the instructors from the snowcraft course) about a Taranaki trip he and his partner, Shauna, were doing over the weekend and whether I and a few others wanted to join. This was the most terrifying and exhilarating email to land in my inbox in a very long time. I had a quiet moment of self-doubt whether this was within my physical and technical capabilities. The rude awakening of the Tararua tramp of some months ago had shaken my confidence in my physical fitness. I had been working on getting fitter and was in a fairly good shape by that point but it had been more than a year since the last time I had the chance to practice the stuff I learnt on snowcraft. Anyhow, the possibility of a winter summit of Mt Taranaki was what got me into this so I could not say no to one of my dreams.  

Luckily for me, I did not have much time to mull over whether I was capable or not as I got the email on Wednesday evening and we were on our way to Taranaki on Friday evening. On Friday we stayed at Konini Lodge. We made an early start the next morning, around 7.30am, from the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre, taking the Fanthams Peak track. The walk starts in the bush but it is only for a short while as the Visitor Centre is already at 900m above sea level. Not long into the walk snow started appearing and shortly after we were out of the bush and were facing the first snow covered slope. It was time to get our crampons on. I had adjusted my crampons to fit my boots before the trip but it did not even cross my mind to practice lacing them up as I did not remember this ever being a problem. Well, it was. I had a blank moment and could not figure out for the life of me how I was meant to lace them up. I was annoyed with myself and after several unsuccessful attempts at strapping them up properly I asked for help. Before getting into mountaineering I had always done activities (ie swimming, running and yoga) where gear was minimal and simple. I am getting more and more used to relying on specialist gear but clearly there is more work for me to do.

Fully crampon-ed on, with ice axes in hand we started zigzagging up the first snow slope leading up to the plateau where Syme Hut sits (our home for the night). I positioned myself right behind Shauna (which clearly was a false start as I needed to be to her side in case she slipped). I copied here moves and it all started coming back to me little by little. The slope did not feel steep and felt totally manageable so it gave me an instant confidence boost. We made it to Syme Hut, which is at 1940m above sea level, in good time and could afford to have a nice long lunch break.

After lunch we unloaded some of the stuff we did not need and left them at the hut so we could have an easier ascent to the summit. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and was only getting better. The snow was easy to walk on and I kept thinking that I’d much rather do this in the winter (on a good day) as the crampons and the ice axe were great aids in getting some traction up the slope. In the summer, the slope is covered in scree and walking on it would be a slightly slidy affair I imagine.  

I was expecting us to take much longer, many more hours in fact, to get to the top but we got up relatively quickly. Well, there are not any flat bits to stop and rest once you start climbing so you are better off to just keep going up. I enjoyed the ascent very much and felt a great sense of relief that I was not ‘technically’ challenged by it. 

The plateau below the summit was a winter wonderland.  The ice here was glowing in many hues of blue which was incredibly pretty. The Shark’s Tooth, the second highest peak, was shimmering in the sun in all its majesty. It was quite astonishing to be on top of this snow covered mountain and have the ocean and miles upon miles of sandy beaches on one side and lush green fields on the other, without a trace of snow. This is pretty fascinating geography to me. I tried to take a good look around as the thing with summits is that you cannot hang around for too long.

Next it was time for us to descend and trace our steps back to Syme Hut. I was not all that sure how the descent was going to agree with me as I find going downhill in all circumstances more challenging than going uphill. Again, I was surprised that I was actually fine as long as I took my time and did not rush it. Half way down the slope, the wind started picking up which immediately added some challenge but we had gone past the steeper sections so it was okay. We got back to the hut before 5pm. Once at the hut I got a hot drink and starred out of the window to the summit in complete disbelief that I had been up there a few hours ago. 

As the evening wore on the wind continued gathering force. I had a brief outing to brush my teeth outside (the sink in the hut was blocked) and at that point I struggled to stand in the wind. The whole night the wind howled and trashed the hut which made it impossible to have more than what felt like a few brief moments of sleep. The night was over in a blink but there was no sign of the wind dying down. 

In the morning we were up for sunrise. I got my windproofs on and reluctantly went out of the hut as the wind seemed to be at its most ferocious. It was strong and gusty and I had to go back in after a little while. After breakfast it was time for the inevitable descent. I kept reassuring myself that I was going to be fine as I didn’t remember that section of the track either being too long or particularly hard from the day before. Shaun offered some words of hope that the wind would perhaps drop once we were over the lip of the plateau.

We had to go so we set off. Once we got to the end of the plateau where the steep descent begins it was clear that we had to climb down facing the slope. If it were not for the wind it would not have been a problem to walk down standing but the wind gusts were too strong and unpredictable. Gareth very kindly offered to climb down next to me as I was one of the more inexperienced members of the group and had said that I was not very comfortable in the wind. Maybe I had a slightly wild look about me too. I will forever be grateful for his kindness. The descent was a slow and painful slog as I was not thinking straight and trusted my fears too much. To begin with I had my knees on the ice which made no sense but in my mind it was providing me with more stability. Gareth very tactfully suggested that I may find it easier if I got my legs straight and got my knees off the ground – just like we were thought at snowcraft. He also suggested that taking hold of the ice axe by the handle rather than the head would allow me to have more powerful swings and stab the axe deeper into the ice. All of the things I was doing, which gave me a completely false sense of more control, were not only painful but also highly inefficient. Do not recommend crawling on ice to any one – it was very painful and my knees were purple for days after. Once I was able to shake off my initial fright I talked some sense to myself, got off my knees and grabbed the handle of my ice axe all of which made a massive difference to my stability and progress down the slope.  The wind gusts were hard work. I was tensing up, holding, as hard as I could, onto the ice axe the entire time as I did not trust that my reactions would be quick enough in case of a gust. It took a long time before I was confident enough to get up and walk down. The whole descent took a very long time and was exhausting.

It was a relief to get to the end of the snow line and get my crampons off. The remainder of the walk was thankfully uneventful. It was actually pleasant as it was a most beautiful sunny day. Once we were in the bush it was hard to believe that less than a kilometre behind I was clinging onto my ice axe, fearing that I would get blown off the face of the mountain.   

It has been some weeks since this trip and I have many times travelled back to this place of beauty in my mind. It does not take much to transport myself back there as the landscape has left an indelible imprint in my mind. And although the descent was very challenging physically and above all mentally I am grateful for it. It was a most humbling reminder of why mountains should always be taken very, very seriously. Now that the season is over it is time once again to further work on all those skills I need to improve on so that I am ready for next season and many more alpine adventures.

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