Thursday, February 15, 2007

Holy Taranaki, Batman!

G and I decided to enjoy the Waitangi Day holiday (New Zealand’s national holiday) by climbing the second highest peak on the North Island, Mt. Taranaki, also known as Mt. Egmont. It’s a dormant volcano, and almost a perfect cone shape, like Mt. Fuji in Japan. In fact, when they filmed The Last Samurai they used Taranaki as the stand-in for Mt. Fuji.

We took a couple of extra days off around the holiday, and first did a two-day loop track called the Pouakai Loop. The weather had been warm but cloudy during those two days, at least on the track. Since Taranaki is the first large obstacle encountered by the weather systems coming in from the Tasman Sea, they tend to get caught by the mountain. So even when the rest of the area has clear skies, there’s usually a ring of cloud over Mt. Taranaki.

Needless to say I was thrilled when the morning of our summit climb arrived and the skies were clear blue. Taranaki’s summit is at 2518 metres (that’s about 8260 feet for you non-metric folks), which is no big deal if you’re a mountaineer, but pretty impressive for mere mortals like me. It can be climbed as a day trip, mostly because the visitor centre where the trail begins is already 950 metres up.

It’s a straightforward hike in summer, but definitely not to be taken lightly once the snow and ice arrive. Apparently over 60 people have died on the mountain – although I’m not sure how many of them were summer vs. winter hikers. The fact is, if you were engulfed by cloud, or even worse by a snowstorm, it would be very easy to loose the trail and get into trouble. Once you get above the bushline there’s nothing to guide you but a few wooden poles about a metre high.

After two days of backpacking, I was already feeling a bit weak when we started up. But the first part of the trail is basically a 4X4 road, so it was not difficult, just a long slog uphill. Then the next short section was all laid out with wooden steps. It gets your heart pumping, but again it’s not a big deal. Once the steps end, things get more challenging. There’s a long section of loose scree (scoria) up quite a steep incline. It can be frustrating trying to make any progress up this stuff, sliding back with almost every step. By the time we reached the top of it, my legs felt like rubber.

We stopped for a lunch break when the scree ended and the lava flow began. After a bite, we started scrambling up the rocks. But I soon felt the weakness in my legs returning. It was as if they hadn’t been rested at all. With at least an hour of steep climbing ahead, I was worried about my chances of making it to the top. I made G stop for another rest almost immediately while I had a small meltdown. I find it incredibly frustrating when my body fails me. And frankly, I was a bit scared too. Above us the climb was all over jagged rocks. Below, we’d have to negotiate the loose scree again. The slope was steeper than I was used to.

Down at the bottom, you could easily see the circular border of the park, just like the green circle on the map. It was almost surreal.

I decided to give it one more try. Once I got started again, I was able to keep a slow, steady pace up the rocks. At last we reached the snowy crater at the top of the mountain! It had been a five hour journey to this point, and we still had to make our way back down.
In the end, the whole trip took us just over nine hours. My legs and feet were aching, but I was glad I’d made the effort to keep going up when it would have been much easier to give up. Perhaps one of these days I’ll finally be in good enough shape to do a climb like that without making it into a big drama – but probably not!


Andy Chilton said...

I love it around Taranaki. Talking of the weather, it certainly is a weird system around there.

A few years ago, I did the New Plymouth half marathon. At the start, it was sunny. Then it turned rainy. I then had to endure fairly high winds.

It surprised me further when it started throwing hailstones at us and finally it cleared up.

It was only when I re-entered New Plymouth itself where there was a sign which read: "Welcome to New Plymouth: Four Seasons in One Day".

So that's where the song came from :-)

Maple Kiwi said...

Yep, the first tall obstacle in the way of weather systems always gets nailed! Although the Four Seasons thing can apply to an awful lot of places in NZ!