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Mount Taranaki

May 7, 2010 7 comments

It was a scramble.  It was a last-second, ditch attempt to get something going for the weekend, and for a while, it didn’t seem like it would happen.  But you know what?  We did it, we got amazing weather, and the reward was spectacular.

Around the middle of last week, I got a message from Anders (the guys I climbed Tongariro with) asking if I’d like to climb Mt. Taranaki this weekend.  It sounded great, especially after how much fun Tongariro was with him, so I agreed.

Hiking Poles

A group of us met Friday to discuss the trip and try and plan it.  The weather was a bit iffy, with rain both Saturday and Monday, and only a narrow gap of good weather Sunday (the day we’d do the climb).  And Taranaki is nearly 5 hours away, so it’s not like we can decide Sunday morning if we would do the hike or not.  We ended up talking to some people at the Department of Conservation (DOC) and decided to take a chance.  We made some calls to get 2 rental cars (to fit the 8 of us that were going) and mobilized the troops for the next morning.  We were really hoping for good weather.

And of course, the weather started out terrible.  Just as we were about to walk the 1/2 mile down to the car rental company, it starting pouring rain.  We decided to send two runners to pick the cars up instead, and I was one of them.  It took a while to get the cars; Apex was only running one person in the store (and he was slow), and there were at least three other customers in the store.  We finally got the car, managed to pack everyone in, and took off!

Our car had four people: Lena, John, and myself (the only three Americans, all from Penn State) along with Anne (one of the two Dutch on the trip).  There were also two Danish and a German.  I started out driving, and it was pretty uneventful.  By this point, the rain had slowed down considerably, and we only got hit with a few light sprinkles now and then.  Once we were 30 minutes out of Wellington, the traffic thinned out, and the highway diminished into the simple, 2 lane roads that make up most of New Zealand.  I love driving here.

We made it to Wanganui, about halfway, without any trouble.  Once in the city, though, it took us a while to get our bearings and find a grocery store.  We managed to find a Pak N Save, New Zealand’s equivalent of a Sam’s Club without the need for a club card.  We picked up food for a pasta dinner, along with snacks and lunches for the trip the next day.

After Wanganui, John took over the driving for the rest of the way.  The rain was becoming a little more frequent now, though still not heavy.  About an hour into this leg, John mentioned that he had heard from some friends of a fantastic beach along the road we were on.  We decided to take a chance and stop for a short break.

Wow.  Patea Beach was incredible.  Deep, black sand, a long coastline, clay cliffs in the distance, and just a touch of mist made it an almost magical place.  We parked our car at the top in the car park and ran down the dunes to the shoreline.  The water was freezing and the waves were high and crashing hard–definitely not somewhere you’d like to swim right now.  Far in the distance to the left was what looked like a pier jutting out into the water.  And to the right were cliffs.

Taking a Walk

Taken by John

Cliffs are so much cooler.  We went running down the beach to the cliffs, me carrying a 10m log in the style of those Asian water carriers.  I’ve always wanted to do that.

The cliffs themselves were fascinating.  They were extremely soft, seeming to be made out of clay.  You could easily break a piece off, either small pieces or huge chunks.  (Kat say that this is limestone that’s absorbed so much water that it’s basically liquified.)  I can’t see those cliffs holding up much longer to the water, and they already have caves jutting pretty far back in some areas.  In one of the inlets, the wind was just right to create a constant, perfect mini-tornado.  While it didn’t spiral upwards, it did create a swirl of fine black sand in a 2m circle on the ground.  I sat and watched it for nearly 5 minutes, transfixed.

Clay

Friends

We continued our drive, and were soon able to spot Mt. Taranaki as it loomed over us.  It was a bit frightening to think that we would climb this mountain the next day; at the time, it was covered in thick clouds, and you could only see the peak for a few seconds when the clouds were kind enough to move aside.

We arrived at our stop for the night, The Camphouse, a hostel-style lodge at the base of the mountain.  There were another 6 or so people staying the night with us, but with a capacity for 32, The Camphouse provided plenty of room.

The Camphouse

Our car arrived about an hour ahead of the other car, enough time to allow a short walk in the area before it got dark.  When it did get dark, we went inside and started cooking dinner: vege and ground meat penne pasta with sausage on the side.  After dinner we hung around for a bit, playing Jenga and planning our day tomorrow.  And bundling up: it was cold!  There was only one small heater in the whole lodge, and it didn’t do much to fight the cold mountain air.  It was at most 50 in the lodge overnight, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it got lower.

Jenga Disaster

We woke up at 6 AM on Sunday, packed our day packs, and got ready to go.  I saw one of the most gorgeous sunrises I’ve seen, and we took off up the mountain with that in the background.

Morning Sunrise

The beginning of the hike was alright.  It started with a slight uphill with an easy gravel path, and stayed that way for the first 45 minutes or so.  The last 15 minutes up to the first stop, the Alpine Club Lodge, though, got pretty difficult.  Though the footwork wasn’t tough, it was a really steep incline, nearing 45 degrees or more, and took quite a bit of willpower to muster through.

Up to Taranaki

Up by the lodge, there was a giant radio antenna that allowed you to get cell reception even up at the summit.  (Granted, it was very weak, but it was still there.)  We took a quick break around the lodge and ate some breakfast before continuing the rest of the hike.

Looking Downward

From here the hike got a little more like a real climb.  There were rocks to climb over, dripping water to avoid, and the path was beginning to get icy.  At one point, there were a few hundred stairs in a row, built in to help preserve some new moss they were trying to grow.

Stairs

After all the stairs, we got to gravel, and the path disappeared.  This was, by far, the toughest part for me, and there were points when I got really discouraged and didn’t think I’d make it to the top.  It lasted for about 2km, and was a mixture of gravel, snow, and ice.  If you tried to climb on gravel, you’d lose your footing because of all the ice.  So, the best thing to do was to find some patches of partially frozen snow, just enough to let you dig your feet in without being too difficult to do so.  Oh yeah, and this was also at about a 30 degree angle.

Cloud Line

When I reached the top of the gravel, I took a moment to celebrate.  Apparently a lot of other people did the same, because there was a stretch for about 50m where people were stopped every few meters, catching their breath and eating food.  (I make it sound like the hike was crowded, but it wasn’t.  At any given time there were probably 10 people max within your view, and you could see quite a long ways.)

The peak seemed to be so close we could almost taste it.  It looked like you could scurry up some rocks and reach it within 20 minutes.  Yet, when we asked some people who had done it before that we passed, they told us another 2 hours.  Wow.

The rest of the way was true, legitimate rock climbing.  I don’t think it would have been too bad in the summer, but there was quite a bit of snow and ice, which made getting your footing on these rocks tough.  And if you slipped, you would probably roll at least 10m down the rocks below, smacking your head more than once.  That was probably one of the most frightening and exciting things I’ve done in my life.

Hardcore

Despite the danger, I had a lot of fun on the part.  I felt almost like Spiderman, slinking up these rocks, finding the best route between them.  If I chose a bad route, I managed to suck it up and press through.  Though I will admit, I avoided the cliffs to the right like nobody’s business.

We found some huge icicles.

Around noon, we finally made it to the crater, the (almost) top of Mount Taranaki.  It was weird having such a flat, featureless area after the huge climb that it took to get to the top.  We paused for a moment before making the final ascent up to the very peak, another easy 50m or so.

Taranaki Crater

Despite the short distance, it was extremely difficult.  This high up, it was cold, and the wind was extremely strong.  Any snow that had fallen was frozen into an almost perfect layer of ice, and it took quite a bit of fancy footwork to get footholds that would hold you enough to climb up.  Some people had crampons, which was probably a smart decision at this point.

And then, we were there.  2518 meters, 8261 feet above sea level.  We were above clouds.  It was an awesome feeling.  And the fact that we could actually see things in the distance made it far more satisfying than climbing Tongariro.  In fact, it was such a clear day that we could see the mountains of Tongariro nearly perfectly, and they’re located over 100km away.

Victorious!

Gangsta

Group Shot

Halfway up Taranaki Panorama

Click for much larger view

We spent a while up at the summit, taking pictures and just enjoying the view.  How often can you say you’ve climbed a mountain like that?  Finally, the wind and cold got the better of us, and we went back to the shelter of the crater.  Grabbed a little bit of lunch, and started our descent.

We were a bit worried about trying to get down.  It was tough enough getting up, and I’m always more nervous getting down a hill/mountain/whatever than getting up.  But we got lucky–it was getting warmer, and some of the ice was starting to melt, leaving a less slippery layer of wet snow.  This made climbing down the rocks much easier, since we didn’t have to worry about slipping and breaking our necks quite as much.

In the Cloud

As we made it to the gravel slope again, we had to slow down.  Even though we could easily run and slide down the slope, clouds were starting to roll in, and you could see no more than 50m in front of you.  It would definitely cause some problems if we ran too fast and ended up going over a cliff.  Still, our only injury came not from the mist, but from Anders just running a little too fast and taking a nice spill into the gravel.  He ended up bandaging his arm up with athletic tape and toilet paper, though it was only a semi-minor scrape.

Injury

Taken by Rikke

The rest of the trip was simple.  The fog stayed around us until we made it back to the cars, though luckily there wasn’t any rain and only minimal mist from the clouds.  Being the ambitious little buggers that we are, we wasted no time before getting back on the road and trying to make it home before it got too dark.

Beat

We had a dance party on the side of the road in the dark to The Killer’s “All These Things That I’ve Done.”

Full Album: Mt. Taranaki Hike

ps: Doing a little reading on Wikipedia afterwards, I found out that Taranaki is considered one of the most dangerous to hike in New Zealand.  While it’s not the tallest, nor does it have the most dangerous terrain, it is just climbable enough that it’s done by some more amateurs hikers, and the weather can change so quickly due to its isolated location.  Over 60 people have died trying to climb it, including one just a few months ago (a very experienced climber who lost his way on a very foggy day and stumbled over a cliff).

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