a late feb trek to a southern hemisphere winter wonderland
it was 5:15am in the tahurangi lodge, a little less than halfway up mt. taranaki. taranaki, an active but quiet volcano which experienced its last major eruption in 1655, was dark as i rubbed the sleep out my eyes. the lodge was pitch black and pedro, my buddy from brasil, was asleep next to me on one of the bed mats we had taken upstairs from the bunkroom and mylène, my flatmate from france, was also fast asleep on the couch. it had been raining when we went to bed. silently, i tip toed across the common room to have a look out the window. STARS! and yes, even two sunrise-amped folks 3/4 of the way up this 8,261 foot (2,518 metres) mountain, flashlights in and out in the far distance.
"Crystal clear." i mumbled, "Let's make breakfast and roll," I proclaimed in the pitch black of night. And roll outta bed we did. After some instant oats and powdered milk tea, we packed our bags and still dark, as night began to turn to day, we headed up taranaki.
the trek was fierce, up scree, stone, steps, maneuvering in and out of the trail. towards the top, perhaps about 200 metres from the summit, we ran into the couple i had seen earlier in the distance, their flashlights yearning for sunrise on the summit. they were turning back prior to the top. they were spooked and truly we had been starting to get worried too. in fact, the day before some climbers had mentioned that there was tons of ice high on the mountain and those reports turned out to be true. even before reaching these two early risers we had been inching over a section of rocks, many covered in a full on sheen of ice.
now i don't even need to say it but i will anyway, 8,000 feet or so ain't a good place to slip and crack your head open, let alone break a leg or twist an ankle. the couple told us they turned back just above, confronted by a rock section fully covered in ice with a big drop to the right and had decided that it wasn't worth the risk. we were about to reach the crater but it was a reminder that even though i had read blogs that people hiked with their small kids up the mountain, on the ultimate flipside, taranaki is also the mountain where more people have lost their lives than any other peak in new zealand.
as the couple turned back, we all sat down and ate snickers. just below us was another climber who was solo-ing up the mountain. a member of the taranaki mountain club, she had been up the mountain a whooping 57 times and she showed us another route via crater valley, just beside the trail. the four of us reflected and collectively, decided we'd head down a touch and then shoot back up crater valley and see if the ice would allow us to attempt the summit via this alternate route. the four of blazed trail and were welcomed with a winter wonderland - snow, ice and rocks blanketed in frost! yes, autumn and winter surely must be just around the corner in this land of nature-escapes of the south pacific.
we had summitted, took some celebratory snaps. we could even see mt ruapehu and mt ngauruhoe in the distance. just before the clouds covered the vista, we headed back down, stopping to chat with other climbers about the icy risks along the main poled route.
alas, this is sunrise on our way up, the peaks of tongariro national park can be seen on the horizon. and some of the winter wonderland at the top, again the mountains of tongariro about to be obscured by big clouds. and the climbing team.
love and health to all...