We had been trying to pull this mission together for a while, but mother nature didn’t seem to want to line up her blessing with the short window of free time that this working life gives you to get out and play, but finally after two aborted attempts it looked like it was all going to line up. The forecast was for the wind to die off Saturday night followed up by a blue bird day on Sunday, but I've learnt that here in NZ it can really go either way, and change drastically from one hour to the next, but with the best forecast in weeks the trip was on.
Mt. Ngarahoe is best known as the sinister Mt. doom in the lord of the rings movies, and is a pretty classic peak in the Tongariro national park with its steep, even sides and prominence as its stands out from the other mountains surrounding it. I had climbed this before as part of the Tonagriro crossing a few years ago, but it looked totally different then, dark volcanic scree lining its slopes instead of the white blanket of snow and ice than covered it now. Winter has just officially ended, but with the last few fronts have come more snow than has been for a long time in the park and we were all looking forward to a great climb and some stunning views. Plans were firmed up during the week and myself and a few of the other crew from the alpine club would head down on Saturday afternoon, spend the night in the nearby hut, and then strike out early to make it to the summit to witness the sunrise.
I packed my bag and threw it purposefully into the van with the excitement and anticipation of heading out on and adventure. This is what I love doing, and was so stoked to be on my way. Things that Saturday took a bit longer than planned, as I picked up the other lads, Donovan and Moshen, as well as supplies, diesel to fuel the van, coffee to fuel myself, and we hit the road. The other two, Mack and Sooji, made it down a bit earlier and we would meet up with them at the hut. Getting to the car park, gearing up and hitting the trail, we stopped for a moment to take a picture and then got going. It’s not a long walk to the hut, and ahead of us Ngarahoe stood proud, beautiful and inviting in the soft light of the afternoon. The wind had not yet dropped and it gusted, blew and tugged at clothing as we headed on down the trail, crunching through snow, and splashing through puddles. Donavan had been here last weekend and commented there was no snow all the way to the hut then, showing how much things can change from one day to the next. It wasn’t long till we got to the turnoff for the hut and soon after met up with the others and got settled in. NZ is set up to get outdoors, its what they do, and there are huts like this all over both islands that you can stay in as you get out exploring. A warm heater, some seats and a couple rooms with bunks to crash, everything you need. Donavan and I went for a walk to take some pics and have a look at what we would be tackling in the pre dawn tmoorrow. As the sun dripped its way below the horizon, the light softened and changed and threw pinkish hues across the snow capped mountains and tussock grass, offering up a truly stunning scene. There wasn’t much to be said and we simply stood there for a while trying to take it all in. And as if on cue, at about six o clock, the wind gave one long last exhale and stopped, as if it had said its lot and was now content to stand still along side us.
That night we sat around the hut and made plans for the morning as we made dinner and got prepped for the morning mission. It was pretty lively at the hut, with maybe another fifteen people there, all panning their own trips and sharing a drink or playing cards. As I got my gear sorted I realised I had left my water bottle back at the start of the track when I took the first photo, and decided to go for a walk to see if it was still there. Heading out alone from the hut in the darkness and having some time to myself was just what I needed. The large starry sky and bright moon above lit the path and I didn’t even need my head torch as I followed the well mark path back the way I had come. Its amazing how loud footsteps in the snow can be when there is no other sound, and more than once I stopped for a few minutes and stood still, melting into the scene around me, simply part of it. In the faint light there stood Ngarahoe, looking down on me, and lending its grandness to the scene. At times like this I feel connected and awestruck, it is the reason that we go outdoors, to remind us of our place and that we are not above what is around us, but rather a fragment of the whole, a tiny but important part, just like so much else around us. I made it to the start of the track and sure enough, there was my bottle, right where I had left it. Grateful that it was still there and that it had given me the chance for this walk.
My dreams that night were fitful and confusing for some reason, maybe the excitement or the strange surroundings, and I was half awake before the alarm sounded at 2AM. I quickly slid out of my sleeping bag and into the chilled air sneaking out the door and into the main room of the hut. Bags were pre packed and ready to go, brekky was cooked quickly and last minute things checked over and soon we were sitting outside lacing up boots and ready to go. The morning was actually not that cold and as headlights illuminated the snowy path ahead we settled into a steady rhythm making our way to the saddle that we would begin the actual climb from. This is a very popular trek so the way is well marked and the steps and paths well maintained and easy to follow, though there were a few icy bits that were a bit tricky to navigate. The sky above hung bright with stars and every now and then we would stop to take it in for minute and rest. This was the biggest starriest sky I had seen since sailing, and memories flooded back from last year and filled me with awe, gratitude and nostalgia. The feelings here in the mountains are the same I have when at sea; small and connected.
We reached the pass and dropped packs to fit our cramp-ons and get out ice axes and discuss the plan for the ascent, about an hour and a half had passed since we left the hut. From here on it was steady climb to the top. We found the path, just to the left of a ridge that ran most of the way up and our marker to stay to the left of. The feeling of cramp-ons underfoot, the crunch of snow and ice, the visible breath captured in the beam of my head torch, steadily placing one foot in front of the other and zig-zagging our way up the steeper bits of the slope. Where on earth would I rather be right at that moment? Nowhere. This I what I had wanted and asked for, and here I was in the pre dawn darkness making my way up a mountain in New Zealand. Epic. The legs began to burn as we settled into the rhythm of the climb, trying to read the terrain and find the easiest and safest way ahead. There had been a lot of snow and strong wind in the days prior and they were icy and steeper areas that we skirted around or got the ice axes stuck into and climbed. Almost imperceptibly the sky began to lighten, turning the eastern sky deep purple and growing into the darker shades of blues. We were still a ways from the summit, bit over an hour into the climb, when the first rays snuck over the horizon and dragged the golden sun up behind them. We all stopped and welcomed the day. Standing on the side of Mt.Ngarahoe as the light flooded the peaks and valleys all around us and revealed the magnificence of where we were. What a way to welcome a new day.
And what a day it was turning out to be. There was not a breath of wind, not a cloud from horizon to horizon, and as the sun steadily climbed its way up into the sky and warmed us as we made the last push to the summit. The final field of ice we walked across on the ascent was a display wind-swept ice sculpture that resembled a shimmering blue field of crystal coral. Thousands of fingers, all pointing the way of the wind and tinkling their way down as they broke as we walked across them. The summit here looks down into the crater of the volcano, and out across the country. Standing there slowly turning around and seeing the snowfields below, the hills and fields stretching away, and all the way to the eastern coast of the north island, Mt. Taranaki standing there clear and proud in the blueness of the day. It was breath taking. It was funny to reflect on the difference between now and the last time I had climbed here. The different views and feel of the different seasons, the contrast between the heat and sweat of the summer climb and the cold and chill of the ice and snow, the different seasons in my life between the time before and now. I always find it interesting to revisit monumental places I've been before to feel the difference between now and then. Last time I was here it was a special time as well, and this one was just as special for different reasons and with a different feel.
We dropped off the summit and back across the ice field to a little flat area and dropped packs and settled down for some food and a hot drink. Between the five of us we had more than enough food and shared around a few snacks and some chocolate to top it off. Sitting there with the land spreading out below us, warm sun and clear skies, sharing the experience with good crew, and the contentment inside of accomplishing what you set out to do, what more could you want? It was truly one of the magic days, while the day before there was howling wind and the visibility would have been horrible, and today here we were on one of the best days of the year. We stayed there for about an hour just taking it all in and enjoying the reward of the early start. We had not seen another person all day, but guess that wasn’t so hard to understand, it was only around 8 AM. Finally we decided to begin the trek back down, and threw shouldered the packs and headed off back the way we came in the dark.
The climb down is always easier, physically, but can be trickier in some ways as well. We were making good time and keeping up the concentration as there were still risky bits, when Moshen suddenly disappeared up to his waist in the snow. Don’t think any of us expected a hole that big to be hiding under the snow, and certainly made us all a bit more aware. By the time we got to the base the legs were certainly feeling the exertion of the day and we rested up for a bit and enjoyed the views back up where we had just come from. There was still a two hour walk back to the hut and as we made our way back we began to pass others that were just starting out on their own walks, and around one bend came across two groups that were heading up to some of the nearby lakes that were made up of maybe thirty people each. Know which group I’d rather be in. Felt pretty good to have already accomplished out climb while others were only just setting out too, and definitely made me grateful for it just being out little group up there. with tired and sore legs we finally made it back to the hut and dropped packs and lay in the sun for a while, just soaking in the beauty of the day. Starting a day watching the sunrise, viewed from the top of a mountain, on a stunning day like this. We were all tired and perfectly content. After resting a bit we grabbed the gear and made our way back out to the car park and by one o clock we were leaving the park. Perfect to beat the weekend traffic back home, and with time to stop for food and coffee along the way.
This is the thing I love about NZ, there is just so much to explore in such a small area. If you wanted to you could surf in the morning, and climb or snowboard in the afternoon. Not a bad idea for another mission actually. There is so much more I want to explore here, and will be making the most of my time here for sure. And the best thing is, that I'm totally blown away by the North island, but by all reports the South island is even more stunning. I wouldn’t be too surprised if you were to see a blog about me packing the van and heading that way soon. Be rude not too.