Mount Taranaki East Ridge

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In the days building up to this weekend weather-watching became something of an obsession, and a welcome surprise. I say ‘surprise’ because the forecast was good and, well, it’s Mount Taranaki. Everyone knows that Mount Taranaki lures you in with that promise of a beautiful day, only to change her mind right at the last minute (usually when you’re already in the van heading up!)

So imagine the surprise when Monday came, Wednesday then Thursday, and it was still clear, sunny and moderate winds. Even the snow pack appeared to be playing ball with a couple of decent days and clear nights to lock it up just in time for our arrival.

We got away from Wellington at a reasonable time, and the usual choke point at Pukerua Bay seemed eerily easy. It was all a bit too easy… The ritual stop in Bulls came and went and within a few hours we were turning onto Manaia Road and steadily climbing to the Dawson Falls road end. The air was clear and brisk and we had seen the dull snowy glow of the mountain from as far away as Hawera, so the moonlight glistening on the East and South faces made for a majestic backdrop as we began the fast walk up to the lodge. We rolled into an empty Kapuni Lodge at 1400m just before midnight, to much relief. With very little fuss everyone went about their routine and heads were down at the earliest opportunity.

We all woke to some noisy gusts of wind against the lodge, though experience suggests that it usually sounds worse inside than it really is. After breakfast everyone broke into our pre-determined rope teams: Mike, Gareth, Jessie; Henry, Nick, Elisabet; Brendan, Fiona, Tereza to sort technical gear. Mike called a team meeting and we went over the plan: head straight off piste out of the hut down through the adjacent valley and up onto the Curtis Ridge, traverse the Manganui Ski Field, and ascend up and onto the mighty East Ridge, which is largely a persistent 45 degree slope before cranking up just below the summit.

Leaving the lodge just before 8:30am, the start wasn’t quite as planned; with Henry leading the way through some scrub we quickly found the sides of the valley to be steeper than expected, which forced us up further in order to find a suitable slope to traverse. Getting through the valley and up onto the Curtis Ridge was straightforward but certainly got the heart pumping and lungs opened for what was to be a long day. Henry continued to lead us up and down off the side of the Ridge through a jumble of small bluffs, before heading across the tame gulleys of the snow field and towards the top of the ski tow. Unfortunately it was around here we lost Jessie from the mix who descended down the ski field and back towards the lodge.

We reached the top of the ski field (roughly 1800m) at 10:15am and from here the terrain slowly started getting steeper and steeper as we ascended towards the base of ‘Ted’s Alley’. At 11:00am we arrived where we took 10mins to cut a seat and grab some food, using the bluff to shield us from the persisting wind from the North. As a group the decision was made to continue with Plan A and take on the East Ridge proper, as the wind (while constant) wasn’t overly powerful. Here we broke into our respective rope teams, with Mike and Gareth taking the lead ahead of Brendan’s and Henry’s teams.

The next 1.5 hours was a steady 45 degree climb, switching back slowly up the slope conserving energy with some well practised rest steps. As the terrain began to steepen further, and the consequences of a fall increase, Henry made the call for our team to get the rope out. There’s never really a ‘correct’ time to rope up, but rather simply ‘a time’ depending on the experience and confidence of the team. It was a good decision as it afforded that extra bit of security in the event of a screw up. Brendan’s team followed suit. Mike and Gareth instead decided to continue free climbing and quickly disappeared off into the distance. We even had spectators in the form of Mike and Lucy (other club members) who were both on the summit track watching us slowly ascend through Mike’s powerful camera zoom lens!

The problem with pitching with 3 people is that it can be incredibly slow. We got into a rhythm of climbing in 30m pitches with a single snow stake for protection in between, with the leader then ‘belaying the seconders’ up to the next anchor. Each pitch was taking upwards of 15-20 mins no matter how efficient we were. After the 4th pitch, a rough calculation put us around 200m from the summit, meaning it could take a further 7 pitches and over 2 hours to continue in this manner. By this point it was already after 2:00pm – we had to change our approach.

Brendan’s team obviously realised the same thing, and made the call to put the ropes away given Mike and Gareth had already kicked some great steps to the top in pretty good snow. We instead opted to stay on the rope, but put up a running belay (simul-climbing as the Americans call it), where the 3 of us would be moving together. This proved to be a good choice as we knocked off almost 120m in just 15mins, bringing us to within touching distance of the top. Elisabet led the final running belay, and set up the last anchor just 20m below the summit. At exactly 3:00pm, we topped out onto the Shark’s Tooth, the second summit of Mt Taranaki at just 8 metres lower – 2510m. Having been climbing in the shade for the last few hours, it was a big relief to be drowned in sunlight again! Even more exciting was the fact that on his 5th attempt, Henry finally achieved his goal of making it up to the top of Taranaki. Four failed attempts is tough luck for anyone, so it was brilliant to be able to share that moment with him (even if he along with most of us were a bit ‘over it’ by then!

The wind would not relent, and people were getting cold, so our time on the top was short-lived. The (arguably) hardest part was yet to come. Mike and Gareth had obviously found the same thing as there was a solitary snow stake left hammered in on the top which they had used to abseil. The drop from the top of the Shark Tooth into the crater is vertical, and so we all agreed it would be safer to abseil back onto the East Ridge and traverse around to a small saddle on the Northern side. This, for me, was the hardest part, mainly due to the tiredness and how easy it would have been to switch off. It took energy to remind myself as I came off the rope that a fall here was not an option and we had to keep the focus for a bit longer. Henry was the last down and, one hour and fifteen minutes after reaching the top, at 4:15pm all 6 of us strolled into the crater for a well earned break from the wind and the fear of sliding away down the mountain!!

We savoured that time there and soaked up the stunning rime ice covered views around us. No one was in the mood for the detour up to the summit proper, even though it was easy when compared to what we’d done. Besides, it wasn’t part of the climb (we told ourselves!) and it was getting late. Instead we began the slow and steady descent off the South Face and towards Fanthams Peak. Whilst steep, the snow was perfect for some heavy-footed heel plunging, and luckily no bluffs appeared ahead so it was straightforward. After a few pics of the setting sun at Rangitoto Flat, we began the final phase to compete the loop, pulling on head torches just as we hit the steps on the summit route. A solitary torch in the distance turned out to be Mike who had come to the trail junction to welcome us all back, and give us that bit of extra motivation for the last 100m UPHILL to the lodge. Elisabet went on to claim that even though we’d just completed a grade 2+ route, this was far and away the hardest bit!

We arrived back to a warm lodge, with dinner already on the go. We celebrated with a Pasta Bolognese and another of Tereza’s insanely good cakes (and some not so insanely good custard…) As we went to bed that night the weather closed in with heavy wind and sleet, and just like that Mount Taranaki was back to the mountain we know and ‘love’. Any plans we might have had to do something the next day were out of the window, and come morning it was a case of just strolling back down the trail to the van, before hitting the road for home.

An amazing weekend with some really good company. Thank you to the leaders for your efforts and sharing your experience. What’s next?

Check out this video made by Nick of the adventure:

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