We met at Wellington Railway Station at 1730 on Friday night: Tony, Illona, Rachel, Becky, Meena, Dave and I. We were very interested to meet the Sherpas who were to do all the hard work. Tony introduced Illona. Hmm just the one Sherpa then – apart from Tony.
We set off in the usual peak hour Wellington traffic in a steady crawl up to Otaki to pick up Kirsty. We were all amenabull to having dinner at Bulls and after this it was non-stop to Dawson Falls Lodge where we arrived about 2300. The lodge was quite luxurious as far as tramping trips go – separate bunk rooms, a large kitchen, toilets and showers – and we were all pretty keen to get to bed and sleep.
Shortly after 0800, after breakfast, we began our ascent of Mt Taranaki (2518m). Our first target was to get to Syme Hut (1940m) on Fantham’s Peak for lunch. After a pleasant walk through the bush on the well-formed Fantham’s Peak track (and chocolate bar) we eventually got to the bush line and then the volcanic scree. Being a novice to this foreign terrain, this was challenging at first, but we got into the swing of it plodding upwards very slowly – very slowly. As most people we met along the way were day trippers, we had a few comments and funny looks about the size of our packs. I wondered if they had seen Tony’s and Illona’s.
Eventually, we made it to the top to see our lunch stop of Syme Hut. And when we got there, boy was it worth it. What a fabulous location for a hut. It was like another planet up there with all the different coloured volcanic rock. I felt very lucky to be there. We decided to avoid the smell of stale urine at the doorstep and eat lunch inside the hut. We still had to get to our ultimate destination of the top of Taranaki at 2518m so a hearty lunch was called for. From Syme Hut we had a great view of the conical volcano with some snow near the top and it looked pretty steep. Was there actually a path? We set off for the long haul about 1330 – more scree and supposedly a track. There were poles marking a way, but it was often a case of following others, making your own best choice or looking for footprints to indicate a good foot hold. Again, the best way was slowly plodding. We had regular rests along the way which gave me plenty of time to look back down the hill and wonder how on earth I was going to get back down.
The weather was brilliant. We could not have asked for better. Clear sunny skies meant we had great views of the national park out to the coast. Sunscreen was a must and I was glad I had slipped, slopped and slapped before leaving after lunch. There was more slipping to come, but of a different kind. Illona, Becs and Kirsty, obviously a bit fitter than the rest of us, were quite a way ahead of the rest after a while and were going to get to camp first and start setting up. This must have been in Illona’s Sherpa contract. I was solo for a bit in the middle and Tony was with the rest of the group just below. I was quite focussed on plodding along and getting to our peak. I could do this. Suddenly I could not. I put my foot one way and it would not stay, perhaps another way, no. What was going on here? I looked up. Illona and the others had made it past here and quite a way further. This surely meant I must just keep going – although I was not sure how this was going to happen. A few more gingerly taken steps and a few more heart in mouth moments. I thought “OMG, I am going to slide right off this mountain!”
I looked behind me to see the rest of the group had stopped and Tony was walking up my way with no apparent difficulty. Was I in some parallel universe? How is this possible? He asked me how I was going and I cannot remember if I said, “I think I am going to die” or just that I was finding it pretty slippery and difficult to find any footing without sliding. He said that there was ice under the scree due to the unseasonal snow fall and it was not safe for us to go on so he would go up and get the others and we would go back to Syme Hut. Part of me felt a bit cheated that we would not make the top, but mostly it was relief with such a sensible decision. This relief was very quickly surpassed by the panic of “How the hell am I going to get down here?!” I was pretty much stuck on the spot I was at and did not have to be told to stay there and wait for the others. Any movement felt treacherous. Tony continued up to get the others. What was going on here? I could take no step in any direction and he was walking freely up the slope.
While I was in the proverbial state of soiling myself and pondering the situation, a voice came out of nowhere. Who, what, where? A recent graduate of “CAMO 101” was standing on a rock about 40m away from me to my left. She was dressed in the same colours as the volcano, which is why I had not seen her. She asked me how I was going and I said I was finding it a bit slippery and we were turning back. She was with two other blokes and said that they could not make it down and had called the helicopter. A helicopter!! Was it that bad? Did I need a helicopter to get down too? Was this the answer to my question? Were we all going to be choppered off Mt Taranaki? She asked if I needed a lift too and I said I would wait for Tony to get back. On looking down the slope, it was certainly looking like an attractive option.
I relayed this information back to Meena and the others not far below me. “What woman?” she asked. I think they thought I was mad. They could not see anyone and it appeared I was talking to myself. I said “That one over there” and they saw her. No one could believe a helicopter was coming.
Tony got back and I told him about the woman, her companions and the helicopter. He was somewhat surprised as again, there appeared to be no one around. Her fellow camouflaged companions were scattered around the place dressed in nice, natural colours blending into the scenery. I pointed her out and he went over and offered to help get them to the track (would we call it a track?) and then they could walk down with us. They had come over from the north side where there was no snow or ice and had already come down the most treacherous stretch off the path so should be fine. They declined and said they would get the helicopter. I was waiting for Tony to get back and see if this meant that we all had to get the helicopter, by now convinced any movement I made would result in my untimely demise. His report on the conversation with the camouflaged lady left me in no doubt that no, I would not be getting the helicopter and yes, I would be walking down. Hmm.
A big, yellow helicopter arrived circling around the mountain looking for these three camouflage experts. With all three blending so well into the rock face and in three separate positions they were having trouble finding them. At one stage, they spotted Becky (in red), Kirsty (bright green) and Illona (in purple) and thought that this must be the group of three. They were hovering above them and I thought, could it be that they get a lift down the mountain? This could not be right. I am the one stuck. They admirably did not take the opportunity and pointed the rescuer in the right direction. We stayed and watched as all three were winched one at a time into the helicopter and flown down to Syme Hut.
Time for us now to go down. I did say to Tony that I did not think I could I could move. He was sure I could. I asked how I was going to get down and he said by putting one foot in front of the other and going slowly with my pole. Unfortunately for Tony, I had taken my pack off earlier and could now not get it back on without losing my balance. Tony said to leave it and start going down so with some calming words from Dave I anxiously started descending. I felt pretty bad about Tony having to carry my pack as well, on the other hand, however, I did want to survive the descent. Tony ferried my pack and a couple of other packs down while we cautiously granny stepped our way down. This really was what the label said; a Sherpa assisted journey!
Once we got back to the softer scree I could take my pack again. Tony arrived with blood smeared on his arms and shorts. Just a graze form the scoria he told me nothing to worry about – part of the course.
Now it was better. Illona took the lead and we headed back to Syme Hut. It was a lot of fun sliding down the scree. I really enjoyed this. The scree is pretty abrasive so gloves can be a good idea as there were a few a slips on the way amongst us and I was very pleased to have had a walking pole with me.
We saw Illona slip at one point and when we looked again she had collapsed entirely. We called out to her and got there and she had come to already and seemed in good spirits. She had fallen over and then fainted. Her knee was quite badly grazed, bleeding and she was looking a bit ashen, but apparently she was fine. She applied a field dressing and we continued on to the hut. It looked very welcoming. What a hut! Such a fabulous location and view. Although, we missed out on the summit I thought that you could not get much better than this.
After picking out gravel from her haemorrhaging wound and redressing it, Illona cooked us a hearty pasta meal – she really is a true Sherpa!
From the dining table you could see the mountain and where we had walked. We had possibly got to about 2300m? It looked pretty impressive looking up from here. I said to Tony” I can’t believe we got up there” which was pretty much followed straight away by the more incredulous “And I can’t believe I made it down!”
Everyone ate dinner watching the sunset; from outside or inside the hut and many photos were taken. It was a beautiful night and what a day we had had: a mountain rescue, haemorrhages, loss of consciousness and a few laughs along the way.
The next morning, with Ruapehu, Ngaurahoe and Tongariro in the distance and the weather looking just as good as the day before, we set off down Fantham’s Peak track to go to Lake Dive for lunch. This was not in our original itinerary, but as we did not make it all the way to the top of Mt Taranaki we decided on a longer route back to the van. There was a lot more fun sliding down the scree until we reached the junction with the Upper Lake Dive Track. This was great, again poles and gloves were handy.
We tramped around the mountain above the bush line for a couple of hours and then descended into a fairy-tale bush setting of totara, cedar, moss and lichen. It was magical. Lunch was a welcome break as it was getting pretty warm and again I was starving. The hut was close to the lake which was calm and serene and lent itself to a great view with the bush and mountain in the background. No beaches to sit on though so we ate by the hut.
After lunch we followed the Lower Lake Dive track back to the Dawson Falls carpark. No more helicopters, haemorrhages or fainting, just lots and lots of steps. The steps and sun were conducive to getting pretty hot and sweaty and although we had kept out boots entirely dry the whole trip, when we came across our first stream crossing I welcomed the cooling water on my feet and legs.
We got back to the car park about 1700, changed and set off on the return journey to Wellington. What an adventure. Even though we did not make it to the summit it was definitely one of the best trips I have been on. It was great: I learned a lot, we witnessed a mountain rescue, the company was great, we laughed a lot, the scenery was just amazing, and it is the highest I have been in NZ.
So to amend a favourite song writer of mine “The coming down was worth the going up”.
Thanks Tony and Illona