On the way up to Whakapapa it got darker and cold. We could see by the side of the road from National Park that a lot more snow fell during the week. On the drive up the Bruce, past the snow chain bay the van started to get all squirrely. Tim and Richard went outside, put their layers on and spent a freezing half hour trying to get the chains sorted. I mentioned that this kind of circumstance was prime time for white walkers. Some nervous laughter followed and I’m not sure if people got the Game of Thrones reference. After getting chains as good as they could, the van went slowly up to the lodge, where it was a lot warmer!
There’s a saying in the armed forces, Same “Stuff” Different Day. And this was how best to describe Saturday. Freezing icy rain. We spent the morning being briefed by Tony and co. on weather forecasts and avalanche danger. Somebody enquired whether people were keen to head out? It looked pretty miserable to me, but whatever, as long as I’m up here! This time we got further than we had last Saturday, and went up a steepish ridge. Alan asked us what would happen if the top of the ridge got so icy we couldn’t safely put our crampons on? Go home I said! But no, the correct answer would be to drop to the lee side and find a nice spot to put your crampons on. We wandered back inside, shortly after. I appreciated the extra snow on the mountain this weekend, it made the walk a bit more pleasant. After we got in and warmed up for a couple of hours, somebody enquired whether people would be keen to go out again? Nobody was keen. Sure enough, not half hour later freezing rain began to fall around the lodge. Luckily I was off kitchen duty, so we settled for a yummy dinner of chicken and roast veges. We went off to bed, while Tony was threatening us with an “alpine start”.
“Get up, it’s nice and clear, we’re leaving straight after breakfast!” boomed Tony, perhaps ahead of the agreed wakeup time of 6am. Not sure exactly how clear it was, I had a look outside. It looked damn perfect! After breakfast we all get ready, we’re all excited. This is our chance to put it all together and get up to the top of the highest mountain on the North Island, and for many of us our first proper mountain!
Walking through the frozen carpark, which was even more icy this week, I was careful not to fall and embarrass myself in my full mountaineering kit. Our walk took us past snowfield workers zooming by on snowmobiles and underneath snowmaking machines that were set on “hyperthermia”. We followed the snowroad pretty much to the base of the Pinnacles and then took an obvious route straight up towards The Notch on the summit plateau.
Tim, Shay and the fit people were blazing a trail ahead for the rest of us, plugging steps as it were. Up ahead the way cut across a steep-ish bank of rime and ice, referred to from here on as the “frozen wall of death”. Up ahead I saw people slowing down as they negotiated the frozen wall of death, but it truly did not look too steep. However in my hypoxia induced state, I had all but forgotten one of the lessons from the week before – it is always steeper than it looks. The problem was, the uneven texture of the rime covered ice made it really tricky to get a good stable purchase with the crampons. It felt like you were walking across almost a slope of scree, it was holding together better than scree, but it felt like it would crumble underfoot. Alan inquired whether I was feeling good, “not really,” was my reply. Good, because you don’t look too comfortable from here, said Alan. Alan talked me through it, basically I should use the ice axe to balance myself by sticking it pick first into the frozen wall of death and moving my feet in line until I was in balance so that I could lift the ice axe out and repeat the whole thing for the next couple of steps. Step by step I managed to get across without dramas, and Tony got a cool photo.
I could see Tim, Shay and the rest of the fit group fade into the distance across the gigantic empty white plain. They were just under the rim of the summit plateau, meanwhile I was hitting my limit. My heart was seemingly content to leap out my chest and carry on to the summit without me. I was only able to take three steps at a time before bending over my ice axe in some attempt to catch my breath. I think I may have been at around 2500m – I blame it on the thin air, whatever! Alan was nearby and I said to him “I’ve got nothing. I think I’m spent.” Alan said I have to keep moving without stopping, as I’m using up energy while stopping every three steps. He said to keep going and to count to 20 steps in my head before stopping, and if I got to 20 ok, I could carry on and do another 20. He said it was called “Chasing the monkey”. I thought this was crazy enough to work, and sure enough it more or less got me to the bowl of the summit plateau, 20 steps at a time. My face was getting numb from all the wind and loose powder blowing down off the summit plateau, but I kept going.
The summit plateau is probably bigger than what anyone says. Brendan said it was 20 rugby fields, and looking at the topo that’s probably right, but when you’re on top of it, it seems so vast and so much more bigger. And cold too. And endless expanse of white with cliffs all around, a totally hostile place if the weather turns bad, but somehow serene and benign a nice sunny day which we had. The waft of sulphur from the crater lake, also reminded you that you are sitting on top of a very active volcano. I tried not to think about lahars, but did wonder how the mountain was able to send them down Whakapapa, as there are a lot of distance and obstacles in the way. But I guess when you have to enormous continental plates doing their thing several hundred kilometres underneath, anything goes. We stopped for a quick bite and I was eagerly drinking down some hot tea from a thermos I brought along. The view was astounding already, but we were still short of any summits on the plateau. We set our sights on Dome, and followed the footprints of the fit group. On to our right we could see another group of climbers following the ridge towards Dome as well.
Gathering my stuff, we set off toward Dome. Ed wasn’t feeling well so he decided to go down with Marie and Alan. The rest of us followed Tony up the slope towards Dome. It was hard work, I think whatever reserves of energy I had were well and truly depleted at that point. Even though I paused to take photographs, I was still taking a long time to get up to the Dome summit. Steadily as I was counting steps I managed to reach the Dome summit. A wave of euphoria washed over me as I was taking my final steps. This is a beautiful sight I thought, in fact the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen! The Russian folk singer Vladymyr Vysotsky sang of the mountains – “If you live your full happy life you would only ever see one tenth of these beauties and miracles”. Too true. I stood and took many happy photos. Tony looked at Paretetaitonga and said that it looked perfect, maybe we could try to get to the top of that next. No way I thought! The truth of it was I was well and truly stuffed and the prospect of even just 100 more vertical meters was too daunting, after all I had to have the strength to get down as well. The lake below was a steaming cauldron of grey sulphur, and was to be our next destination.
We passed the dome shelter, which was encased in a frozen wave of ice. The slope down to the lake was gentle, snowy and steepish. Tony looked back at us and said “Watch this”, as he slid down to the ridge overlooking the lake. The more unrefined may call it “bumsliding” but the alpinistic euphemism that I prefer is “glissade”. Initially I thought better of it, sure I might get down faster but whatever. Soon peer pressure took its toll and I was on my arse, sliding towards the grey cauldron. I managed to run out of steam as the slope became a gentle rise, and truth be told I wasn’t going that fast to begin with, leaning into my backpack as a kind of a backstop anchor. From the lakefront we could see the fit group making their way up the Cathedral Rocks, some more adventurous group members went even further and got even higher up the knife-edge precipice. I asked later whether they realised how big the dropoff was to the Tukino side, and yes, they assured me, they did.
We gathered ourselves and moved across the eastern side of the plateau. A big slope was going eastwards, as my research told me afterward, a natural lahar path. The Wangaehu Glacier, according to the topo. Indeed the glacier (or lahars?) had managed to carve a channel almost going all the way to the bottom. I asked Tony whether it was possible to ski all the way down, and he reckoned you could do it. Going across the plateau was tedious work for me, the snow had a rime crust on top of it, while the more svelte members of the team could stand on top of the crust, I was breaking through and sinking to my ankles in soft snow. The crampons I thought made things more difficult to move through the thing but I kept them on, stopping to readjust the straps a couple of times. Meanwhile I passed a group that was sitting down for lunch, the same group that followed the ridge to Dome. They were from the Auckland University Tramping Club. When I did the Tongariro Northern Circuit I met up with a group from the Auckland Uni club at Mangatepopo hut, they were real chilled out and quite hilarious. I couldn’t see any familiar faces as we were all covered up in hats, balaclavas or goggles, but I mentioned that I thought they were great and wished them well as I went on my way.
We followed Tony up and across a ridge on the edge of the Summit plateau. Reading the topo now, I think this may have been Glacier Knob or if not, the unnamed ridge on it’s right. As we were going up the ridge got narrower, with one side on our left being a smooth snowy slope, the side on our right was a rime covered messy jagged formation of various terraces. Tony said to us if we were to fall to try and fall on the left. I had that in mind as I was nervously adjusting my ice axe leash to my left hand. To stay focused I concentrated on the immediate path in front of me, about the width of a footpath, ignoring the potential dropoff on the right. Getting down from the ridge was easy enough except for a tricky bit reminiscent of the frozen wall of death, but much much smaller by comparison. We settled down for lunch in the shadow of the towering ice slabs, but they were holding together. It wasn’t like the previous week near the pinnacles when we were getting showered with lumps of ice. Much to my amusement I drank down all my tea, which I’ve now learned must be carefully rationed to ensure that one does not drink the whole thermos on one go! Either that, or the answer is to lug a bigger thermos, and who wants to do that?!
We went down Restful Ridge, which more than lived up to it’s name. It was pretty much plain sailing with lots of restful “glissades” in between. It was here that Tony showed us the proper technique of slowing your slide with the spike of the ice axe. Even though I probably didn’t need it, I thought oh well, safety first. As we got lower and lower it got quite hot in the afternoon sun reflected in the snowy slopes. I pretty much got rid of most of my layers. As we were going down my legs let me know that they were truly overworked, as I was sinking into the fresh snow, the backs of my hammies were biting with ever increasing cramps. At one point I sank past my ankles into the fresh snow and collapsed, as the cramps meant I couldn’t get my leg out easily and just had to wait there for the feeling to subside. This made the going slow and tedious, and eventually I opted to traverse the line near to the huts, as the ridges were a bit firmer and had less snow on them. Eventually I made it back to the lodge, I had a look in the mirror and I was looking rough! Hair matted and soaked through with sweat under the helmet, sunblock poorly smeared over the face, cheeks and neck wind burned, but oh well at least I had a big stupid grin on my face!
Well that’s snowcraft I suppose in a nutshell… or 4k+ words. If you are thinking of doing it, just scrounge up the cash and do it! It’s epic good times and you might just learn a thing or two like self-arrests or how to put crampons on, or at the very least capture some breathtaking photos of winter on the central plateau!