Driving up to the Sratford Plateau car park at 5.45am on Saturday morning I’m hoping someone has spread lots of grit on the road so there is no ice to cope with. It’s a mild morning and the damp road has not frozen overnight. Relieved I park and we clamber out and assemble our gear before heading up the four-wheel drive track over snow patches towards the Manganui ski field.
Sunrise is an odd affair, a band of orange and pink light truncated from above by a wall of cloud, a partially drawn blind. The east ridge of Taranaki glows toothpaste advertisement whiter than white in stark contrast to the mauve smudged ring plains below. The cloud filtered diffused light gives the normally orderly sequence of green paddocks framed by shelter belts (it’s almost always windy on the Taranaki plains), a dirty subversive edge. The hedges have a creepy, menacing feel. They could be a live organism in the process of consuming the pastures they are supposed to shelter and delineate. The complete absence of wind adds to my vague sense of unease as does the sight of a diminutive, vulnerable looking snowman near the ski field buildings.
Taranaki has a reputation for being dangerous to know. It’s both easy on the eye and highly accessible. These charms lull visitors, and there are many, into a false sense of security. A calm, clear day can transform into freezing gale force winds and no visibility in less time than it takes to scoff a snickers bar. Taranaki is a west coast mountain moisture magnet. Precipitation is more likely than not even on clear sunny days. Moisture hovering with intent, itching to morph into fog, frost, rime (soft, medium or hard) or ice. The volcano-mountain’s long steep sides mean a fall would be difficult to recover from. Failure would likely see you land in your own grave probably at the bottom of one of the generous supply of bluffs created by old lava flows that populate the landscape.
Today conditions are benign. The route is not particularly icy, the sun is out, the wind is awol and visibility is excellent. We should have plenty of time to complete our climb in relative comfort. The tall white pyramid of east- ridge of Taranaki is laid out before us. It’s deceptively foreshortened from directly below and most un-ridge like.
We commence our ascent following the ski field T bar then the rope tow up to a small cabin that marks the top of the facility. As the terrain gradually steepens upward glances suggest there are bulges of rime ice where we can rest our calves but as each bulge is gained the gradient refuses to relent, there will be no pausing here unless a platform is chopped. Absorbed in the meditative rhythm of climbing I give pausing little thought. Eventually, having passed on the right of the snow coated lava bluff dubbed “the Policeman” I glance back to take in the view. The cloud duvet has dropped as the morning has progressed leaving the top of Ruapehu protruding, a bent finger pulling the top off a candy floss package.
I can just make out David and Marie below me. The distance between us is increasing as the terrain steepens. I take off my pack and pull off my ice hammer so I have a tool in each hand before I need it. I’m aware I have the rope in my pack and this is Marie’s first time on Taranaki. From this angle it is hard to tell precisely how far away my companions are but I judge the rope won’t be required on the ridge in these conditions so resume my climbing.
The exposure increases and the snow layers alternate between crusty and smooth. I pay careful attention selecting the line of least resistance through the crunchy crusty rime. This is the type of climbing I enjoy. The unsubtle, unstructured often inelegant do- what- you- need- to- do- to- get- to- the- top- climbing. No trying to reach holds ordained by some route setter with a specific grade of technical mastery in mind. The routes described in highly abbreviated form in the route guides are just that, guides. What you see on any given day at any given moment is what you must work with. At times it is necessary to go around particularly icy patches but mostly the travel is good. Soon the gradient slackens off slightly allowing occasional pauses to flatten my crampons against the snow to give my legs a rest while checking the progress of the others. My companions are out of sight now hidden behind ridge. I decide that as they are together I can afford to push on to the top of the Sharks Tooth and from there scout around for a descent route into the crater.
The final approach to the Sharks Tooth summit has the most rime as you’d expect as the higher you get the more the wind plays a part in shaping the landscape. There is even some sastrugi – frozen waves of ice arrows pointing out the prevailing wind direction. The sun has been on the slope for nearly four hours now and the feathery rime is starting to break and crumble under the pressure of my tools. I send lots of ice chips plummeting down the east ridge fortunately these dainty crystals pose no threat to those below.
A light refreshing breeze drifts across my face as I top out on the diminutive piece of horizontal sastrugi that marks the summit of the Sharks Tooth and the top of the east ridge. It’s gloriously quiet up here. Directly in front of me is the summit dome of Mt Taranaki. It looks deceptively close, the summit crater lies between me and the summit but it’s invisible from my vantage point many metres directly above it. The summit is dotted with rime pimples glimmering in the midday glare. Looking south I can see Taranaki’s distinctive plateau including Fanthams Peak which looks like a proverbial chip on the shoulder. There is a climber visible on the eastern edge of the crater his tiny form draws the scale of the crater and the upper mountain into perspective. The bits of crater saucer visible sport an unruly rime beard curling over the top like magnified salt crystals.
I edge south for a closer squiz leaning forward slightly to see if I can look directly into the crater but the angle is too acute. The view north is more expansive – the gentle openness of the lizard ridge beckoning a welcome on the near horizon. The summer chimney access off the Tooth is, as we expected, blocked by snow. We will need to down climb the arête a few metres and traverse north towards the Surrey Road route in order to drop safely into the crater.
Satisfied I down climb to meet the others and confirm somewhat belatedly they are okay and don’t need the rope. They are in good spirits. I let them pass me and continue up to the summit. In the short time since I summited the snow has really warmed up and rime is falling thick and fast with the snowy underbelly revealed as soft and slippery meaning it is best to make new steps for better purchase.
After a brief stop on the summit David takes the lead descending northwards to check out exit routes. He soon shouts up confirming my assessment that we can descend a few meters then traverse north across a few rime bulges and drop into the crater.
Marie heads off first following David’s tracks. I’m thinking about how I’m feeling a bit light-headed and realise I have not eaten anything since 5am but dismiss the idea of remedying. The terrain is steep and exposed so keeping moving seems a better plan. The first traverse down a narrow funnel between ice bulges is carefully negotiated with David supplying suggestions on foot and hand placement. Marie and I concentrate and get it done. I’m definitely feeling slightly dizzy and grumpy – the hall marks of low blood sugar. I close my eyes and reopen them and take a few deep breaths. We descend another meter or so to the final traverse section. Marie goes first. By the time she has finished the snow is all churned up exposing the slippery soft undercoat. It lacks appeal but my choice is soft snow or blue ice. While my hammer grips hard ice ok my axe is not really designed for it and glides off the hard surface if not perfectly placed. I look around for an alternative route and decide to descend a bit lower then traverse but having descended I’m not feeling any happier about plan b. Back to where Marie went. Yeah nah. Plan b. Okay now I’m overthinking things when I’d be better off just doing it. After a bit of swearing, scrabbling for purchase and a fair amount of coaxing from both of my companions I make it down and quickly traverse the last exposed section to the relative safety of the flat ground on the crater rim.
Phew, the scrambling is over. I’m slightly annoyed that neglecting to eat turned it into a bigger drama than it needed to be but it doesn’t matter now. We can relax, take in the views and reflect on a great morning’s climb. We descend into the crater and wander around admiring the Sharks Tooth and the summit dome of Taranaki from below. A lone climber comes towards us as we sit by our packs eating lunch. Peter is a local and comes up here about once a month partly to do mapping work for DoC but mostly because he can. We persuade him to take our photo and then leave our packs to ascend to the summit proper.
From the crater it is an easy plod to the summit where we meet another climbing pair having their lunch on the summit. They too are locals and come up about once a month. They have route envy telling us the south face is boring. It’s a classic case of thinking the grass is greener though I suspect, recalling my first ascent of Taranaki in winter which was via the south face. I was definitely not bored especially when the face froze up on descent. More photos are taken as we admire the views of the Tasman Sea to the west and across to Ruapehu in the east. There are rime ice mushrooms everywhere giving the landscape a surreal feel like someone has punted lots of magnified golf balls up here. The crunchy brittleness of the rime mushrooms is in stark contrast to the firm smooth snow that coats the main crater and the route up to the summit. A good metaphor for what I love about the alpine environment generally – a constant state of contrasting elements constantly changing; complex, challenging and beautiful.
Descending is often the more difficult part of the alpine journey but the easiest route off Taranaki is the gentle north ridge dubbed “the Lizard” and conditions remain benign. We’re not buying it though and once we have enjoyed the summit and crater it is time to head down before the afternoon cloud and clag builds up to inhibit visibility. The snow is still relatively firm and we make steady progress towards the cloud below us. We consider cutting east to pick up the Surrey Road route, David and I veer in that direction for a look while Marie continues north before we stop and regroup. Marie is tired and points out that with visibility fading with the arrival of the afternoon clag we are better off on the poled north route. While David and I are itching to explore the eastern route Marie is right. We could be on the mountain for some time negotiating our way around bluffs trying to pick up a route we have not researched if we keep traversing east. We have done what we came here to do, it’s time to finish it without adding more risk.
We cut back to the north ridge proper and descend the Hongi Valley towards the transmitter tower that marks Tahurangi Lodge and the intersection of the round the mountain track with the puffer track, the latter takes you down to the North Egmont Visitor Centre. The sign indicates that heading down the Puffer will take about the same time as heading back round the mountain to Stratford Plateau where the car is parked. I’m supposed to be the expert for this part of the route having run the round the mountain trail earlier in the year but I can’t remember how long it took and it is hard to judge how much snow is on the route. We decide that Marie and David will take the Puffer to the Visitor Centre and relax over a coffee or hot chocolate while I’ll go pick up the car.
Less than an hour later, having stopped to remove layers of clothing and tuck away my ice tools and crampons, I’m in the car heading down the mountain. In retrospect we should have all headed for the car as the route is flat and the travel quick. Instead I drive out to the main road then round the mountain and back in to pick up the others. The Visitor Centre is closed so Marie and David don’t get to indulge in a post climb hot drink while they wait. Fortunately the cloud has vanished revealing a close up view of Taranaki which they are happy to sit in the shelter and admire. Its’ been an excellent climb and there are plenty of refreshments and a hot shower waiting in Stratford to round the day out.