Mount Taranaki has been an alluring challenge for us for more than a year. Almost every weekend spent rock climbing prepared us for the second highest volcano in the North Island of New Zealand. Tahurangi, the highest peak of Mount Ruahepu at 2797 m climbed in the middle of the summer this year was a great practice and gave us more confidence for the winter Taranaki.
Known as a moderately easy climb given the elevation gained (2518 m), Taranaki is famous for its difficult ascent. A lot of people inadequately equipped try to summit the mountain during winter end up with fatality. Sitting close to the Tasman Sea, unpredictable and rapidly changeable weather makes Taranaki a very dangerous mountain. Even Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, has claimed more lives than Mount Taranaki.
Arrived on Saturday afternoon at the North Egmont fully equipped with alpine essentials and stocked up with weekend treats we headed to the Tahurangi Lodge. Carrying up our heavy packs was just a leisure walk before real things began. We kept our leg muscles going about two hours through the rain and wet snow. An awesome warm up before the next day climb we thought, fingers crossed for tomorrow. Only the weather forecast we could trust and it promised us a nice sunny day on Sunday. Full of hope and totally happy being in nature we finally settled at the Alpine Club’s Tahurangi Lodge.
We met a friendly group of Chinese hikers at the lodge who were planning to attempt the summit as well. That is how we met out climbing mate Ryan. Next day he happened to be summiting Taranaki by himself.
The weather forecast was looking good and completing solo was not too dangerous that day. Still I would never do it myself. Climbing and mountaineering skills are not only those essential pieces you need to succeed, but also a team spirit that makes you feel confident giving extra support. It was perfect timing to meet Ryan and make a team of three. Such a coincidence, with no luck we had visited Taranaki several times attempting to achieve our goal. It was Ryan’s story too.
Being hardheaded we still believe in good luck and I think we turned out to be more than lucky that day. The weather had been flawless since morning: absolutely clear sky with no clouds. Beautiful sunrise and amazing views of Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance welcomed us on Sunday.
The plan was going the most direct route called the North Ridge starting at Hongis Valley at 1520 m covered with massive rocks. That route is well marked with the poles and wooden steps. In winter they are all covered with snow and ice which makes it difficult to follow the route exactly right like you do it in summer. Descent back was planned the same way.
The wooden steps disappeared quickly and we kept on following ice frozen poles all the way up through the Drinking Rock to the Lizard Ridge located at 2200 m. Summit seemed so close.
Conquering with yourself is where the battle starts. A steady pace is a key summiting a mountain. About 200 m left and we didn’t have much time to think over if we would go further or not. Amost gave up, exhausted and exposed to icy mountain conditions, questioning ourselves how strong we are and would we be given a second chance ever of such a perfect weather as a precious gift.
Leading the team, Kirill was very firm about his decision and helped us to overcome our fears and believe in ourselves again. No turnaround.
Roped we continued zigzagging our way towards the summit. We have come such a long way, longer than you would think, and couldn’t afford ourselves abandon what we were committed to.
Absolutely clear sky above was giving us energy to continue. There was enough time to reach the summit and come back. We knew it would be much more difficult descend though as it was getting colder and snow surface was turning into ice quite fast. Arriving on the summit too late means that there we cannot return safely. We didn’t want to get caught up with zero visibility or get frozen. Our legs were tired and we had to go twice harder with our crampons and ice axes. Our hike to the top became quite technical as there was a lot of ice on the route.
Shark tooth, finally reached, a giant icy monolith was towering over us. Slipping in the wrong place could cost a life. Our ascend became very steep more and more covered with ice all the way up to the crater located at 2450 m. We decided to get onto the crater via Shark Tooth getting round the Crater Valley.
Climbing over ice covered rocks was not very pleasant apart from the part when those amazingly textured vertical icy mushroom looking cliffs rising thing above the clouds make you feel like you are on the icy planet. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to climb to the Shark Tooth. Maybe next time we thought and had a peaceful rest right in the crater before heading to the true summit.
We knew that we had the last step to be done before going up the easy slope leading to the true summit of the mountain.
We approached the summit at 3:00 pm and the temperature there was about -15C.
Magnificent views from the sleeping giant at 2518 m were literally breath-taking.
The summit welcomed us with cold wind guts and the volcanic rocks totally covered with snow and ice. I would call it icy formations beautifully sculptured by the wind and snow.
We removed our rope and helmets; relief, huge feeling of happiness, finding yourself in a new world. Quite hard to put our feelings to the words now I would say.
“Gliding Peak” in Maori it has a beautiful legend behind and has a spiritual significance to tangata whenua. According to the legend, Taranaki is hiding his tears when clouds cover the mountain. Taranaki lived with the other great volcanoes Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe and was banished after falling in love with Tongariro’s wife, a smaller volcano called Pihanga. As Taranaki travelled west towards the setting sun, his path of tears carved out the Whanganui River.
About half an hour later we began to descend in the same direction we came from. One final look saying good bye to Taranaki.
Ryan was self-reliant and decided to descend by himself. We saw him having fun sliding down at some slopes gradually disappearing. We knew that heading down was quite dangerous. The things could have been gone wrong as it was getting darker and obviously involved some risks. Footing sideways slowly on the crusty snow and ice took two of us about 3 hours to descend. Kirill technique was more confident and he was moving fast placing his ice climbing boots and crampons down the slope. Luckily the sky was clear and we made it down safely.
Beautifully lit up in distance Tahurangi Lodge was full of our tramping mates waiting for us. They welcomed exhausted but totally happy us with words or congratulations and hot tea. Ryan arrived 20 minutes before we did and told us that he turned out to get a bit lost trying to figure out which direction to go. Luckily he managed to find his way safe and without getting lost. He said he was tired running out of water and had to eat snow. Kirill tried to cheer him up saying that we thought he was drinking hot tea already and waiting for us.
Overall kept together as a team we managed to finish our mission we aimed a year ago. Tough beautiful day, tired minds and muscles and great feel of achievement.
Climbing Taranaki definitely gave us a different perspective on things around. Looking back at out track I try to recall those amazing feelings again. Lure of danger, discovering beauty, sense of achievement, pushing yourself beyond the limits are great things to experience. For an alpine beginner I would say it is probably something like a new birth.
For not very experienced climbers like us I have to admit that climbing Taranaki is a big job, especially during the winter season. This is a physical and mental test. Emotional strength is as much important as physical and cannot be underestimated. Even though it is considered as a climb required basic mountaineering skills like combined crampons and rope techniques, still required a lot of determination and pushing your own limits, which is the most difficult part of the whole thing.
Please make sure you have climbing experience and the adequate alpine equipment for a winter summit climb. Weather is extremely changeable at Mount Taranaki and the mount can become extremely icy and dangerous. If you are not confident climber ask for an experienced guide assistance and never attempt summiting on your own.
Author ©: Yulia Kozlenko
Images ©: Kirill Polishchuk, Yulia Kozlenko and Ryan Gao