“Oh my god what the FUCK was I thinking?!”
I lost count of the number of times I said this both silently and out loud to myself while attempting to summit New Zealand’s famous Mt. Taranaki. Let’s just say it was enough to freak out the Germans who managed to spend the entire day passing me left and right both up and down the mountain. Danke schön.
A perfect cone volcano that literally erupts out of the flat plains of the west coast of the North Island, Taranaki is not to be missed if you are a lover of mountains like I am. As peaks come and go, it’s pretty freaking epic, especially with nothing around besides some cows to distract the eye from its massive form.
In fact, it’s such a perfect volcano it was shot as Mt. Fuji in the Last Samurai.
After seeing pictures of it, I was determined to give it a visit while on my road trip across New Zealand to my new home of Wanaka. Hearing how hard it was, I was on the fence about whether I would actually climb it or not. Ever the pragmatist, I have never been one of those people who feels the need to “conquer” things.
But luck was on my side, and I had a window of two full fabulous blue sky days, the tail end of summer in Taranaki. The first day I spent exploring the lush green park around the volcano, trying to psych myself up and find the balls to actually climb the beast.
While I wish there were more forests in New Zealand (so much was cleared for farming ages ago) the ones that do exist are so wet and green, I love it! Around Taranaki was no exception, even the trees were covered with moss!
I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book The Signature of All Things, and the main character is a botanist who studies moss (I swear the book is so much better than that sounds.)
I took away a whole new love and respect for this mighty green plant, and now I always pay attention to mosses when I am hiking. There are so many different types!
Sigh, who am I?
After successfully climbing Mt. Doom (aka Ngauruhoe) a month before (which was 3 hours of torture followed by happiness and pride) I decided, hell, why not.
I could climb that volcano, I could definitely do this one! Right?!
I am a strong independent woman who doesn’t need any man to help me, right? I could summit Taranaki completely on my own, right?
Sometimes I wonder that I am the orchestrator of my own catastrophes. Again, what was I thinking?
DOC (The Dept. of Conservation) list the summit climb to Taranaki as “strenuous and difficult” with a time of 8-10 hours. At this point I should have known better.
Kiwis do not overestimate anything, in fact they are masters at UNDERestimating just how challenging hikes and activities are in New Zealand. Kiwis are made of sterner stuff than the rest of us. They are very fond of saying, “oh you’ll be fine, it’s easy” and then you find yourself crying on the side of mountain. Not that that happened to me. Twice.
So right, I should have known better. If DOC lists a hike as “difficult” I should have listened and maybe done some more warm up preps and exercises besides yoga, snorkeling, and hour-long day hikes to a beach where I would take a nap in the sand.
Oh well, you live and you learn.
I should have known things were not off to a good start when I overslept and started the hike at 9, an hour later than I meant to.
Oh well! After registering my intent with the DOC office, I was off! A perfect day, I started off on the first “easy” part of the hike to the Tahurangi Lodge, a private hut on the track. An old 4 wheel drive track, it was mostly paved and steep as hell. Sorry knees!
Huffing and puffing I made my way to the lodge when I realized it was such a fine day I could see three shadowy peaks in the horizon, which I quickly realized were Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu, the 3 big volcanoes in the center of the North Island and 150+km away! How cool is that?!
In the Māori culture, Taranaki supposedly lived peacefully in the center of the North Island with these three great volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu. Nearby stood Mount Pihanga, and all four mountains were in love with her.
There was a huge, fierce battle in which Tongariro won with Pihanga standing next to him and so Taranaki fled to the other side of the country towards the setting sun. Weeping, he carved out the gorges that become the Whanganui River before finally setting on the west coast. When Taranaki is covered in cloud (as it often is) it is said that he is hiding his tears.
What I’ve heard is that if you can see Taranaki, it’s going to rain, and if you can’t see it, then it’s raining. True story, ‘Naki.”
At this point I am deceptively confident. I made it to the hut in under the suggested time, lulled into a false sense of security. I was determined to be well off the mountain by sunset because it’s one of the most dangerous mountains in New Zealand.
Not because of being a volcano. Which also makes it incredibly dangerous, the fact that it has rebuilt itself into a perfect cone means it’s ready to blow it’s top soon, which no one will want to be around when it does because the lahars and floods will destroy everything in its path all the way to the coast.
Nope, Taranaki is actually the second deadliest mountain in New Zealand for climbers and hikers, claiming 82 lives in just over 100 years. A couple was just killed on the mountain last year.
Again, what was I thinking?
This is because Taranaki is so big, standing tall at 2,518 meters it creates its own microclimate. The weather can change in a blink of an eye on the mountain and traps people at the top all the time.
Including a group that had to be choppered off last week during a summer blizzard, told to me by the DOC officer at the time. Wonderful. He then told me I would be fine, and he’s been up over 50 times, even with his hip replaced.
Again, I have no pride nor suffer from “summit fever,” at the slightest hint of bad weather or if I was off on my time schedule, I would head back down. If I was going to die, it was not going to be in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
Luckily at this point I made friends with an Australian father-son team who would periodically pop their heads around on the hike and make sure I was visible and hadn’t fallen into a gully or anything. Lifesavers.
From there, the stairs started. Again, I can deal with stairs. Just take breaks every so often.
But before I knew it the stairs turned into boulders and rock scrambles before turning into a climb on scree. Scree being ashy volcanic sand, and if you every climbed on scree, you know it SUCKS.
Think two steps forward, one step back. Literally. For 2 hours. On your hands and knees. It’s a full body operation here people.
I know it’s kind of difficult to see from my photos, also because once I hit the scree, I stopped taking photos until I hit the summit, but Taranaki is really steep, much steeper than Ngauruhoe. I can fondly remember at one point climbing on my hands and knees (bring gloves), pausing for a moment, and it was so steep I could see the distant horizon between my legs.
In fact, the view was so great I could see the other volcanoes in the distance, between my knees! How painfully ironic and horribly beautiful?!
After what seemed like hours, and what in fact was probably hours, I finally was back on solid rock and scrambling my way towards the crater. Should I have been wearing a rope and harness? Probably. It wasn’t exactly a cliff face, but it was a steep enough rocky scramble that if I fell, I would keep going for a while.
And unlike all the all other girls on the mountain that day, I didn’t have a tall strapping German boyfriend to catch me if I lost it.
Life’s about taking chances, am I right?
After more huffing and puffing up “The Lizard” as this rocky stretch of doom was called, I finally hit the icy crater. Skating my way across, it was a quick and painful sludgefest up a bit of red scree (the worst because it’s sharp) and I was at the summit!
The views were insane! And everything was turned to gold and made infinitely more beautiful by the sheer fact that I got to the top all by myself without any help!
“I am Superwoman hear me roar!”
And give me my jelly bean lunch and red bull now please.
Too cold and exhausted to stay up there for long, I chatted with the Australian family before starting to make my way back down.
And I hate to be a debbie downer but holy shit is going down so much worse than coming up. After almost 6 hours of climbing, my legs had turned to jelly and once I hit the scree slope, the tears just started to flow freely.
Back when I was a teenager, I dislocated my knee, which only bothers me once in a while on really intense workouts.
Coming down on that steep slope killed my knee. Again.
The scree is so slippery you can sort of ski down it, but not being a natural skier, this was more like a ski-frolick for a couple dozen meters before I lost control and slid down on my back. And Taranaki is so steep once you fall, you don’t stop.
So after about the 10th time of falling and sliding on sharp scree, I cried. No shame. This went on for 2 hours.
When I finally got to the hut, and ran out of water, it made me smile to see that the Australian pop had waited for me. People are awesome.
The last hour down was brutal without water and the steep incline of the 4 wheel drive path busted up my knee even worse, forcing me to lay down every few minutes and calm the hell down. By the time I reached my car, I was ecstatic! Nothing like pulling off your dirty boots and gaitors, shaking the ash out of your hair knowing you just did something extraordinary.
10 hours almost exactly! Woot woot!
Feeling very proud of myself and pleased with what I accomplished, I turned the ignition only to realize that I had left my lights on in a rush to get started that morning and my battery was dead.
I am not going to sugar coat it and pretend this was an easy hike. It kicked my ass. Hardcore. But it was worth it and it makes me proud of myself to think I was able to accomplish something so difficult, without, you know, dying.
Don’t think I need to repeat it anytime soon though.
Have you heard of Taranaki? Would you climb to the top? What’s the most physically challenging thing you’ve ever done?