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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Big One

With only two weeks left in New Zealand, and I decided to go for broke: Mount Taranaki.. I planned on getting to the summit of that beast. Have you seen The Last Samurai? This is the volcano used in that film. It is truly a beast at 8,260 feet to the summit!

The week prior 7 guys from my program also made the summit their goal, all physically fit, but half way through two had to turn back at the half-way point. It is a 7-8 hour total return climb for a fit hiker, and you need every bit of light that you can scavenge. Mount Taranaki, aka Egmont, is the most fatal mountain in New Zealand; many of these deaths occur due to unprepared hikers and quick (alpine) weather changes.

I arrived at the parking lot base early that Saturday morning with lots of winter-ready clothes, food and water in my pack. I took one step out of the car, and realized that half of my clothes needed to get put on immediately! No layers were shed the entire hike up until I stood atop the summit and smiled for the camera!

The beginning of 1000s of stairs!
After a steep but relatively flat 1.5 hour 5000 feet climb from the carpark, you reach an overnight hikers lodge. After you leave the lodge (nice rest stop and views across the country), you hit a series of steps. The steps, at least on the downhill, are a welcome (structured) addition to the climb. There are about a million steps, but hey, who’s counting? After all the million steps, you are at decision point. You hit about 2200 feet of scoria (“scree”); this is the point that the 2 guys earlier had to call it quits. Scree--> Think pumice stone (also volcanic formed), but slightly heavier. Now picture 2200 feet of this stuff, all shapes and sizes from the size of a dime to half dollar, all layed out on a 35 degree climb up it. Basically, “one step forward, two steps back” is the trend, so you can either try to take lots of steps quickly to lose less in the end (quickly tiring), or take one step, try your best to plant that foot, and swing the other foot up the incline. Repeat a thousand times, give or take a hundred.

Beginnings of "The Lizard"
After those fun times you encounter the last 1000 feet of “The Lizard,” which is a lava flow of all out rock climbing, scaling and snow drifts. Suddenly my occasional indoor rock-climbing paid off! You are laced with clouds and clarity, and are ever-searching for the small guide sticks lodged between rocks. Sometimes you couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of you, but somehow still needed to find the guide sticks. Alas after about 5 hours, the summit was in sight!!

I hung out on the summit for a good 1.5 hours, enjoying the change of white-out cloudy view and clear skies looking over the Tasman Sea onto the horizon. It was simply beautiful. Finally all the questions I kept asking myself during the climb, “Why am I doing this? This is not beautiful! This is hard, grey and lonely!” were answered. The views were truly breathtaking. I had a 3 hour descent in front of me, starting with snow (this is the middle of summer, fyi)! The Lizard was again challenging, but not as bad on the quads as the ascent. The scoria, however, met with mixed feelings. I fell down, I skidded (the only way to descend), I bounced off of my back hand and pushed myself up like an ice-skater. The first fall was pretty funny – I slid a good 10 feet on my butt and laughed loudly (you know *this* laugh!). The second fall, still kind of funny, but not as painless. The third fall and I slid at least 15 feet, and wasn’t sure if I was going to stop. A little panic set in. I decided to slow down my slide for the rest of the the steep decline. All was well, and the stairs finally in sight, until BAM! I fell again, but this time I landed on a huge rock outcropping… right – on – my – butt – cheek. I didn’t have time to decide if I wanted to cry or not; tears just sprung from the corners of my eyes. The rest of the return was a little blurry. I finished in around 7 hours total, and drove to my hostel for the night in Wanganui while sitting crooked the entire time. My butt was in major pain!
ATOP the summit!

Two weeks prior I had hiked the 7 hour Tongariro crossing in Taupo. It was absolutely beautiful, with some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, but this climb, on the other hand, was plainly challenging. A big portion of the Taranaki hike I wondered, Why?, but by the time I had finished, I thought, Accomplished! What a great feeling of tackling such a feat! Exhilirating!

I hope that you enjoy the photos and story--- I have had a great experience!

Pictures Mount Taranaki
Pictures Wanganui

Continued story: Going Native
PS- Do you remember the Maori mythology regarding the volcanoes and Tongariro? Taranaki had been very wounded in his fight for Pihanga, and moved west to escape his enemies. He created the Whanganui River during his move, and his tears filled it up. He is said to pass clouds over himself when he is crying (which must be frequently b/c he is usually cloudy), and produce clear skies when he displays himself proudly to Pihanga.

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