The weather in winter may not be good for fieldwork on Mt. Taranaki, but it’s definitely good for wintery things in those select regions of the North Island that actually get snow. A weekend ago I went on a trip back down to Tongariro National Park with my friends Tim and Annika (and a couple of their tramping friends from Wellington) to do some mountaineering. Mountaineering is a really broad term that basically means what it sounds like–climbing mountains. It can involve a whole range of tools and difficulty levels, can be done on foot, on skis, with full climbing gear, etc. Since I and some of the others on the trip weren’t too experienced with this kind of thing, the trip we did was fairly low difficulty and was a good chance for us to learn to use some of the gear. Doing these trips requires some measure of flexibility–you have to be willing to change your plans based on the conditions in order to be safe. The couple members of our group who were more experienced were good at analyzing the avalanche warnings and looking at snow cover and deciding what the best climbs to do on each day were. Based on this, we decided to climb Mt. Tongariro on the first day, coming in from the western side. After starting off on the track, we pretty quickly veered off to take a more direct route straight up the mountain.
At first, we climbed a slightly steep slope to get up on a ridge where we could just walk up a gentle incline for a while, but after a certain point things got a bit steeper and gradually snowier. Still, for a while it was just climbing through snow, making sure to keep good footing.
At some point, it became too steep and slippery to make very much progress, so we turned around and went home.
Just kidding! That’s the point at which we strapped crampons to our boots and took out our ice axes. I’d used crampons before, but not like this–it was amazing how suddenly you could just walk straight up steep icy slopes without worrying about your footing. It feels kind of like being Spiderman! Meanwhile, you use the ice axe to keep your balance so you can lean uphill without falling over. You can also use it to stop yourself if you slide.
And just like that, we were at the top with a great view of all sorts of geologic goodness. Of course we could see Mt. Ngauruhoe in the distance as usual, but below us was Red Crater, part of the Mt. Tongariro volcanic system, which erupted in the early 20th century. We could also see Blue Lake, a former explosion crater that’s now full of water. Unfortunately, while the snow cover all around was pretty, it meant that the red of Red Crater and the blue of Blue Lake were completely snow-covered and frozen over. Guess I’ll have to do this climb again in summer in order to get a different view of the top!
Most exciting for me, however, was the ability to see the steam from Te Maari crater in the distance. Te Maari is spot of New Zealand’s most recent eruption, in 2012. Now, don’t get me wrong, as a volcanologist, climbing around on just about any volcano is awesome in and of itself. But for me (and I’d imagine many other volcanologists), getting a look at visible signs of life from the volcanoes I study is the best part and a reminder of why I am doing what I do (as if I need a reminder!).
Once we were at the top and had a bit of lunch, we took some time to practice self-arrest techniques, something important to know for doing more difficult mountaineering. Basically self-arrest is how to stop yourself from sliding too far if you fall. There’s a way to do it for each way of falling–on your front, back, and even upside down–but all of the ways involve bending your knees back, getting on your stomach, and digging in the pick end of your axe in a certain way to stop yourself.
After taking a last look around at the top (and collecting all our wayward gear), we headed back down the hill.
Going downhill in crampons has it’s own technique (walk like a cowboy!), but it’s pretty easy, and we made quick work of the way down, though we still had to walk the very last bit out in the dark.
Here’s the part where rolling with the punches comes into play. We had actually planned to drive towards Turoa ski field, one of the lift areas on Ruapehu, and hike into Blythe Hut (similar to the one I stayed in on a previous trip to Ruapehu) that night so we could get an early start climbing the next day. However, by the time we got to the access road, it was closed well below the elevation of the trailhead due to ice. Rather than taking an extremely long hike in the dark only to arrive at the hut well after midnight, we decided to stay nearby and start from a different location the next day. All in all, probably a good decision. The next day we put chains on our tires and drove all the way up to Turoa. It’s a pretty cool ski area, and I’ll definitely have to go back and actually ski there sometime. But today was about climbing!
Because the climb was basically parallel to the ski slope, to me it was actually a lot lower difficulty than the previous day’s climb, even if it might have technically been farther and higher. The problem was just the cumulative effort of the two days meant we were pretty tired as we continued our climb. Climbing two volcanoes in one weekend had been pretty ambitious, and some of our group (myself included) was probably moving a bit slow to get to the top in a timely fashion. The weekend was a good lesson in pushing yourself vs. knowing your limits, and in this case we decided the right choice was to stop a few hundred meters short of the summit at the top of the last lift.
That didn’t mean the fun was over, though! After a hot chocolate break, we started working our way back down the mountain. But why be boring and walk down? We’re on a ski slope, after all! Instead, we took a seat (sometimes on plastic pack-liner sheets, sometimes on our butts) and bum-slid all the way down! Wheeeeeee!
The lighting on the way down was pretty neat, too, so I got off my bum occasionally to roll around on the ground taking photos of stuff.
We finally got to the bottom at the very end of the ski day–the snow cats were coming down with us. It was too bad we didn’t make it all the way to the top, but 1.75 or so volcanoes is pretty ok by my count, and it just means we can come back and do it again sometime to make it all the way!