Mount Taranaki is a formidable beast in the midst of flatlands and farms on the southeast corner of New Zealand’s north island. It is one of the most symmetrical volcano cones in the world and the second highest peak on the island at 8,200 feet. Because of its freakishly circular shape, a result of the forest preserve for Egmont National Park surveyed in 1881, it’s sometimes referred to affectionately as “the pimple of New Zealand”.
A “geologically young” mountain, it commenced activity around 135,000 years ago, had its most recent eruption in 1755, and is almost overdue for another one, which of course adds to the excitement of trying to summit.
According to Maori mythology, Mounts Taranaki and Tongariro, both vying for the love of Mount Pihanga, all of which sat in the middle of the island, fought to win her affection. Taranaki lost the battle and fled to the edge of the island, lonely forever, and carving out the Whanganui River gorge in his wake. His near-constant clouds are said to be his tears and the spectacular sunsets behind him are said to be his displays of passionate pining. All we can add to this is: he definitely has a strong personality.
We knew the hike to the summit to be between 8-10 hours return. We also knew the summit had an alert from the Department of Conservation: snow and ice around the peak. We began in the hopes of summiting but knowing that if there was ice we weren’t equipped for, we’d have to turn around.
Taranaki was tough. Nate and I agree it was the toughest hike of our year-long trip so far, tied with Day Three (John Gardner Pass to Refugio Grey) of our Torres del Paine “O” Circuit. Taranaki was not fun. Taranaki made me doubt if I even like hiking. Taranaki was a miserable, misty, despair-inducing crawl.
Eighty-two people have died trying to summit due to the rapidly-changing weather conditions. When I read facts like that, and even when I read the article about the couple who died in 2012, I think, “how does that happen? How do you get yourself into that situation?”. And when we began hiking, it became perfectly clear. (But the weather certainly did not).
The first hour and a quarter was a grueling but technically easy, slow, steep climb up a gravel path. We sat on a bench at the deserted hut for multi-day hikers and refueled with a PB&J. Though in town the morning was clear and bright, the mountain’s weather was thick with clouds. As we continued up, another four hours trudging to the top, the clouds turned to a dense mist you could barely see anything through. The trail’s short trees and bushes disappeared and all that lay ahead of us was rock, gravel, and sand. It was creepy and I was thoroughly freaked out.
A few hours later, the never-ending scree slope was breaking my spirit (one step forward and two steps back at that angle), so I sat on a rock and told Nate I thought we should turn back. Looking up and down the mountain, set at an impossible slope, and knowing there would be hard work ahead either way, I had a permanent feeling of vertigo and definite mist-blindness. A few minutes later a group of Americans materialized through the white haze.
“Is that the trail?” they called out across the grey tundra.
“Close to it! There’s a marker up ahead we can see!”
“Are you going up or coming back?”
“Probably just turning around. This is miserable!”
We commiserated and bonded over our mutual predicament for a few moments. One guy in their group, starving because his friend had gone ahead and had all his food, gave up. Seeing someone else definitively throw in the towel had a galvanizing effect on me. We gave him one of our PB&Js and left him on the rock I had just been sitting on. We joined the three young women remaining and decided to try for it together. The feeling of camaraderie, of encouragement, of support, and of genuine concern for others on this mountain was palpable. We talked with the comfort of old friends and displayed our weakness and frustration openly, while encouraging each other on. This is a typical feeling when it comes to meeting other long-term travelers far from home, but was exponentially stronger on this mountain that we were scrambling and falling all over ourselves to complete.
The next few hours were spent navigating our individual steep, rocky paths. The terrain makes it impossible to have a definitive trail, so you just go “up” in any way you can find. As I transitioned to climbing on all fours I thought to myself, “at least there probably aren’t any spiders way up here”. Wrong. There were lots, big ones, coincidentally everywhere I wanted to put my hand down. All part of the magical journey to the top.
Glennon Doyle Melton, one of my favorite authors/bloggers/humans has a mantra: We can do hard things. Thinking this over and over again helped me scrape my way closer and closer to the top. Try that out for size next time a hard thing comes your way. Because they always do; they always will. But we can do the hard things.
There were quite literally moments where the clouds would blow away to reveal a bright blue sky and shimmering planes of snow up above us. They never lasted long but they certainly helped motivate us to continue.
After we crested a particularly difficult patch of rocks, we found ourselves standing right in the crater, filled with snow and ice and surrounded by a jagged but beautiful 360 degree wall of rocks. Misty at first, the clouds drifted away so that our quick snack looking out over the tops of the clouds below was clear and windy but warmed by the strong sun.
Some people climbed up a ridge for the sole purpose of throwing themselves down a steep slope of snow and sledding down. One of our new friends did this wearing shorts and had a cold butt full of slush but couldn’t stop laughing afterwards. With a view only angels tend to get, we ate our snacks in warm, dry peace.
Well, almost peace. The amount of bugs at the top was infuriating and puzzling. Insects, in various stages of death, were everywhere, including on us. A giant dragonfly larger than my hand, lay clinging to the snow, unable to fly but clearly still alive. Small flies dotted the snow like pepper. Bright red ladybugs gathered in bunches on the warm, black rocks sticking out of the snow. It was truly bizarre.
We made it back down to the carpark in about three hours. The hiking still felt miserable to navigate and never-ending, but at least we had done the thing we didn’t think we could do. Hiking Taranaki was not fun. Only summiting and hanging out in the crater with other deliriously relieved trampers was actually enjoyable. At times, I couldn’t believe we had willingly chosen to do this with our free time. But the feeling of getting to the top after battling it out with the trail wins out: we’re so glad we did it. We celebrated back at our hostel with the classy combination of a bottle of local Sauvignon Blanc we bought at a winery in Napier a few days earlier and a Domino’s Pizza, with capsicum (that’s New Zealand for “pepper”), which I had been craving for weeks. A great reward for hiking up the equivalent of 516 flights of stairs (thanks, Fitbit).