To the Top of Mt. Taranaki

Trip Start Nov 10, 2013
Trip End Apr 02, 2014

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

From the moment I first arrived in New Plymouth on New Zealand's North Island (back in mid-November 2013), my attention was drawn to the immense, lone volcano known as Mount Taranaki, in Egmont National Park.  Three months ago, the entire top half of the dormant volcano had been covered in snow and a few unlucky mountaineers had been killed attempting to summit it just weeks before our arrival.  At that time, the cloud cover that nearly always persists around the summit only allowed for a brief morning glimpse of the mountain's true grandeur.

But circumstances were just slightly different on my second visit to the area.  The summit was nearly free of snow and ice, and the weather conditions were as favorable as one could ask for.  Yesterday, in fact, was one of the clearest days imaginable; the entire mountain could be seen top-to-bottom; and the weather forecast was, as the Kiwi's say, "Fine".

Now, for those not familiar with this imposing stratovolcano, it figures prominently in Maori legend.  In a number of legends, Taranaki was, like Tongariro and the other volcanoes of the north island, a god and a warrior.  However, depending on the particular tale, Taranaki was either a love-struck warrior that was banished to his current location by the strongest of all mountains (Tongariro) after a ferocious battle; or, Taranaki was a proud and noble guardian who had been tempted by Tongariro's consort, and instead of tarnishing his mana (pride) by becoming an adulterer, chose to move into exile in the place of the setting sun.

So, with all of this in mind, I set out to attempt a solo scramble up the mighty Taranaki's northern flank.

I woke to my alarm at 04:45 and quickly scrambled out of the tent, leaving my girlfriend to have a day to herself to go exploring the city of New Plymouth.  It was a cool, calm, quiet, dark sky; the waning crescent moon was low in the sky.  After a short drive, I arrived at the car park in North Egmont at 05:35 and organized my pack.  Another couple headed out on the trail 10 minutes before me; I stepped foot on the summit track at exactly 06:00.  

It was still black out, but a faint glow was quickly appearing on the horizon.  Within 15 minutes I had caught and passed that first couple.  As I was traveling by headlamp, and assumed that I was now the first one on the trail, I planned to push myself to my limits and go as fast and hard as possible, so that I could hopefully enjoy the summit without company (I was also curious to see how much more quickly I could complete the 12.6 km round-trip hike, which the signs say requires 8-10 hours total).

Thirty minutes in, there was just enough daylight to make out the track in front of me, so I turned off my now-dying headlamp and pushed on.  Up to this point, the track had been wide and well-maintained, with a steady, constant incline.  Then I reached a stretch of trail called "the puffer".  This technically was no longer a trail, but rather 2 narrow, concrete aggregate pathways wide enough to accommodate a vehicle's wheelbase, going in a straight line up the mountain side at about a 60 degree incline.  After a steady, non-stop plod of the top, I had reached the Tahurangi Private Lodge, taking exactly 1 hour to cover the 4km that most take 1.5 hours to do.

The next section wasn't as well defined, and the cold wind began to pick up to about 25 km/h.  I approached the cloud ceiling just as the sun broke the horizon and then quickly disappeared into the clouds.  The route then became the never-ending-staircase (probably 500 wooden steps), as it too began to disappear into the clouds.

After this, I began to follow a pole-marked route up through some nasty, loose scree fields.  However, with the clouds all around, it was a challenge to follow the markers, let alone see from one to the next.  Without stopping, I continued to trudge up through the scree and then pick my way through solid, rocky, volcanic crags, eventually breaking through the clouds!  It was probably another 20 minutes of pushing hard and working my way around a couple false summits, before reaching the true summit of the Taranaki Volcano at 08:50 (for a total up-time of 2.75 hours).  I'll admit that I was a little whipped by this point, but I'm fine admitting that, considering that I had blasted my way up 1,566 meters (5,137 feet) worth of elevation gain from trailhead to top.

The summit itself was nearly perfect!  I was looking down on some cloud cover along the volcano's north flank (the route I had just come up), but everywhere else was clear.  It was dead calm - there was not a breath of wind!  While it was cool at the summit's elevation of 2,518 meters, the sun was strong and quickly began to warm things up.  I was able to enjoy the view of Tongariro National Park's Mt. Raupehu poking above the clouds to the east, while I sucked down the beer I had carried up with me.  Success never tasted so good!  I then just sat and enjoyed the total silence for nearly one full hour, before the next group of hikers showed up.

After being intruded upon by two Swiss boys at 09:55, I packed up my things and began the descent via the same route.  You see, with the unnerving cloud cover, and my lack of familiarity with the terrain, I wasn't about to go off adventuring and blaze my own route down.  So I followed the same marked route down.  The only difference between the way up and the way down, was that while headed back down, I passed 47 people making their way up!  Uff-da!

Nonetheless, I arrived back at the trailhead at 11:50.  But taking into considering the time I spent on the summit, and the time I spent talking to hikers while headed down, I figure that my total hiking time (up and back) was 4 hours 15 minutes... far better than the posted 8-10 hours!  But I'll tell you... I was exhausted!  And I'll also say damn, it was worth it!!
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