Mt Taranaki  Better late than never

By Mike Carter. “In the early sixties, as imported teachers from the UK, Di and I were sent on separate courses – hers involved New Plymouth and Science, mine Auckland and Mathematics. As a result she climbed Mount Taranaki and I bore a twinge of jealousy for over fifty years that I hadn’t.”

Di died in 2010 and it wasn’t until last year that I managed to duplicate her achievement. With my son, Rob, who was fifty and a friend Bridget, who admits to being in her late forties, I finally reached the summit of Mt Taranaki on the 18th March 2017.

Some years previously, with Bridget’s daughter and Rob’s partner, we’d slogged up the three and a bit kilometre track to Tahurangi Lodge where rain and inadequate equipment decreed abandoning the enterprise. Time passed with the idea of returning simmering in my mind. I was getting older. Not old, old… but definitely older. November 2016 and we determined on a day in February the following year. Which got transferred to a day in March. Maybe the 17th or possibly the 24th… Maybe April sometime…

Whatever, I ‘d need to do something in the way of training. Instead of the run up and down the beach, depending on the weather, I organized a regime which culminated in climbing Mount Maunganui, walking swiftly around the base and then ascending the Mount again. I once had visions of including a second circumnavigation and a third ascent but rationalized myself out of it. Still, I used a pair of a friend’s orthopedic walking sticks and carried wet gear and three litres of water in a day pack which , I hoped, would sort of authenticate everything.

Bridget looked up availability of bunks in the Camphouse Lodge. Emails flashed between us. The Met forecasts were searched. A wonderful high all over New Zealand was forecast. Wayne was working, Eady preferred Hockey, so there’d only be three of us .

Rob, Bridget and I left Onewhero about four o’clock on Friday afternoon and after a brief stop at Mokau for fish and chips reached the end of Mt Egmont road in darkness.
Donning our headlights we climbed from the car-park and walked to the Camphouse. Bridget trotted off to the Visitor’s Centre to get a key and I returned to the car to collect the sticks I’d forgotten. At this stage my headlight battery dimmed and then terminated. I bumped into our car. Lights on as I opened the door. Retrieved the sticks, closed door and the night engulfed me. I blundered around refusing to call for help.

Don’t panic.  Using the PLB was not an option – I’d left it in the daypack.

I felt my way to a barrier pole and the lights of the Camphouse swam into view. ‘You okay?’ asked a voice from the steps.

‘Sure.’ I tripped over a stone. ‘Fine.’

The night passed. Aged body parts drove me to the loo at 2 a.m. I stumbled to the window, couldn’t find a door handle, changed direction. Still couldn’t find the door. God, if I was like this in a hut…. groped my way back to my bunk. Found head torch, now with fresh batteries, and saw door. Returned. Checked time. What with one thing and another – think aged body parts – this process, minus side-trip to window – was repeated at 5.15 and the remaining members of the expedition, somewhat irately, decided to get up too. We left at 6.25 after filling ourselves with liquid and food.

Outside the air was cool. I wore boots, with gaiters, shorts, a long-sleeved poly-propylene top, a long-sleeved Katmandu jerkin and a cap. My back-pack was an old, small K2 which Di had tramped with. It contained a Goretex coat, waterproof over trousers, a pair of gloves, scroggin, nutsella bars, two litres of water, an apple, a small first-aid pack, camera, large mountain-safety yellow bag, small plastic bags, and a map. And my PLB which I’d tested and discovered beeped appropriately. Incidentally despite a serious search – admittedly at the last moment – no Topo map of Taranaki was available. So we made do with a down-loaded version which was full of names and squiggles and dotted lines. Around my neck swung an orienteering compass, a small knife and a whistle. I had John’s orthopedic walking sticks to assist locomotion. I cannot in all honesty say they provided anything but moral encouragement.

We put a lot of trust in the trail marker poles scattered about the mountain. Good solid poles they were too, black metal things with a red numbered top. I did start ticking off these but gave up as the effort to think became too exhausting.

Dawn spread an increasing mass of colour across the sky. Headlights were extinguished, the overhead canopy gave way to clear sky and by 8 a.m. we were congratulating ourselves on attaining goal one – the Tahurangi Lodge. The Public Loo there, a three sided box overlooking the country side 3000 feet below, was occupied with a guardian standing alongside, protecting the occupant from the casual observer. But, such is the inscrutability of the inner bodily functions, none of our party needed it. We sat on a convenient bench and took photographs of each other. Rob said he’d do something magical with photo-shop so all three of us could be included, but I think the appropriate shot disappeared into cyber-space.

From the Lodge there’s a track, firstly with stony steps morphing into scattered rocks and then a proper wooden staircase which we trotted up with care-free abandon. Bridget commented on the scree over which the steps had been constructed and in my innocence I said maybe they’d been put in recently and covered the scree all the way to the top. This was a cheering and absolutely false hope. Beyond the scattering of rocks a vast scree slope stared down at us. Probably the analogy to walking on marbles is an exaggeration. But gee…

A long line of poles and people led upwards…and upwards. We joined them. Some passed us, people that is, others, not so many, we passed. We were sort of average although I think Bridget could have made faster progress. We stuck together reaching a pole, seeking the next one.

A large flat-faced rock provided some shelter from a rising wind and we delved into our food and drink. Bridget said she thought we were out of the scree – untrue – and Rob developed spasms in his calves which he bound up with tape. He texted his boss who told him to get to the top. ‘Right, ma’am.’ Bridget opined that the following day would provide better weather. Rob and I ignored the remark.

Clouds were drifting across the landscape beneath us driven by a strong wind. This was sweeping dust from the scree into our faces so we upped and slogged on. An American lady cajoling her teen-age son, accompanied us much of the way and we’d make way for them and they for us as we slid and scrambled upwards. Eventually the scree started to include rocks, and the crater edge drew nearer, people still to be seen moving slowly towards its jagged line etched against the intense blue sky.

The rocks grew bigger. It was possible to climb them or negotiate them. Bridget and Rob climbed. I negotiated, clutching the sticks in one hand when I had to climb. And then we were waiting patiently for our turn to slide around the final rock and peer down into the crater.

‘Mike Carter. What are you doing here?’ I looked at the face staring up at me as I stepped through the narrow passage leading down to the crater.

‘Er?’

‘Adrian Galbraith. Scouts.’

‘Oh, ah, yes. Well, well…fancy…’ As I couldn’t recollect an Adrian Galbraith and had only been involved in Duke of Edinburgh trips not Scouts, the conversation faltered. So, with mutual good wishes, we separated. I couldn’t help but recollect the occasion when a stranger and I catching each other’s eye had a long reminisce about our pupil- teacher relationship until it dawned on both of us that we hadn’t ever attended the same school. Still, he did know my name….

Adrian departed for New Plymouth, and we climbed down into the crater. We had arrived. A fiercely cold wind snarled across a white stretch of snow dotted with black lumps of rock. I donned my Goretex jacket.

Lots of hugs. Lots of dirty snow. And lots of people. About twenty, I’d guess. Must resemble Everest. We met a guy who was doing all the local peaks as training for Everest later this year. But I digress. I asked Bridget if we should leave our packs at the bottom of the short scramble to the proper peak but fortunately she said it would be wiser to keep them on. Lucky; I’d forgotten about food.

Ten minutes later we were seated in a small oval clearing with a couple from Nottingham who were eating lunch. Bridget offered to make a brew of tea but we decided to spend time exploring and photographing. The summit was a rock about ten feet above the oval and a number of people took turns posturing on it. Bridget, Rob and I left it alone. Somehow posturing seemed sacrilegious. Later I sat on a ledge just below the summit and patted the topmost rock.

Thank you Taranaki.

In the oval a small bronze plaque was imbedded in cement noting the first ascent of the mountain on what looked like Dec 23 1839. We strolled about the small promontory beneath the summit rock, ate scroggin, chocolate, cheese. My camera refused to take photographs unless it was warmed up beneath my armpit before each shot. This did inhibit the number taken. Around us was spread a tremendous view. Unfortunately, apart from a small area to the north, it consisted of a tremendous sea of cloud. Still, the sky was a brilliant dark blue that stretched forever. Loved ones were notified of our position and congratulations were returned. Marvelous things cell-phones.

And then the descent.

It did go on…and on. Although the return was shorter than the journey up (five and a half hours up and four and a half down), it was a killer. I fell over about six times on the scree, grateful for the sturdy framing that broke my fall as I thumped down on my back-pack. We saw an abandoned rucksack but it wasn’t near the edge of the scree so we supposed someone had decided to race up without it. Or down, come to think about it. We passed a limping lady who had blisters, a couple who had given up. And then we were on the winding track which led to the steps. And then the steps. Rob descended backwards, calf muscles twitching. Then more rocks to clamber over. I paused at one, tentatively placed a foot on it. Stuck there. The knee wouldn’t move. ‘Give me a shove.’ And Bridget pushed and I was up and then, gingerly, down.

‘Maybe we should try that track,’ said Bridget brightly, indicating a meandering path leading off to the left. ‘Might be interesting. Or maybe not,’ she added as Rob and I trudged on ignoring the suggestion.

I took no more photographs basically because I couldn’t raise the energy but also because the view was the same as the one on the way up. Only downwards. Finally the transmitter and Tahurangi Lodge and that short three and a bit kilometer track down. Gee, it was nothing like the journey up. Each step was an effort.

‘Look, ‘ said Rob half an hour later, ‘ I can see the lodge.’

‘Lying sod,’ I muttered remembering all the people I had encouraged in similar circumstances by the same untruth. ‘I saw it two hours ago; doesn’t mean a thing.’

But finally there was the kissing gate; there was the lodge. ‘Wow, we’d done it.’

‘ How old actually are you?’ asked someone a day or two later as I limped into a room.

‘Eighty.’

‘You should have had more sense.’

‘I should have taken Science. Then I’d have climbed the thing back in 1964.’

Wilderlife