In January 2020, I completed my 11th climb of Taranaki. Though we grew up in New Plymouth, my 55-year-old younger brother had never got around to climbing the mountain, so rectifying this was the motivation to climb during the busy summer this time. Eleven climbs is far from notable when you consider quite a few local climbers lay claim to more than 100 ascents. One climber named Chris Prudden, now based in Queenstown and guided on Taranaki for over a decade, has climbed the mountain over 1,000 times. But I’ve climbed via several routes in summer, spring and winter and have gotten to know and love the mountain.
Taranaki offers many experiences. In winter, or when weather conditions are bad, the mountain can be a serious challenge for experienced mountaineers. On a fine day in summer, a climb from the North Egmont Visitor Centre car park via the Puffer, Hongi Valley, the scoria face and the Lizard, is today undertaken by thousands of day walkers and tourists – sometimes hundreds in a single day over the summer months. The North Egmont route is most popular, partly due to its easy access, the non-technical terrain and its increasingly well known reputation in social media, tourist guides and so on.
Summit view north in winter, with the Turtle below
Such a busy place is not my idea of fun. I’ve been on the summit in mid-winter, under a cobalt sky, with not another soul in sight – that’s a magic experience, but only one gained safely via prior mountaineering experience. For many, the northern summer route is their surest way to safely experience climbing Taranaki. So how do you best enjoy a northern route summer climb? The answer lies in taking into account a few essential truths.
Even though access is easy – a sealed road all the way to the Visitor Centre car park at 900m and some fit climbers complete the return trip in just five or so hours – it’s still a height gain of over 1,600m to the summit (2,518m). In good weather conditions, it typically takes between six to ten hours return. So, based on your own fitness level – and more importantly, that of the weakest member in your party – plan accordingly.
No matter what time of year you climb Mt Taranaki, in clear weather the terrain will focus you and the views will impress. And if you plan and prepare well, you’ll be safe and maximise your enjoyment, too.
The Early Bird Catches the Worm
In the busiest weeks of summer (especially on fine days, weekends and public holidays) both the Visitor Centre car park and its overflow car park may be full soon after dawn. When we went up in January, setting off from the car park just before sunrise at 6am, there were only another four cars in the car park and only a few climbing parties ahead of us. But once the car parks are full, hikers have to park further down the access road, making the journey longer. There has even been talk of preventing private access in the busiest weeks in favour of shuttle buses, though that hasn’t happened yet. ‘The early bird catches the worm’ is a good adage to remember here.
Approaching Tahurangi Lodge (1,500m). The Shark’s Tooth is the highest point in view.
As we descended the crowds began to arrive. Get climbing by 6am, enjoy cool and quiet conditions, or join the sweating masses later!
You Need Enough Water
There is zero shade after about a 30 minutes walk from the car park. There is also usually no water supply beyond there. While Tahurangi Lodge looms up above the Puffer at 1,520m after one or two hours, this is a private lodge requiring a keypad combination to enter and there are no external taps available for public use. In summer, especially if the weather is clear, it gets super hot on the slopes of the mountain. You need to carry sufficient water for the entire trip. For me, that’s two or three litres.
The stairway below the North Ridge
Wooden staircases give access to the scoria face above Hongi Valley. This is also where the poled route begins and a good place to reassess if you’re still up to continuing higher. Once on the scoria, there is no shelter from the elements until almost inside the summit crater. To avoid running out of daylight, this is a good place to assess your pace too. If you’re planning for a six hour round trip, then you should reach the top of the stairs after no more than two hours. If it’s nearer to ten hours return, then it will take approximately three hours to the top of the stairs.
Climbing from scoria to the Lizard
Boots, NOT Shoes
The northern route may be non-technical and completed by some in five hours, but don’t get complacent. You might be tempted to go ultra-light in just a pair of running shoes, minimal food, water and extra clothing. Trouble is, Mt Taranaki is a volcano and a good deal of its surface is covered in scoria and lava rock. This isn’t a problem in winter when the mountain is covered in snow and ice; however in summer, it can be a major challenge. Climbing scoria on a steep gradient is a bit like walking on ball-bearings over concrete; you can’t go fast – at least not without running the risk of a nasty skin-ripping fall and slide. And coming down is harder than going up.
The lava rock, encountered most prominently on the steep poled section known as The Lizard, is not as treacherous, but is still rough and abrasive. It’s a good idea to bring gloves, because you’ll be using both hands at times on this section and bare hands can suffer. Light tramping boots provide significantly better support than shoes. Gaiters are great for stopping sharp, niggly scoria from creeping down inside your socks.
At the top of the Lizard, on the little shelf at 2,430m giving access to the summit crater. The Pouakai Range is at top left.
In the summit crater, with the Shark’s Tooth (2,510m) left and main summit (2,518m) right
Make use of the toilets at the Visitor Centre or the portaloos (and their resident blowflies) near Tahurangi Lodge. Once you reach the wooden staircase taking you out of Hongi Valley and onto the scoria, you can forget about any privacy.
Dress for Success
Though plenty of inexperienced day walkers happily climb Taranaki, the mountain is still one of the most deadly in New Zealand. More than 80 fatalities and many more serious injuries and rescues have occurred there over the years. A combination of easy access, close proximity to the ocean and its associated rapid weather changes, as well as ignorance can end a climb in the worst possible way. So even if your weather forecast is bluebird, don’t leave home without cold and wet weather gear.
A view from the main summit, across the Shark’s Tooth to the east
A view from the main summit, to the Pouakais top right and Stony River (Hangatahua) centre
If you ARE blessed with a fine clear day, another factor to plan for is the jaw-drop. The view from the summit tends to do that to climbers, so you need to allow sufficient time up on top to enjoy the 360-degree panorama – and that’s when you’ll be grateful you packed a few extra layers. Cultural sensitivity requires people not to stand on the true summit. In summer, this is a readily identifiable high point that can be stood beside and still allows for wonderful views.
Peter Laurenson is a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club and editor of FMC’s Backcountry. For more images and info about Peter, visit www.occasionalclimber.co.nz.