Te Araroa goes over the top

Ruapehu

I was sitting in the Troutski café. I had my laptop on the table, writing, and a guy came in to buy a burger. Trousers tucked into his gumboots, I caught his eye. I knew him, but for the moment couldn't place him. I waited for his own recognition, but nothing happened. He took the burger outside to a table in the sun, and I got on with my work.

"Geoff Chapple." The gumboots guy slid into a seat at my table.

"Right. Kieran McKay," my recall was suddenly instant. In 1995 I'd choppered into the Pearse Valley to do a story on a cave-diving expedition gone wrong. Two divers, Kieran McKay and David Weaver had gone down the Pearse Resurgence and set a New Zealand depth record of 85 metres. But then Weaver had begun to sink, folded up on a ledge another 10 metres down, and when McKay got to him, his mouthpiece was out, and he was dead.

It was one of those stories that never leave you. When I arrived, the dive team had set up a net across the Pearse River. If the body was borne up by the upwelling Pearse Resurgence, they'd catch it, but Weaver was weighted, and never did come. I remembered McKay toasting his dead friend with a beer at the campsite. He was high on the death the way people are at funerals. But I'd seen it before - after the excitement subsides, the leaden finality begins. Weaver's body had stayed down the hole for months - it was too deep for retrieval by any scuba divers - then an Australian team using heli-ox mixture fetched it.

" I always wondered how you coped," I said to McKay.

"For six months," he said "it was horrible. When they got the bones out and he was cremated and sent back to England, it got better."

"And what are you doing now?"

"I'm an outdoor instructor with the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre just down the road."

"Oh right." I said. "You may be able to help me."

I explained Te Araroa, told him I'd just done the Tongariro Crossing and that my walk was now approaching Ruapehu. The route from Mangatepopo hut would follow DOC's round-the-mountain trail through to Whakapapa Village, 1157 metres up on the western flank of the mountain.

I told him I'd nursed an ambition to climb the mountain on my way through. At around 2,700 metres it was the highest peak in the North Island - it seemed a shame not to. But a winter climb on an icy summit was a different proposition from going up in summer. It needed the right weather, and a skilled climbing companion. McKay had a think.

"The weather forecast is excellent for the rest of this week. I haven't heard of anyone going up the mountain though."

There was a long pause. I was willing him to say it, but he wasn't the sort of guy who needed any encouragement on impromptu adventures.

"I'd like to do it - "

"Yes."

"But I'm working."

He'd try to get time off. When I'd finished my walk around to Whakapapa next day we arranged that I'd ring him.

I made the walk on an icy track. Every puddle was a plate of ice. I started early, the first one across, and it was a kid's fantasy of breaking a thousand windows without angry consequences.

I came around and the mist lifted just as I hiked through the beech forest approach to Whakapapa. Ruapehu stood there, it's long summit ridge in plain view. I booked in at the Whakapapa Skotel, and rang McKay late afternoon.

"It's raining here," he said. "What's the mountain like up there? Clear?"

"It's clear."

"I can't get time off from work," he said.

"Right." I was disappointed, but you take what comes on a trail.

"So the only time I could do it is tonight."

"What!"

"Not if you're not into it." The voice on the end of the line sounded slightly defensive. As if it often put up propositions the rational world rejected.

"Tonight!" I said, trying to adjust to an idea I hadn't remotely considered.

"Yeah - it'll be incredible up there. We can drive to the Top of the Bruce and climb from there. We can be up and back in five or six hours, but it'll be very cold."

Another pause, and McKay filled in the gap with more detail.

"If it stays clear, you'll see the glow of Auckland and Wellington."

I went back to my room, and put on everything. Two pairs of long johns, then shorts. Two summer-weight polyprop tops, and one winter-weight top, a wool jersey, a down jacket, and the wool hat. I stuffed overtrousers and my anorak into the pack, filled two bottles of water, threw in a survival blanket, my first aid kit, the Snowflake sleeping bag, a torch and spare batteries.

I strapped the Lekis onto the pack, and I pulled on a pair of Thorlo inners, and my heaviest-duty Thorlo socks over those - ready.

McKay arrived at 7.15 pm. He was in no hurry, and we ate a leisurely two-course meal, drank coffee, and talked.

"Mountaineering" I said, "must seem a little tame after the cave diving."

"No. I find the mountains more intimidating than the caves. It's the unpredictable nature of it. You may think you can plan and predict but I know friends who have tried that and some of them are dead. On a cave dive, I'm dealing with water, and tanks, and darkness. Those are fixed things and that's all there is. But I've been up the side of Mt Cook and ten minutes after I've been through, seen the ice cliffs crash - there was no way of knowing. I deal with that by being a conservative mountaineer and I tend to listen to my feelings. If I don't like something I won't do it."

"You've climbed Cook?"

"No, but Cook has taught me a bit. The mountain is always going to be there and if you're happy with yourself, your team members, and the environment you just sit there and wait for the ice conditions to be right."

We went out to the car. McKay had brought extra climbing gear for me: the padded leather lace-up inners, and stiff plastic outers of climbing boots. Woollen mitts. Crampons. An ice axe. A hard hat.

We togged up, and drove to the Top of the Bruce. Sodium lights cast an orange glow across Happy Valley, the big snow-groomer garages there, the apres ski café and the first aid room at Iwikau Village... The place was deserted. Security lights winked under the eaves. Below, the cloud lay in a quilt that had half-encircled Ngauruhoe, and edged up to within a kilometre of Ruapehu. The cold air flowing down off the bigger peak was keeping it at bay.

I unstrapped the Leki sticks.

"Lekis. How do you find those?"

"You want to try one?" I handed it across, and McKay adjusted the pole, and dug it into the tarseal.

"They're sprung, that's nice."

We turned to the mountain. It was 9 pm. The moon was high up, a waxing gibbous that cast a ghostly light on the white ridges above.

"Okay," said McKay. "Let's rock 'n roll."

We set off up a concrete ramp. It tailed off into a 4WD track, then dwindled further to a poled route over tumbled rock. We climbed for half an hour, clambering through rock and snow patches, then came across two mountain tents pitched on a small promontory.

The tents were deserted, but on the mountain flanks above, a light came winking towards us. A shadowy procession was winding down the mountain.

McKay leaned on his Leki, waiting for them to come.

The small procession gonged sporadically, like a camel train.

"That's the ice axes hitting the rock - hard case eh?" said McKay.

A guy with a helmet lamp led the team up to us.

"How's it going."

"Oh, wonderful."

"How far did you go?"

"Up towards Glacier Knob, then we struck ice - oh - Kieran."

"I was waiting for you to recognize me Ron."

Ron Stier was a fellow instructor at the OPC. He'd just taken a young group for a spin, and they were spending the night out, camped in the mountain tents.

"You going to the top? Yep. I did that five months ago. It was a night like this. We got to the summit ridge and a big hand came over the top. It socked right in, and we took four hours to get down in a white-out. Watch Ngauruhoe. If it disappears, get out of there. How long up do you estimate?"

"Three, four hours maybe."

"There's a cave just up to the right, above the tents. Call in on your way down. I'll give you a cup of tea."

We made the transition to a different mountain. Not the Ruapehu of the rough and rocky volcanic flanks, but the aloof Ruapehu that had drawn a cold white cloak around itself , distilled from winter air.

The mountain began to seem less benign. Out to the left were the Pinnacles where an avalanche had buried two climbers just over a year ago. We kicked footholds in crisp snow, going up the lee side of Knoll Ridge, close to its rounded top.

"See this." McKay cut a square in the snow with his Leki, and levered out a chunk four centimetres deep. It came out easily, a distinct layer.

"It's the beginnings of a slab avalanche. The snow gets blown from the windward side and pulverised and compacted into hard layers."

He pushed the chunk and it slid away downhill.

"If it was any deeper, I wouldn't be walking on this."

Over the ridge, and into a 25-knot wind that cast stinging ice particles into your face. On this side, the ridge was coated with thin ice. I'd done some climbing before, but I was no expert, and I simply followed McKay's lead, stamping through the crust with the hard boots.

The ice had thickened slightly. I stamped and transferred weight, but my boot skidded sideways and I slid down the slope a metre or two before stopping myself, stretched full length, one woollen mitt clamped onto a nearby rock with the tenacity of a star-fish.

McKay turned to watch me lever myself carefully to my feet..

"It might be time for the crampons," I said.

"Just stand upright," said McKay. "Kick the edges of your boots into the ice and don't lean into the slope. If you try to hug the slope, you'll slide."

He turned back, and took a step.

I looked down at my feet, kicked the edge of the boot in, looked up.

A slowly flapping thing, like a manta ray, was gliding smoothly away downhill.

It made 20 metres, picking up speed.

It had a fascinating natural grace. Far more slicky adapted to the interface of mountain and cold sky than any clunky boot-stamping mountaineer, it slid away faster and faster, and then it began to spoil that natural grace. The manta began erecting a tent. I saw a pole come up at an angle. I saw it rise to vertical. I saw powdered ice spray from the bottom of it in a glittering shower. The slide stopped.

Uses for a Leki Stick: #111 - Self Arrest. To stop any uncontrolled slide down an icy gully with rocks at the bottom, raise your Leki and jam the carbon tip into the ice. Try to keep pole vertical.

"That," said McKay after he'd climbed back up the slope, "was a very graphic demonstration of self arrest. That's the first time in ten years of mountaineering I've had to use it in a real situation."

We put the crampons on. We unstrapped the ice axes. We came up to a rock overhang buttressed by snow that sloped down to a short wall of ice. Our direction of travel had to be sideways along that wall. You could lean some weight over the top it, but there was little foothold on the slippery vertical. Like the valley slide, a fall here wouldn't be fatal, but it was a fall onto rock, and definitely unpleasant. McKay went across and I waited. This was still elementary climbing but, for the first time, it was what they call technical.

"Dagger the ice axe in," I had a moonlit instructor, on the far side calling the shots. My axe bit through snow onto the top of the ice wall. I leaned my weight onto it, and eased out over the drop.

"Now kick the front of your feet into the ice." I did that. I felt the front crampon spikes bite and hold.

"Now the other foot. Move one thing at a time," said the instructor.

I swung the other foot in.

"Get both your feet into a comfortable position, then use the ice axe again."

I edged across, and we went on. I'd read the mountain climbing books and found them obsessed with the detail of the climb, and not the mountain. I could see why. It's the technique of the hard yards that absorbs you, and it takes 100% concentration. I imagine the dreamers don't get to write the books, they simply get winnowed away.

But it looked safer now. White billows lay all around us, lit along the roll like the big swells of an ocean beach under moonlight. They were icy, but if you plunked all ten crampon points straight down your foot stuck nicely.

Above us was the night mountain, sleeping in its white cloak while we did our small things. Not quite asleep. A pocket of crater gas slid past. Hydrogen sulphide.

We came up to the region dubbed Restful Rocks. McKay called a halt and we sat down in the lee of a rock clump hung with icicles. He broke out hot Milo, and peanut-buttered crispbread. We sucked from the water-bottles too, now no longer a liquid but an icy sludge.

Kieran McKay at restful Rocks

We were very high, and it was very cold. I'd sweltered under my six layers up to now, but noted my body temperature had now sunk to neutral. Cloud still covered much of the land below - we wouldn't see the glow of Auckland and Wellington tonight, but the lights of Taupo were clear out to the north-east, and westward there was a city-sized sprinkle.

"That's Wanganui."

McKay looked around, and he was happy. "Incredible, isn't it? To be completely out on your own while the rest of the world is asleep. Just you and a moonlit wilderness. It's a neat feeling."

I broke out the camera, took off a glove to do it, and snapped the scene.

I looked down at my feet and the glove was gone. I didn't feel too bad about that. Earlier in the night, McKay had dropped a glove, the wind had taken it a distance, but we'd searched by torchlight and found it easily enough. The wind was stronger now, but there were plenty of little lee shelters around the rocks here. I searched by torchlight, but couldn't see it. McKay came and cast around. No glove.

"We can't go on if you haven't got a glove," said McKay.

"You're joking."

"The wind chill is well below zero, the higher we go, the colder it's getting. In these conditions there's a chance of frostbite," said McKay.

"I'll keep my hand in my pocket."

"This is a big serious mountain. You can't keep your hand in your pocket on a big serious mountain."

End of story. We were going down. The guy was a machine that operated precisely within the safety guidelines. There was no overriding mateship, just the rules, and I felt a fool. Something as simple as losing a glove had sabotaged an expedition.

"I'm wearing two pairs of socks," I said. "I'll take one pair off and put them on my hand."

"Right - we'll keep going then."

As simple as that.

At 12.08am we reached a dip in the Summit Ridge, the Notch. For hours, I'd been looking up, and suddenly I was looking down. The ridge fell away steeply to the summit plateau. The moon was sinking behind us now, bright enough to cast shadows, and two dark figures stood on the white floor 40 metres below. They moved when we moved, waved when we waved.

We looked around a huge moonlit amphitheatre.

The summit ridge curved away into the left-hand distance, and Ruapehu's northern-most peak rose there off the plateau floor a kilometre or so away - Te Heuheu, squat, powerful, black-slabbed. A more slender and precipitous formation reared straight up from the flat snow directly opposite. It was no more than 800 metres away, and astonishingly beautiful - Cathedral Rocks, frosted, and steep, and very tall for something that seemed made only of a luminous dust. To the right stood a big white hump, the Dome.

"Surreal eh?" said McKay. "Like the moon, but a bit more wind."

We went down the ridge towards the plateau, headed south in deep crunching snow, then came up to another ice wall, higher than the last. We swung the ice axes in an arc, embedded the long stainless steel spikes into the rounded top of it, hauled upwards, kicked inwards, and ascended on the cantilevered platforms of our own boots.

We climbed on towards the Dome.

I had one ambition on Ruapehu, to get to the Dome, and look down on Crater Lake. Pictures of it I'd seen all my life, pleasantly strange, a big green pond set into white downs of snow, gently steaming.

Not at all. It was a volcanic throat. If you wanted to see Dante's innermost stone circle of hell, it was embedded right down there in the moonlight. The cliffs of Pyramid Peak directly opposite, and the higher-still, nastier-yet chasms of Tahurangi yawned away into it until those precipitous rock walls became more definably a throat and descended, like rings of neck cartilage, another sheer 40 metres to a black pool.

"The level has sunk since the eruptions," said McKay.

I saw only half of the lake, the undulating snows of the Dome foreground hid the rest. I didn't have any desire to go closer. I didn't even want - as they say - to soak up this scene. Maybe it was the time of night, but I found it actually frightening, and I turned away. We sat in the lee of Dome Shelter and sipped more of the Milo, then it was time to go.

Geoff at The Dome Hutt

Te Heuheu and Cathedral Rocks shimmered across the moonlit distance as we stood up, and I turned to Kieran.

"I'll never forget this, and I want to thank you for bringing me here. But I think you're a creature of this place in a way I will never be."

"I love it," said McKay.

"Why?"

"Just look at it. Because it's so wild and beautiful."

We left Dome Hut behind. I looked back, and the weather side of it was unrecognisable as a human construction, covered with ice, like someone had dripped clear candle wax all over it. I looked up at the half moon. It was sinking now, rocked onto its back like a yellow boat. The wind was behind me, the flying ice particles bouncing harmlessly off my back, I'd climbed the mountain, done it, and -

McKay sensed the mood

"Don't forget, we're only halfway home. Accidents are most likely to happen on the way down. You tangle your crampon points in your trousers, you fall, you slide. Don't lose concentration."

Sure.

We came back onto the clear foreheads of ice on top of the ice wall. Concentrate. I backed down, and swung the ice axe as precisely into that glassy dome as if I was under orders from Stalin.

And then we were back over the ridge and flying on a different route, down the Gut in powder snow. Big leaping steps but it hardly mattered here. My crampons caught in my trousers and I fell and rolled. Deep powder. Great.

Ron Stiernik

At 1800 metres we came back to the OPC camp, and McKay hunted intensely through the big basalt blocks above it until he'd found the cave. He woke Ron. The cave was small and hung with icicles. It had room enough for just two sleeping bags, and that was Ron and one of the students. We sat outside - someone had built a dry-stone wall across the cave entrance with just a small gap at the top, and we chatted at them through the slit. We had one thing on our minds, but you don't wake someone in their own house at 3.15 am and make strident demands.

The OPC instructors chattered on. It seemed to me the unspoken was not going to get spoke, so to hell with etiquette.

"Ron," I said.

"Yeah."

"Remember you promised to make us a cup of tea on the way back?"

"Yes I did say that. Do you have any water?"

We sipped hot sweet tea. Away to the west, the moon slowly sank from sight, blood-red, directly behind the black and perfect pinnacle of Taranaki.