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First Mountaineering Experience

If there’s one thing we’ve always wanted to get into (especially Jordan) it’s mountaineering. With little to no options close to where we grew up in Canada we were excited to learn that New Zealand has an alpine club (NZAC) that is the perfect way to get into the sport. Very shortly after learning about the club, Jordan signed up for their Introductory Snow Craft course (which I couldn’t attend due to a previously scheduled trip to Canada to visit family) where he had an amazing time learning about avalanche safety, ice axe and crampon techniques and other relevant mountain skills like route finding he would later pass onto me.

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I was really disappointing  I wasn’t able to attend the snow craft course but when we received an email from the NZ Alpine Club that there was a special hut re-opening event up on Ruapehu we jumped at the chance to get up in the mountains – especially with a bunch of experienced climbers. We ended up driving up with the Head of the Wellington Section and the President of the entire NZ Alpine club – pretty cool way to get introduced to the group.

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After a 5hr drive from Wellington, and a short climb up a rough 4-wheel drive road, we made it to the Tukino Lodge up on Mt Ruapehu just after 10pm. The next morning we were up early and split into group according to pace. There was a wide range of age and experience – some newbies like Jordan and I, to some of the original hut builders who helped built the Whangaehu hut 50 years ago!

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Although it was a bit cloudy, the weather had turned out a lot better than predicted as the rain managed to hold off. That was a welcomed change as the snow had already melted quite a bit from when Jordan was here just 3 weeks before. Near the bottom the rocks were exposed but as we climbed higher the blanket of snow became thicker.

Approaching the ridgeline, we could see the Whangaehu Hut in the distance perched on the side of the cliff below. The cloud cover was deceiving, but in reality the hut was just a few feet from the edge of a 150ft drop with a spectacular view across the Rangipo Desert and down the Whangaehu River. At 2080m, the now 4 double bunk bed hut is the highest accommodation in the North Island.

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What makes this hut so special is the 50 years of history in providing a warm place to stay for generations of mountaineers and climbers of the NZ Alpine Club. The one and only Sr Edmund Hillary cut the ribbon on the original opening of this hut in 1964 and with the total renovation and restoration of the hut, it was fitting to have a re-opening ceremony with his son, Peter Hillary and grandson.

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It was a pretty special ceremony (that even had champagne), listening to Peter share his memories of being at the first opening as a young boy. One of the original builders also shared his memories of building the hut and the celebrations on that day 50 years ago. A plaque was created and revealed during the ceremony that will be put up on the hut to signify the special day. Everyone in attendance (28 in total) signed the hut guest book and a group photo was taken to capture the occasion.

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We descended back down the mountain, and along the way Jordan and I veered off from the group so he could teach me a few lessons he had learned from the Snow Craft course so I’d be prepared for our planned exploration the next day. I learned some of the basics for walking with crampons and an ice axe, but the most important was learning to ‘self arrest’. Basically what you should do if you loose your footing and start sliding down the mountain. We found a nice little snow covered cliff with a long run out and proceeded to throw ourselves off sideways, upside down and backwards, digging our ice axe into the snow to stop ourselves. It was pretty fun but also quite wet as the temperature had risen throughout the day, so we called it a day and headed back to the lodge to dry off.

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The evening was a ‘black tie’ event that as you can imagine with a group of 30-odd mountaineering men (and a few women) was interpreted in a number of ways. We drank wine, ate an amazing lamb roast dinner and listened to stories from the mountains. My favorite was Peter Hilary’s tails from Everest. The most memorable was a story of his father recalling the last few steps before he and Tenzing were the first to summit Everest. As he struggling through the snow pack at what is now called the Hillary Step he began thinking they may have to abandon their climb, but in that moment he heard a voice say “Ed my boy, this is Everest. You’re going to have to try a little harder” – and with that thought in his head he made the final push to reach the top!

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Listening to that story gave me goosebumps. It was a pretty incredible moment to be in a room with such an accomplished mountaineer whose father is by far the most famous with his triumph to conquer Everest in 1953. Definitely one of the most memorable moments in New Zealand as it was filled with the amazing mountaineering and backcountry hut culture that is ingrained in this country.

The next morning we were greeted with sunshine and clear blue skies! After yesterdays taste of mountaineering and the inspiring stories, I was excited to get up into the mountains! We set out up Ruapehu with Dan, the Head of the Wellington section and John, the club president for our first summit!

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The temperature had dropped over night so there was a nice crisp layer of snow. Our crampons cut through it nicely as we continued up the mountain. The first section was fairly easy, making our way straight up, but has the pitch increased, we took a more calculated approach, traversing towards the top.

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When we reached what I thought was our destination, I threw my hands in the air in excitement, only to find out this was only one of four other summits that were planned for the day. I was pretty proud of myself for getting to this point, and energized by the amazing surroundings, so I was more than happy to keep going! Photos just don’t do it justice, so here’s a little clip of the 360 degree view from our first lookout point.

From there we headed off to the right, climbing over a narrow ridgeline that droped about 100 ft on one side, and slip down into a huge valley on the other side. As we headed up towards Cathedral Rocks, we traversed back and forth up the mountain through the narrow section between two peaks to the top. Luckily Dan was leading, as he narrowly missed falling into a air pocket that went down pretty deep! If it was me I would have been swallowed up (and freaking out!)

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We made it to the top of one of the highest points in the park at 2663m at Cathedral Rocks summit. The day just kept getting better and better as my breathe was taken away over and over again with the amazing winter wonderland around us.

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From here was was a steep decent into the snowy plateau below. The white snow went on for miles and we could see all over the Tongariro National Park. We passed a section of snow caves that had been built by another Snow Craft course the day before, training for the emergency situations often faced in the ever changing mountain climate.

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Our next ascent was up The Dome towards the emergency shelter perched at the top. The cold weather had taken it’s toll on the tiny shelter as it was barely visible under the hard ice and snow.

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Jordan of course proceeded to try to climb the large chunk of ice – which didn’t result in much as it was quite steep. The smell of sulphur was in the air, fuming from Crater Lake. It was a reminder  that we were climbing on an active volcano that had erupted only a few years ago. Steam was rising from the geothermal lake and traces of yellow sulphur could be seen collecting along the waters edge.

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This was exactly what I hoped mountaineering would be. Surrounded by the silence of the backcountry while exploring incredible snowy peaks! Couldn’t ask for a better place to stop and take it all in. I was pretty happy my new mountaineering boots were holding up well. It was only my second day in them and with the issues my hiking boots have caused my feet on our hikes, I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable they had been all day.

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It wasn’t long before we were off again towards Pyramid Peak to the left of the Crater Lake. As we walked along the narrow ridgeline, I felt like the snowy ridge could break off at any moment if I leaned over just a little far, sending us falling into the toxic lake below. I did my best not to think like that too much during the day, and just concentrated on ensuring I had my footing along the steep traverse.

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Below we could see the Whangaehu Hut we had just visited the day before – however it looked like a speck far below on the mountain edge. As we made our way back towards Cathedral Rocks, we passed along a steep bowl below a giant rock face popular with many of the NZAC members during the summer rock climbing season. This was one of the steepest sections, that if we lost our footing, would slide down a shoot a couple hundred meters (if we couldn’t catch ourselves). The sound of little snow particles echoed throughout the canyon, almost like a song (although it made me feel like it could be an advanced warning of an avalanche!)

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Once we reached the other side we were given our first true mountaineering challenge. With only one way but up, we head up the very steep cliff face with our crampons in toe and ice axe in hand. This was by far the most exhilarating moment of the day! With each step, carving our points into the icy snow, jabbing the ice axe in for grip, we made our way to the top on all fours!

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What better way to celebrate such an incredible day than sliding all the way to the bottom on our butts! The valley to the bottom provided the perfect sledding track, so we each took a turn making the path, steering ourselves with our ice axes as we made our way back to the lodge. Such a great way to end an amazing day and one that has only fueled our passion to do more mountaineering in New Zealand’s beautiful mountains!

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