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Climbing a snow capped Mount Taranaki

Ever since we climbed Mount Taranaki last summer it’s been on our list to tackle it in the winter once we had enough confidence and experience with mountaineering. Waiting for the right weather window, we finally saw an opportunity at the beginning of December and made a last minute decision to make the journey up for an alpine summit.

One of the coolest things our Stoked for Saturday website has brought us is some amazing connections with folks around New Zealand and the world. When we announced on our Facebook Page we were planning to do the summit, one of our fans, Ben, reached out interested in joining us. We’ve had a few folks reach out in the past, but rarely does it ever work out that we actually get to meet up, so when I told him our plans to start at 3am and he didn’t flinch, I knew he was serious. A fellow adventure photographer and film maker (Ben Sarten, Freelance Imagery), it was clear he and Jordan were going to have lots to talk about on the trek up!

Taking off from work, we raced up to Taranaki in hopes of catching the mountain at sunset. Luckily just as we were coming into the area the sky was lighting up with an incredible pink color. Something about this mountain just draws you in. It’s my favorite mountain in New Zealand – especially since it’s a volcano too!

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Just before 10pm we pulled into the Konini Lodge near Dawson Falls on the south-east side of the mountain. Since we walked up the main summit track on the north-east side last summer we were hoping to try the other side for a different view with a plan to stay at Syme Hut on Fanthams Peak.

Before we knew it our alarm was going off at 2:30am and we were up and packing our bags for our journey. With reception poor at the base, we weren’t able to rely on being able to contact Ben so we just made a plan to meet at the start of the track at 3am. Sure enough after a few minutes we saw a headlamp coming up the road. Ben’s car had died about 300m from the carpark, but it got him far enough to still meet us on time at least! Being local and having done the summit a number of times in the summer, but not with snow, Ben was pretty stoked for our adventure.

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With just our headlamps guiding us, we started up what we thought was the summit track, only to realise that we were actually on another track. Luckily it was only a 15min detour, so we headed back down to the carpark and quickly found the right path to began our ascent.

The upward battle of muddy, wet, ground steps started immediately and continued on for the first few hours. With the full moon out we barely needed a torch. The atmosphere was so beautiful we made sure to stop a few times to take in the view of the mountain lit by the moonlight, and as it drifted behind the mountain, the first signs of sunlight could be seen. A colorful display filled the sky as the silhouette of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe appeared in the distance.

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Just as we were passing the Kapunui alpine lodge the sun began to break through lighting up the mountain valley below. Looking up the mountain it was completely clear, with the exception of a small cloud hanging over Fantham’s Peak (note the foreshadowing)

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A small length of stairs lead us to a loose rocky section but surprisingly it was no where near as bad as the scree section on the other side of the mountain. Reaching the ridgeline just after 7am, we stopped for a quick breakfast break to fuel up and enjoy the view.

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Photo by Ben Sarten

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Continuing on up the ridgeline the cloud surrounding Fanthams Peak began to thicken as we climbed higher. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped as we were surrounded in the thick cloud. It was amazing how different it felt from just a few minutes ago, with visibility dropping significantly. The trail markers guided us through the fog until the silhouette of the Syme Hut came into view. Reaching our first patches of snow we knew roughly where the mountain was, but with the poor visibility it was no where to be seen.

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Photo by Ben Sarten

Taking shelter in the Syme Hut at 1960m, we met an Aucklander who had come up the night before. He had made the climb late in the day amd was rewarded with the same incredible sunset we had witnessed from below. Not wanting to venture any further until the visibility improved, we hung out in the hut, sharing adventure and photography stories with Ben.

A few hours passed and nothing much had changed. We contemplated just walking back down, but having come this far we decided to wait just a little longer. Getting a bit ‘antsy’ we headed outside to do a bit of exploring around the hut when all of a sudden there was a break in the clouds and the magnificent Taranaki peak appeared!!

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WOW! I would have never known the mountain had been hiding behind that cloud the entire time. It really does take your breathe away. With a glimmer of hope, we started getting our things together to make the summit. The 3 hr wait was about to pay off, and as an added bonus, we saw a group of 3 just starting to make the summit which shouldn’t be treated as a green light but does tend to give you a feeling of confidence.

Leaving most of our gear behind, we packed the essentials and safety equipment and headed down the rocky bank towards the snowline to put on our crampons. With our ice axes in hand, we headed up the steep mountain, zig zagging our way up. Less thick than before, the clouds still lingered around the Syme Hut, so as we continued to climb we kept a watchful eye below to ensure the clouds weren’t continuing to rise.

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The afternoon sun beat down on us, making it a very comfortable temperature and softening the snow just enough to provide good grip without being too loose. However, certain sections were still quite icy, requiring even more concentration and sure-footing.

Coming from Canada, Jordan and I are quite comfortable on snow and ice, but as the steepness increased and the iciness worsened, Ben was feeling a bit uneasy and made the tough decision to head back down to the hut. We watched him for a bit to be sure he was making out ok before continuing up the mountain. Mount Taranaki is not to be taken lightly. It has the second highest death toll of any mountain in New Zealand and prior to starting our trip we agreed as a group that if anyone felt uncomfortable we would not continue. This was also one of our main reasons for starting at 3am as it reduced our chances of being up on the mountain late in the day. Spending a night exposed is what claimed the lives of another couple just last year. Fortunately, our decision to climb the South Face meant Ben could easily descend back below the snow line to the hut for shelter while we could continued on.

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Having recently climbed Ruapehu and Te Ao Whekere with a group, we were feeling much more comfortable tackling this on our own this time. It was also nice to have a group ahead of us to carve a path as it made it easier to just concentrate on our footing. With the pitch of the slope, any missed footing would result in either a very quick self arrest or a pretty long, fast slide down the steep mountain. After tackling Te Ao Whekere, this felt a million time easier and I was happy to be feeling really strong and energized. The electrolyte mineral tablets we picked up were also providing that little extra boost that made up feel like we could run up the mountain this time. We now refer to this stuff as “ninja juice”!

As we continued up towards the top, the steepness was unrelenting and we stopped every few minutes to ensure Ben was continuing down safely. Just as he was reaching the bottom of the snow line close to the hut, we came up over the ridge line and into the crater and were welcomed into a beautiful winter wonderland! Completely sheltered by the wind, it was a peaceful oasis with the stark blue sky contrasting the sparkling white snow. Amazing how different it looked from summer time! Sharks Peak looked way more intense and with the blanket of snow covering all the boulders it was a much smoother walk.

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For a little bit of fun we chose to go up a nice steep part of the last pitch in order to do some front pointing (using axe, hand and feet). As we reached the summit it was an incredibly rewarding experiences! Tackling Mount Taranaki with snow has been on our list for a long time and having an opportunity to do it in good weather conditions was really lucky! With the low clouds earlier in the day I really wasn’t sure we were going to be able to make it happen, but the 2hr summit from Syme Hut turned out to be a really great experience! With the low hanging clouds surrounding the mountain we could see nothing but white fluffy clouds below the stunning blue sky day!

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After snapping a few photos we decided to make our way back down, not wanting to take a chance on the clouds moving in more. It was beautiful on top of the mountain but Jordan in particlar did not want to tempt fate and was eager to make our way back down while visibility was good. As we walked back down into the crater we met the group of 3 we had be trailing all day and were surprised to see two of them had carried snowboards for the ride down! After a quick chat we realised one of the guys’ father was from my hometown of Pictou in Nova Scotia, Canada! Seriously I am amazed at how small this world is sometimes. What are the chances of meeting someone from my town of 3,000 people on the top of Mount Taranaki in New Zealand!?!?

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We watched as the guys set off on a speedy descend down the mountain on their boards, hooting and hollering in excitement the whole way down! The afternoon sun had melted the snow even more so it made for a very easy decent, walking ‘cowboy style’ all the way down with relative ease. Once we were closer to the bottom, and on the less steeper sections, we opted for our favorite bum slide express route sliding for quite a while before coming to a stop! (Tip: GoPros can be mounted to ice axes and work well as a ‘selfie stick’!)

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Back at the hut after a quick 45mins walk down from the summit and reunited with Ben, we enjoyed a hot chocolate and noodles as we chatted with some more hikers that had arrived at the hut. The weather continued to improve which made us wish we had stayed up at the summit longer, but knew it was the smarter decision to come down due to the uncertainty. Initially we planned to stay the evening at the hut, but with it still being so early in the day (3pm) we decided to just walk out since the weather forecast for the evening didn’t look like it was going to make for a good sunset and rain was expected in the morning.

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So we headed down the mountain, taking the looser scree section on the way down for a speedier ride. Once we hit the stairs section though it was a gruelling 2.5hrs of constant steps all the way to the carpark. By the end my knees were done and my legs shaking but it was totally worth it for the incredible day we had just had! Making it back to the car just before 7pm, it was a long and rewarding day to say the least!

Looking back up at the mountain it was still hard to believe we had just been at the summit only a few hours ago. Cheers to our first solo mountaineering adventure which was a great success! Can’t wait to tackle it again!

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