A Humbling Experience
Before heading to the North Island for our study break, my friend Joel and I set a goal to reach the summit of Mount Taranaki. I thought this particular hike was worth sharing as it was a great tramp with amazing views, but more so was a great example of a situation where we had to make some quick decisions to bury our egos and change our plans based on conditions.
We had researched summit routes quite a lot before leaving for the trip and rented out the necessary alpine equipment from the Tramping club here at Canterbury. We knew the tramp would be ambitious, but we wanted to set a goal for one last challenging hike before we headed home. We decided before heading out that the hike would be too dangerous in bad weather and that we would only attempt it if we knew we had a clear day with good weather. To ensure we would have enough time to safely make the summit before dark we planned to ascend via the track to Syme hut on Fanthams Peak, a side peak to Taranaki that reaches approximately 1960m (Taranaki is 2518m), and stay at the hut overnight.
We hit the trail early in the morning at the start of an absolutely beautiful day. After about 3 and a half hours of pretty strenuous hiking up stairs and across some annoying scree slopes we finally reached Syme hut. The weather was still beautiful and sunny and we had plenty of time before dark so we rested and had some lunch in the hut before planning our ascent to the summit. Before setting out, we sat down and planned the safest route to the summit, taking note of several points where we could stop for breaks and access the weather and mountain conditions. We agreed that if at any point the weather appeared to be turning, we would head back to the hut as the weather changes notoriously fast on Taranaki.
At about 2 pm we strapped on our crampons, grabbed our ice axes, and started our ascent. We only had 600 meters of vertical climb to the summit, but the climb was quite steep. After about an hour of climbing we stopped on a small ridge, dug in, and discussed the situation. We had come quite far to this point and could see the summit within our grasp. However, we could see some dark clouds in the distance and started to question whether or not we should continue the hike. As we were so close to the summit we decided to push on and climb a little higher. A few minutes later we stopped again as the snow was getting increasingly harder and turning to ice as we got closer to the summit. We decided that it was in our best interest to give up our goal for the summit and make our way back to the hut before any bad weather rolled in. This was slightly disappointing as we were only 300 meters from the summit of Taranaki.
This decision however turned out to be an extremely good judgment call. The decent down the mountain was much slower than the ascent as the snow was getting harder as the temperature was dropping. We realized that the attempt at the summit was probably a little ambitious as we each had minimal alpine experience. After a little over an hour of slow decent, we finally reached Syme hut again. This was just in time too as the dark clouds we had seen earlier had now engulfed the summit and it was starting to rain. I couldn’t have been happier that we decided to descend rather than attempt the summit! We bunkered down in the hut for the night and hiked out in the morning to continue our travels.
I think that the experience as a whole taught me a few great lessons. The first was that I gained a massive amount of respect for mountaineers who have summited mountains like K2 and Everest. Mountaineering is not at all easy and can be quite dangerous; it takes a great deal of physical strength and skill as well as a sound mental state and the ability to think quickly and react to ever changing situations. The second thing I learned was to never overestimate your own ability, especially with this type of hiking. The hike was quite dangerous and had we continued further to the summit, the outcome may have been very different. I think in the beginning we picked a hike that may have been slightly above our ability and I am glad we realized this and cut the hike short. Lastly I learned that it is important to put your ego and goals aside when attempting difficult hikes and activities. No matter how much we had wanted to reach the summit, it was not safe and we had to make the tough decision to turn back even though we were so close. Sure it’s a bummer we didn’t summit Taranaki but at least we can always return someday with better conditions and a little more experience!
In the end this hike was one of my favorites in New Zealand. It was the most difficult, both physically and mentally, and I definitely learned a great deal! Mother Nature is a powerful force and Taranaki definitely humbled me and deepened my respect for the mountains!
I have to give some photo credit here to Joel Wood as he took the first few pictures I posted to the gallery here.