My high appetite for summits and low appetite for uncertain terrain puts me in a tricky position in winter. Soon after arriving in New Zealand I had the unwelcome realisation that there were four seasons here as well, and that the eventual onset of snow was going to render most decent tramps untrampable for me for three or four months.
So I was faced with a choice*, accept that this part of the year would be mainly sub-bushline with disappointing views or…
.. embrace the next stage of becoming outdoorsy.
And so it was that I came to be on a snow-covered active volcano called Ruapehu on the shortest day of the year, wearing what look like torture devices on my feet and making best friends with a stainless steel axe.
To prepare for this trip I did two things: acquire a whole heap of winter kit, and completely freak myself out about mountains by reading Into Thin Air and watching avalanche videos on YouTube.
Into Thin Air is a terrifying account of the 1996 Everest disaster written by one of the survivors. What is most terrifying about it is the spiral out of control. A well planned expedition – involving a month of acclimatisation on the mountain, months of planning and many more months of training – turns into a fatal shambles. Partly caused by bad luck with the weather, partly altitude sickness, partly poor communication, partly over-crowding on the mountain but, above all, summit fever. Summit fever drives people to make irrational decisions and to override their sensible planning in the heat (cold) of the moment in pursuit of the irrational and basic goal we humans cannot shake of getting to the top of things.
So one of the things our leader this weekend advised (apart from the simple and obvious practice, painfully ignored in the fateful Everest trip, of sticking to a planned turnaround time) is to begin to change the narrative in your head about your trips. You’re not going to the top of the peak, you’re just going for a walk on the mountain. Anything else is a bonus.
As for the gear, alpine tramping involves crampons to spike your feet into the snow, an ice axe to arrest your fall if you slip down a slope, gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots, googles to stop from getting sunstroke or snow blindness, helmet in case of rock fall or skidding into boulders and waterproof gloves. Plus the usual full waterproofs, merinos and fleeces to cope with freezing temperatures. With a combination of renting and borrowing I was able to acquire most of what I needed. Plus a ski balaclava which was a godsend. Most important are decent weatherproof boots with a stiff sole, which I’d already purchased a month ago. How grateful I was that I had sorted this out and worn them in in time.
On Friday night we arrived at the lodge on Ruapehu in pouring rain and almost zero visibility and could barely even tell the difference between the car park and the road. The five minute walk up to the lodge felt like a daredevil mission, complete with stream crossings. (We later discovered it was in fact a five minute walk up two flights of wooden steps). Saturday brought constant rain: a welcome excuse to stay in the lodge, drink tea, and have a tutorial on alpine tramping. In the afternoon we ventured out into the rain for a stroll. It took us more time to put our wet weather gear on than it did to reach our destination (the other tramping club’s lodge).
On Sunday we rose early and got on our way at 8am. Half an hour’s walk on volcanic rock and soft red sandy soil took us to the snow line, where we finally donned our crampons for the first time. After having had some fear about what this would feel like, my smile went from ear to ear as I discovered I was suddenly a super powered snow hiker whose feet would grip on to ANYTHING. However my euphoria didn’t last long: the snow was icy in parts, and I wondered how we were going to get back down again. After a bit of time getting used to the spikes, it was time to learn how to self arrest. In a falling situation, as you are tumbling down the hill, you have to roll over onto your front, bringing the sharp blade of the axe beneath you to grab hold of the snow, then try to get your weight over the axe to help it dig in to come to a stop. I’d imagined that I’d have plenty of time during the fall to get ready and that my stop would be instant once the axe was out. Turns out one gathers speed insanely quickly and the ace might take a few metres to take bite in the snow. It took me a long time to build up the courage to roll down the snow on purpose but I did it in the end and was relieved to discover the technique worked… eventually… and not without a few bruises gained to the knee. More practice prescribed.
We continued up the mountain to the New Zealand Alpine Club hut at just over 2000m but the passes got too icy and too steep for my comfort zone so I hung back while the others carried on. The descent was less difficult than I’d anticipated and I was grateful to the crampons for keeping me secure.
Sadly operating my camera wearing snow mittens doesn’t really work. That and battery failure mean not very many pictures this time round. But there will be more, in a month, when I attend the Alpine Club snowcraft course for more of the same.
And in the meantime, I’m cozying up indoors with Mountains of the Mind.
*not, this time, the ultimate choice: ‘Either die in the vacuum of space or…
…tell me what you thought of my poem.’