My quest to pass the winter without putting a foot on snow continued in August, when Robert and I trying our hand at winter rock climbing. Wharepapa South is known as a year-round crag. This turned out to be true, if by year-round you mean climbing in freezing rain in a southerly wind, with fingers so cold that they can barely grip. No longer being able to trust my hands made the rest of me tense up and I did not climb beautifully.
But we did it and most importantly I finally got to achieve something I had told was a mainstay of climbing trips but I’d never had the joy of experiencing: waiting out the rain in pubs. Being New Zealand and the middle of nowhere, the pub had to be substituted for a hostel and the beer for tea, but all the same this time spend doing nothing away from home was guilt-free bliss.
Next up I gave trail running a shot, looking for ways to exhaust myself outdoors without having to spend 8 hours in a dark claustrophobic forest. I found a running group slow enough for me – the Snail Trail Running Group – who do runs of two or three hours. This gave me a new appreciation for the shorter tracks around the city which I normally spurn. They are often on open farmland so have far more expansive views than offered by the forest environment I normally frequent on a day walk. Meanwhile, mine and Kristy’s September indoor climbing mission started well and my hopes of a fun active winter wholly spent on land that does not melt was looking achievable.
But things took an unexpected turn. Ski season began. Normally indoorsy people started a metamorphosis into skiers and snowboarders, rushing out of town on Friday night to get to Ruapehu, the expansive winter playground in central North Island. The idea of skiing is anathema to my obsession with control. Allow myself to free fall down a snow-lined slope? Do you know me at all? But it nonetheless had wormed its way on my things-I’d-like-to-do-but-am-too-scared-to-try list. It remained dormant, only coming back into focus when people uttered those oft repeated words: do you ski? I shake my head and say oh no, not me, though it’s on the list for one day.
One day came. A weather window, a ready made ski trip to join full of fun people, a lift to the mountain, affordable beginner lessons, and a craving to get out of the city…. i tried my damnedest but I could not find a reason to say no. So I said yes. Ruapehu runs adult beginner lessons which are very affordable and sympathetic to the anxious learner. In lesson one we put our initial trust in the skis, one at a time, and learnt how to push our heels out into a snowplough. I immediately took to this, knowing it was the mechanism for not moving anywhere at all. If skiing would just be a series of constant braking, I could handle it. At the end of day 1 my teacher said “you can slide with some directional control: you’re ready for lesson 2”. Some directional control! What joyous words of praise! On day 2 I learnt through gentle encouragement, some trial and much error how to turn corners and how to get on and off the chairlift without taking myself and any innocent bystanders down to the ground. It was baby steps, at my usual cautious rate, but I liked it and I was sad when the day ended and I had to rush to get the last chairlift to the lodge. In the evening I found myself on the mountain, looking out over heavenly snowy hills glowing amber in the setting sun, and I remembered what I’d been missing.
Two weeks later, at the end of October, I was cooking up plans to get back for another day of ski lessons to cement my beginner skills. But the weather wasn’t right and the logistics tricky, so my plan wasn’t coming together. Feeling sad about my lack of weekend plans, someone stepped in to the void and invited me to join them up Ngauruhoe. Ngauruhoe is the perfectly conical volcano made famous by Lord of the Rings as Mt Doom. What made me think going from no snow to ascending and descending a steep snow cone was a good idea is hard to say. During the 1000m ascent in zero visibility I absolutely thought it was a bad idea. Though I had to concede that walking up the snow in crampons was 500% easier and more enjoyable than walking up (and sliding back down) the volcanic scree. I concentrated on landing heavy firm grips in the snow and on the golden rule of alpine walking: don’t fall.
During most of the descent I felt the same, though my fear was dampened by my friends’ encouragement and support as I sidled down. But after the hard steep section was over the clouds opened and revealed the Tongariro plateau below and everything suddenly became fun again. After shunning alpine environments for a year I was back in it and it felt glorious. Once back on rocky ground, I experienced a rush of joy of having pushed my boundaries and having refreshed my soul that I have missed. Daylight saving ended, and with aches in my calves and warmth in my heart, winter bowed out.