Taranaki, East Ridge, New Zealand

November 17, 2007 / Grade II, 50° snow & ice

After climbing Mt Ruapehu (the highest point in the North Island at 9,177ft), we drive SE to Wanganui, a charming city by the Wanganui (ha!) river. There, we take care of a few chores. We need a new mattress for Boxy (our van). The old one is getting really punched in and it feels like we're sleeping in buckets. We also need to replace the tires and pass a vehicle inspection in order to get a new WOF (Warranty of Fitness).

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Wanganui.
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Downtown.
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The Wanganui Art Gallery.
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Taranaki from Wanganui.
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Beach in New Plymonth, popular with surfers.

We then drive to New Plymouth for our next objective: the East Ridge of Taranaki. New Plymouth is popular with surfers but the city itself is much less appealing than Wanganui. We spend a couple of days in New Plymouth, waiting for good weather, which is not that frequent on this mountain (the locals like to say "if you can't see the Mountain, then it's raining, and if you can see the Mountain, then it's going to rain"...).

Our climbing objective, the East Ridge, is the most striking feature on a pretty featureless mountain: a continuous ridge shooting straight up to the edge of the summit crater. Taranaki (Maori for "the barren mountain") has a reputation as a dangerous mountain, in large part because of the unpredictable weather and the sudden storms than tend to cloak everything in several inches of rime ice. The sometimes difficult ice conditions and the fact that the mountain may not appear that challenging to the uninitiated don't help either. When we talk to local rangers about our plans, they mostly try to dissuade us from it, or convince us to go up the North Face "tourist route" (a much easier snow slog) instead. But the East Ridge is clearly THE climber route on the mountain and is widely recognized as one of the classic mountaineering routes in New Zealand, and we're going for it. As a precaution, we will carry a rope, and a selection of ice gear, in case we get over our heads.

On November 16, we drive the van to the trailhead. We have been warned that this is not a very safe place to park but it looks quiet and we settle for the night. We're almost in bed when a couple of young kids park nearby and start to shoot some bottles. Obviously, we're not going to get any sleep if we stay here, so we drive down the road to a small carpark next to a fancy lodge.

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Interesting signs in New Plymouth.
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Spending the night in New Plymouth.
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Taranaki completely dominates the flat plains around New Plymouth.
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The East Ridge is the striking rib in the center of the "face".
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Parked below the ski hill at the start of the route.

The next day, we get up early (4AM) and have a quick breakfast. We drive the van back to the end of the road and finally leave around 6AM. We first hike up the dirt road then the Wanganui track to the Manganui Lodge (a small ski area owned and operated by a local club), then steeply up, following the ski lifts to the top of the upper rope tow. This is hard work, climbing up loose scoria straight up the very steep slope. We stop for a break at the small cabin at the top of the lift, put our crampons on, get the ice axes out and start up the snow. It's not too exposed for now as we climb just left of the ridge.

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We start at dawn with gorgeous views of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe in the distance.
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Good view of the East Ridge and Sharkstooth, the pointy summit at its top.
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Starting up the track to the Manganui Lodge.
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Climbing loose scoria up the steep slope below the ridge proper.
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Up snow slopes just left of the ridge.

Once on the ridge proper, a few hundred feet higher, the exposure is starting to build. The snow is a strange combination of 2 inches or so of soft warm corn on top of a pretty hard icy core. Mainly good, except in areas where the top snow is less stable and tends to slip under foot. Looking up, it seems like we are going to get breaks on small shoulders, but - as we will find out later - they really are only slight reductions in slope angle. The climbing is in fact unrelenting, and the lack of any horizontal terrain to stop makes the exposure feel quite severe (it is). At one point, when we reach the first bulge of rime ice, the angle further steepens to perhaps 50°-55°. The exposure is tremendous and the footing not-so-secure on the strange, crusty, layered snow. We're both a bit tense, not so used to this sort of thing, but keep it together, unroped above thousands of feet of unbroken 45° snow… We get the second tool out. Progress with two tools is quite a bit slower and a lot more tiring. We use a mix of frontpointing and french technique, one tool above our heads, the other in "piolet appui". This feels a lot more secure that the less tiring walking we were doing below.

Above the first bulges, the angle relents slightly as the exposure continues to build. The summit ice formations are much further than they look from below (as always). We are moving a bit slow, but remain unroped to the top of Sharkstooth. Eric gets there first. Wild rime-ice mushrooms gard the summit, but fortunately, a narrow ramp leads between them and to the top. This is a tiny, exposed place. Vertical cliffs drop to the crater just below.

The next challenge is to get into the crater, from where a short steep slope leads to the actual summit (8,261ft) on the other side. According to the beta, we're supposed to traverse across the very steep east flank of Sharstooth, to a saddle about 100m away, and into the crater. Problem is, starting the traverse off Sharkstooth looks pretty tricky and VERY scary. You cannot really see what you're getting into, just a lot of air and steep ice bulges all around. As I climb the last few feet to the summit of Sharkstooth, Eric decides to get the rope out and belay the downclimb to the crater. Not much for anchors. The ice is very porous and won't take screws. We place our brand new ice stake right on the summit, and I belay as Eric looks for a way down, just right of the ridge and onto the top of the East Face. The exposure is tremendous: a bit of scrambling down a steep ice section, and more exposed snow lead him back to the ridge and the end of the rope. He sets his ice axe as an anchor and sits down to belay me. I come down then continue over more steep snow to the saddle and into the crater. Not as bad as it looked, but no-fall terrain for sure.

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Gaining the ridge proper with great views of the plains below and the Tasman sea.
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Up and up...looking down at Lucie.
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Lucie just a few feet below the Sharkstooth summit.
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Views from the tiny summit of Sharkstooth.
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Traversing across the East flank of the Sharkstooth, to get into the crater.

Here, we run into the same guy we had chatted with on Ruapehu a week ago (55'ish, and apparently unstoppable). His wife is not with him this time. He climbed from the south and is about to go down the "Pleasant Valley" route. We chat a bit, then continue on to the summit, a short (maybe 200 vertical feet), steep climb above. Total lack of exposure here as the slope rises staright out of the gentle crater… a relief. Wide views of the plains and the ocean from the top, although, since this a perfect and lonely cone volcano, there aren't any other mountains around us to look at. We make our way back down into the crater, where we left some extra gear and have a short break and some food before starting the descent back to the car.

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Going up the easy slope leading from the crater to the summit.
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Summit shot. Eric looking back at Sharkstooth.
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Ditto.
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Eric bouldering on some strange textured ice in the summit crater.
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Taking a rest in the crater before starting the descent.

Several people are now arriving from the North Ridge (the easiest summit route). We start heading down that way. It is mostly easy plodding down soft snow, with the occasional icy patch. Much less exposed than the East Ridge! It's a long way down to the end of the snow, then more hiking to the Tahurangi Lodge. Part of this descent follows the longest stretch of wooden stairs we have ever seen! From here, the eastward hike around the mountain seems interminable.

We eventually get back to the van, and relax a bit in the sun before unpacking and drying our gear. When we're done with that at the end of the day, we drive down to Stratford, a small town at the foot of the mountain and buy showers at the local campground, then find a spot for the night on the parking lot of a church, right by the sports complex. The end of a good long day!

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On our way down the North Ridge.
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Hiking down the stairs (!) to the hut.
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Looking back at our tracks from below.
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Hiking back to the parking lot (the Wanganui Gorge can be seen on the left).
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The end of another beautiful day in the mountains!