Before going off on my summer holiday trip to Sydney this year, I decided to join several of my friends on a multiple-day hike up one of the mountains in New Zealand. It was a rather quick decision since I already have most of my hiking equipment ready (they were ready most of the time).
We planned to do the Around the Mountain Circuit hike, a 4-5 days hike that we planned to do in just 3 days. We intended to start at the North Egmont visitor centre up to the Syme Hut on Fanthams Peak on the first day, where we will be staying for the night. At about 2000m above sea level, Fanthams Peak is the lower secondary cone of the stratovolcanic mountain that is Mt. Taranaki, about 550m lower than the summit of Mt. Taranaki.
When we started from the North Egmont visitor centre at about 8.30am on Tuesday Nov 23rd 2010, we intended to take the High Track on our way to Dawson Falls, but instead took a wrong turn into the Maketawa Track. Realising this fact only after we reached the Maketawa Hut, we had no choice but to continue along the Curtis Falls track. Turning back to follow our original planned route was simply not an option, as that would waste both energy and precious time.
The Curtis Falls track skirts around the lower part of the mountain, but it is by no means easier. It involves a lot of river crossing in a hilly terrain, which means a lot of climbing down and then up again, sometimes reaching 100m of vertical distance. Once or twice is okay, but do that 5 or 6 times and it becomes really taxing. After about 6 hours of strenuous hike, we reached Dawson Falls, and had our lunch by the river.
At about 4.00pm, we began our climb up to Syme Hut, which we expected to take about 3-4 hours. We knew that it was to be the most difficult part of our hiking for the day. We were to travel only 3 km of horizontal distance, but 1.1 km of vertical distance, which means the slope that we’re climbing will be very steep. It was to be 3-4 hours of continuous climb, after already 6 hours of strenuous hike from the North Egmont visitor centre to Dawson Falls, and 6 hours of driving from Auckland the night before. We barely had much sleep in the car before we reached the visitor centre at 7.00am.
Before we started our hike up the Summit Track, I fashioned a head cover from my spare t-shirt. I knew as we gain altitude there’ll be no more vegetation to shield us from the wind. I also knew from my experience in Mt. Tongariro earlier this year that it can get very, very cold up in the mountain, and the wind can blow very very strongly, and the weather can change in a flash. It is important to conserve as much body heat as possible, hence the makeshift head cover.
Oh, and I should mention as well that we were fully aware that this mountain has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous mountains in New Zealand, with the highest annual fatality rate.
After about 2-3 hours of climbing, we reached the hardest part of the climb. There’s now no vegetation at all on the mountain ridge, and loose stones fully cover the track marked only by white wooden poles. By this time, we estimated that the slope we’re climbing has an inclination of more than 45°. Couple that with the loose stones and you have a very, very slow and strenuous climb. Every step we climbed, we’ll slide back down half a step. Seeing that there’s a lot more vertical distance to cover isn’t helping either.
One of us has been suffering from muscle cramps along the hike, and that strenuous, continuous climb served to only make it worse. At about 7pm, he can no longer climb up due to a very bad muscle cramp.
It was already quite late, even though nightfall doesn’t come until about 9pm at this time of the year. Not long before, things have already started to look pretty bad, with very slow progress and still a long way to go. Me and another friend who had experience climbing mountains before started to worry about our safety. We turned on my mobile phone and checked that there was signal up here on the mountain. At least that was a relief. We quickly made an agreement to continue the hike, but will call it off if we still haven’t reached the hut on Fantham’s peak yet by 8pm. We knew very well that the stony slopes of the mountain is no place to be at night, especially when we didn’t have much experience, and I was the only one who carried emergency equipments.
When our friend with the muscle cramps could no longer climb up, we decided that it was time to call off the climb. We called for rescue.
We first called the emergency number, who then passed us on to the local Police department. It wasn’t just one-call-and-rescue-sent situation. We should have seen that coming. In the first call, they asked us the nature of our emergency, our location on the mountain, how many of us were there, and what equipments we had with us, and even how much battery we have on our phones. They even asked us our names, and then urged us to try to continue the climb towards the hut. They said they’ll call us again in 10 minutes.
When one of us far above had reached what turned out to be a false peak, and saw only more tracks to cover, we decided that we were really in no position to continue the climb. When the Police Search & Rescue called again, we told them that we couldn’t continue the climb.
After several more calls, in all of which they asked us each of our names, they were finally readying up a search and rescue team made up of the local experienced climbers. By the time we made our way down, they informed us that they have already dispatched a search and rescue team.
I was the person communicating with them, and they asked us to notify them when we passed two specified points by SMS so that they can keep track of our progress and where we were. Night was fast approaching, and by the way we reached the second specified point, the Hooker Shelter, it was pitch black and was very, very cold. We could see our every breath out turned into water droplets, and sitting still only reduces our body temperature further. After resting for a bit to catch our breath, we continued our way down.
Not long after, we met the rescue team, made up 3 of the local experienced climbers. They carried the backpacks of two of us who had the bad muscle cramps, and gave them walking stick. We made our way through the alpine forest, in the darkness of the night. Luckily, we each brought our own torchlight, and so we made our way down carefully, but rather swiftly.
When we came out of the forest, there was already a police patrol car waiting there. It was already about 11pm at night, and to our surprise (and delight) the local restaurant owner, who we knows only by Rose, opened up her restaurant and served us with hot tea and coffee, along with bread and fruits, all for free. We were very surprised by their hospitality.
After resting for a bit and getting something into our stomach, the police then sent us to a Bed & Breakfast for the night stay. We thanked them, and stayed for the night. Our only complain was that the Bed & Breakfast was pretty expensive!
Some time after the rescue we chatted with the police officer, and asked him why did they asked us to spell our names every single time we talked with them. To be honest, we got quite irritated when they did that, especially when we’re Malaysians and they couldn’t make out our name very well, so we had to spell our names out letter by letter, every single time. The reason for that, the police officer said, was for them to make sure that we were still conscious and not delirious, that we still recognise ourselves and our friends. It was their way to gauge the severity and urgency of the situation.
Even though we didn’t manage to reach the hut and complete our planned 3-day hike, the experience we got being rescued was none the less valuable. We tried and couldn’t make it up the mountain’s peak this time, but I’ll return one day for another attempt, God willing.