Embrace the Invisible: Climbing New Zealand's Mt. Taranaki

Rise through rainforest to come face to face with a Maori god.
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Taranaki

The Shark’s Tooth collects a sheath of rime ice near Taranaki’s summit.

When the wind hits the ancient tow-rope of the Manganui Ski Area, it screams. It’s cool inside the lodge, which is lit only by the muffled, watery sunlight that makes its way through the bank of fog outside. We watch the cloud’s ragged hem through the high windows as it rises and falls on the slope like an ocean tide. Tomorrow, we’re to climb a vertical mile up a mountain we’ve yet to see.

Mt. Taranaki, an 8,261-foot dormant volcano, stands at the heart of Egmont National Park. According to Maori legend, the volcano is a once-mighty god, who fought nearby Mt. Tongariro for the heart of the beautiful Mt. Pihanga and lost. As a result, he was banished to the west where he now stands alone by the sea. To this day, Taranaki’s face is often hidden in clouds, veiling the tears he still sheds for his lost love. On the eve of our ascent, his grief is hard to ignore.

Summiting Taranaki in the rainy season is no easy feat, a fact that Greg, our guide, gently emphasizes as my climbing partner Casey and I stare out the window. Most hikers bag the peak via the mellow Northern Summit Route between February and mid-April, when the slopes are snow-free. But make a bid in shoulder season, and there’s a good chance you’ll be alone with the mourning mountain, looking down on the park from his crown.

That’s our plan. Or at least, it was. Now, the issue isn’t the clammy air, or the predicted 40-mph gusts. Greg’s concern is the 6-plus inches of rain that have fallen over the last few days; he’s worried about avalanches.

“I suppose we can wake up early, head up to the mountain, and just give it a nudge,” Greg says. “And we’ll continue only so long as the mountain is drawing us onward.”

 The author steadies herself against 40-mph gusts on Curtis Ridge

 The author steadies herself against 40-mph gusts on Curtis Ridge

Kiwis are famous for sandbagging, but it sounds good. We go to sleep, and in the morning, the fog has receded a few hundred feet, and the sun is fighting through. We gear up and hit the track, a little-used path up Curtis Ridge on the east side of the mountain, which we expect will be more sheltered from the forecasted winds and rain. Our footsteps leave depressions in the thick moss, which springs up behind us to erase all signs of our passing.

After about half a mile, the path grows steep, and the wind starts to howl.

The weather of an island volcano is a peculiar thing. Unlike mountain ranges, which form a wall against oncoming weather, solitary volcanos merely stand like boulders amid rapids. As we claw our way up the exposed ridge, fog streaks clockwise above us and counterclockwise below us. We ascend through it, passing waves of tufted ochre grass and fins of black andesite.

We decide to tag Fanthams Peak, a consolation summit on Taranaki’s southern shoulder. But as we approach it, our boots hit snow. Miraculously firm, solid snow. We strap on our crampons. The steel bites.

“We’ll just give it a nudge, eh?” Greg says again. We nod and ascend as the color vanishes beneath our feet.

Time passes in this white room as we push up the 45-degree slope, until the wind gives a gasp, and Taranaki lifts his veil. For an instant, we can see the flank of the volcano dropping away beneath us and the green skin of the island stretching all the way to the sea. In another exhale of fog, the view is gone, but Taranaki draws us onward.

Then suddenly, the slope steepens and we rope up for the last push to the lip of the crater, a bowl plastered with rime ice, shining white in the gusts of fractured sunlight. Descending into it is like walking into the basin of a snow globe. The Shark’s Tooth, a massive pyramid of cauliflower ice, looms above us. We start our upward spiral around it to reach the true summit, labored breathing drowned by the wind.

This is the last stretch. We’re on our way to meet a mountain. We’re on our way to meet a god.

We skip the summit block itself (the Maori consider Taranaki a person, and to stand on the tip of his head is disrespectful), but a nearby hunk of piled rime rises above the summit rock, and it’s there we finally stop. Below us, the wind fights with itself on the slopes, leaving the air around us calm. Silent. It’s not hard to feel we’re somewhere sacred.

For a moment, the sun shines; the mountain has paused his grief long enough to allow us our elation. And unlike on other climbs I’ve done, I don’t feel like I conquered this peak. Instead I’m a guest, drawn to this spot by an exiled god. And that’s an invitation you can’t pass up.

Mt. Taranaki is the first deity that Associate Skills Editor Corey Buhay has ever climbed. 

Do It

Getting there Start at the Dawson Falls Visitor Center. Route Connect the Ridge Loop Track to the Manganui Gorge Track and stay the night at Manganui Lodge ($30 /person per night; skitaranaki.co.nz). Next day, hike north from the lodge to ascend 2.8 miles to the summit via the Northern Summit Route. Descend by connecting the Southern Summit Route with the Fanthams Peak Track. Season February to April Guide Top Guides ($325/person for a group of eight, $585/person for groups of one or two in snow-free conditions) 

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