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Climbing the Cone of Catastrophes

Published
September 25, 2020
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I’VE climbed Mount Taranaki twice, via the Northern Summit Route which starts near New Plymouth and via the Southern Summit Route which starts at Dawson Falls.

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Mount Taranaki summit and Fanthams Peak plus Dawson Falls and East Egmont. Topographical map sourced from topomap.co.nz (17 September 2020), information from Land Information New Zealand, Crown Copyright Reserved

You get to Dawson Falls from the town of Stratford. And from there also to East Egmont and the East Ridge, where there’s a club skifield called the Manganui Ski Area. It's beside the Manganui Gorge, which is sometimes filled in with snow from avalanches: a sobering sight.

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Fanny Fantham’s Peak

Stratford’s also a good place from which to view the largest of Mount Taranaki’s side-peaks, Fanthams Peak or Panitahi, which is 1,966 metres high. It’s on the southern side of Mount Taranaki and much closer to the summit than either Pouakai or Kaitake, which I mentioned last week and which are actually the remains of older volcanoes.

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Mount Taranaki from the east (at Stratford) showing Panitahi/Fanthams Peak on the south flank, at left. Public domain image (2006) attributed to ‘Ppe42~commonswiki’ via Wikimedia Commons.

The name Panitahi means an orphan all alone. The name Fanthams Peak honours Fanny Fantham who in 1887, at the age of nineteen, became the first woman known for certain to have climbed Panitahi. She climbed it as part of a mixed party of about fourteen men and women hoping to get to the summit by way of Dawson Falls.

Most soon fell behind, including all the women apart from Fanny Fantham. Eventually, Fanny and four men made it to the top of Panitahi. After some cheering the men decided to rename it Fantham’s Peak in her honour.

After waiting a while, the first group pressed on to the summit. But Fanny turned back after a short distance as she felt it would be improper to be so un-chaperoned and that it might set provincial tongues a-wagging.

Soon married and renamed Mrs Bayly, Fanny lived to be over eighty. It must have been something to live for so many years with such a prominent natural feature named after oneself! Or after one’s maiden name, at any rate.

A Sacred Mountain

As with other prominent peaks, Mount Taranaki has long been considered sacred in Māori tradition.

According to current New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) literature, “Visitors are asked to show respect by not standing directly on the summit peak, not camping or cooking on or around the summit, and removing all rubbish.”

Mount Egmont was the mountain’s colonial name: bestowed, as I mentioned last week, by Captain Cook after his patron the Earl of Egmont. But since 2019 Mount Egmont has been dropped even as an alternative, though the mountain was officially known for a time as “Mount Taranaki or Mount Egmont.”

Lots of other New Zealand peaks continue to bear European names. Mostly South Island ones whose Māori names have been lost if, indeed, they ever had any, and which therefore now bear names like Mount Hopeless and Mount Horrible, as well as those named in a more serious vein after worthy citizens and places back home in the old country. Otago, of course, is famous for its many burns, glens and laws, such as Mount Earnslaw, meaning eagle’s crag in the Scots dialect.

The Southern Alps also bear names you’d expect to find in the European Alps, reflecting the nationality of many of the alpinists who were first up these more difficult peaks. With names like Mount Schwerdtfeger and Mount Schlossbach, the Zurbriggen Ridge and the Humboldt Mountains, you’d think you were in Bavaria.

So, it’s not too much for Egmont to be renamed in ways that respect its Māori significance: though international volcanologists will keep calling it the Egmont Volcano, as that is what they are familiar with.

The Cone of Catastrophes

There are three other things to realise about climbing the mountain now once more called Taranaki, all of which can be summed up by the word ‘exposure’.

The first is that mountains close to the sea often have fickle weather, and Mount Taranaki is no exception. The mountain suffers rain or snow on two days out of three, on average. In spite of all those scenic views of the mountain against blue sky, on at least two days out of three, Mount Taranaki looks more like this:

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The second is that Mount Taranaki is quite steep almost everywhere, with lots of bluffs. There’s a good risk of a bad fall if you slip or get lost in the clouds.

The third is that there isn’t really anywhere to hide from bad weather in most places. The steepness of the mountain means that the snow doesn’t build up to any great thickness before avalanching off, and so it can be hard to dig a snow cave or to improvise any kind of igloo-type shelter from bad weather. And there’s not too many places to hide from avalanches either.

More than eighty climbers have died on the slopes of Mount Taranaki since the first recorded instance of such a fatality in the 1890s. To which must be added the victims of the several aircraft that have crashed into the prominent peak in bad weather and darkness as well.

For all these reasons, Mount Taranaki’s been dubbed ‘the cone of catastrophes’.

Having said all that, between six and eight thousand people were climbing Mount Taranaki each year a decade ago. And perhaps as many as fifteen thousand each year now.

To be on the safe side, climbing the mountain’s generally only regarded as advisable from January through to April, when there is isn’t much snow or ice to slip on, and when there’s also less chance of bad weather on a day that starts out fine.

Even on the hottest days there is still a bit of snow and ice right at the top. So you do get to see some, at least.

The Northern Summit Route: How I got to the top

Here’s a New Zealand Mountain Safety Council video about the Northern Summit Route, simply called the ‘Summit Route’ because it’s the most commonly-taken route to the top and does go all the way in the form of a marked route, unlike the Southern Summit Route which leaves you to your own devices after Panitahi / Fanthams Peak.

The first time I tried climbing Mount Taranaki was via the Northern Summit Route. I did the route with a couple of friends named Rose and Daniel who lived in Fiji. It was quite a hot day and the walk certainly didn’t become easier once we passed the Taranaki Alpine Club’s Tahurangi Lodge, about one and half hours in from the road end, and got onto the steep scree (loose gravel) slopes.

While I hadn’t climbed many mountains at that time, and Rose hadn’t done any tramping for fifteen years, I think Daniel really had the hardest time with it. He sat down halfway up and said there weren’t very many high mountains like this in Fiji, where he was from (Rose was from New Zealand, like me). The highest mountain in Fiji, Mount Tomanivi, is only a bit over half as high as Taranaki and forested all the way to the top.

Climbing in scree above the low New Zealand treeline is really quite difficult, because for every step up, you slide back at least half of it in the loose ground, so it’s just a constant up-and-down battle to make even a few metres.

We finally made it up onto the Lizard, a more stable rocky ridge, and then from there it was only another few hundred metres of climbing to the summit. We stopped for a short break after the exhausting scree slopes, then carried on to the summit, and I thought Daniel had done very well to make it. I enjoyed the tramp, and the view from the top of Mt Taranaki was beautiful — over the clouds we could even see the distant Mt Ruapehu.

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In Fanny Fantham’s Footsteps (and getting no further, myself)

The next time I was on Mount Taranaki was in 2014 with another friend who I’ll call Bill for this post, though that’s not his real name. This time the objective was to climb Taranaki via Fanthams Peak.

Bill and I arrived in Stratford at around nine o’clock at night. He wanted to stay in a hotel in New Plymouth, which I thought was a terrible idea as it would have involved a lot of wasted time on the road.

I looked in the New Zealand Alpine Club journals for information about the east side of Mount Taranaki and found that there was a lodge, the Kāpuni Lodge, owned by the Mount Egmont Alpine Club only an hour further up the mountain from the Dawson Falls carpark and vistor centre where these more southern routes generally start out from. Like the geologists the club has kept the old name so far, presumably to differentiate itself from the Mount Taranaki Alpine Club on the north side!

Here are a couple of DOC photos showing the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre and the 18-metre Dawson Falls, also known as Te Rere o Noke, the waterfall of Noke.The visitor centre, carpark and falls are at 902 metres, which is a fair way up the mountain already, and yet only a half-hour drive from Stratford.

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Dawson Falls Visitor Centre (NZ Department of Conservation, CC-BY-4.0)

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Dawson Falls / Te Rere o Noke (K Davies / NZ Department of Conservation, CC-BY-4.0)

The Mount Egmont Alpine Club was founded by Hāwera mountaineer Rod Syme in 1928, to build huts and promote outdoor activities on Mount Egmont (i.e., Taranaki). It’s quite separate from the nationally-organised New Zealand Alpine Club and also separate from the Taranaki Alpine Club, which seems to be more active on the north side of the mountain where their lodge is located.

We rang the club and managed to book the hut. We set off, hiking, at ten o’clock and made it to the hut at eleven. We were let into the beautiful Kāpuni Lodge by the chairperson of the Mount Egmont Alpine Club, a lovely woman whose name was Maria (I think). I should have kept her contacts because the Mount Egmont Alpine Club seemed like the sort of people I could go out tramping with in the future.

As Maria showed us around the hut, she told us to take care on the mountain. We fell to talking about the mountain’s latest casualties, a couple who had perished during Labour Weekend in October 2013, a major public holiday which the New Zealand equivalent of America’s Spring Break, when we call come out of winter hibernation and decide to do something adventurous.

I’d actually met one of them, a Japanese man named Hiroki Ogawa, at Tukino Lodge on Mt Ruapehu when I was on an ice-climbing course. The Japanese man and his girlfriend, a New Zealander named Nicole Sutton, had gone up Mount Taranaki on a trek organised by the Auckland Alpine Club. I had been very much tempted to go on the same expedition, but for some reason I didn’t.

Hiroki and Nicole had set out at two o’clock in the afternoon and became separated from the group on the Lizard, in a terrible storm. They had tried to build a snow cave to shelter from the weather. They had been in contact with the police and their families, but rescue services had been unable to find them because of the weather, and they spent two days stranded out on the mountain.

The rescue services had gone into action within an hour of the couple going missing. That’s a Taranaki custom. Nobody waits around to see whether the situation is serious or not, because up Mount Taranaki, it always is. By the time they got there they found that Hiroki had died sheltering his girlfriend in a snow-cave that was only waist-deep and provided little shelter from the storm. Though still talking when she was found, Ms Sutton deteriorated and also died on the mountain a few hours later.

(Four years later, in October 2017, the New Zealand news media website stuff.co.nz published an in-depth online story about the tragedy, called ‘Too high, too late, two dead’ was published. It’s freely available to all.)

We stayed the night in Kāpuni Lodge and left at eight o’clock the next morning to climb to the summit. Despite having climbed Taranaki before and Mt Ruapehu a few years ago, Bill was unfit and was breathless most of the way up — no wonder he had wanted to stay at a motel!

After a while he decided to go back to the lodge. I followed the trail a few hours on up to Syme Hut on Fanthams Peak, named after the founder of the Mount Egmont Alpine Club. Syme Hut was first built in 1930 by the club, before being replaced in 1980 by the current DOC hut.

The Mount Egmont Alpine Club website includes a link to a silent 1930 film about the opening of the original Syme Hut, which the film calls “new.”

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Check out the scene at about 3 minutes in, called ‘A precarious vantage point atop Fantham’s Peak’ — I wonder if it’s still there?

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A composite of two scenes in the 1930 film as the camera pans downward. You can see the edge of the national park behind the cloud, and then beyond that, the coast.

Those were the days! Some Victorian probably set up huge camera on a tripod atop that very vantage point, at some stage. The film also gives you a very good idea of how cloud-prone and misty the mountain is.

From Fanthams Peak you cross the Rangitoto Flat and then proceed on up to the summit of Mount Taranaki. I had to use my ice axe on the rocks; a technique known as dry-tooling.

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The view was beautiful, especially looking up toward the Taranaki summit.

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One of the really conspicuous features that you can see from the mountain is the circular edge of the national park, still called Egmont National Park at the time I made these collages though it is now called Te Papakura o Taranaki.

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I lost my breath getting up, but made it to the top and looked down and saw that the clouds were coming in fast towards the mountain.

But I didn’t want to linger, for fear of the tendrils of mist that seemed to be feeling their way toward me as if they were alive. That story about the two climbers had me pretty freaked!

There were four Koreans who had a GPS, and they asked me if I wanted to go down with them so we could use the GPS to get safely through even if the cloud caught us. But I decided to head down by myself instead so as to catch up with Bill more quickly, which was maybe a bit rash.

I made it back to Bill, who wanted to know how I’d been able to climb up there and he couldn’t. Well, if you’re unfit, mountain climbing is obviously going to be difficult! I try and maintain my fitness by walking a total of one day a week, but at the moment I’m only walking half a day a week. Still, before attempting anything like Mount Taranaki or even Panitahi / Fanthams Peak, I’d do at least one multi-day hike.

Notes

A new website and app called Hello Taranaki is launching in October 2020. This is going to be a one-stop-shop for everything to do with Taranaki. At least, that’s the promise!

This post will be included in my next book, provisionally titled A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island.

Sign up for my updates on a-maverick.com and get a free electronic copy of my first book, A Maverick Traveller!

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