It’s 10:30 pm. It’s dark. We’re halfway up a steep slope trying to put our crampons on. We can’t see the track markers in the pitiful light emitted by our headlamps. Half of the poles are covered in snow and ice anyway. Why are we doing this? Because it’s our family holiday!
We didn’t leave Auckland until after 1 pm on Friday, and after driving for six hours we finally reached the Dawson Falls carpark at 7 pm. A few last minute things are crammed into already full packs, then it is off up the track to Syme Hut. The hut is situated on top of Fantham’s Peak, a parasitical peak on the side of Mt. Egmont, at an altitude of 1960m. This means that we have to climb 1100 vertical metres from the carpark.
The track begins by winding its way through bush, and soon we encounter the first of the hundreds of steps on the path. We revel in the crisp mountain air, and the beauty and wildness of our surroundings. After a while we emerge into the subalpine scrub but our view of the mountain is obscured by a swathe of cloud just above the snow line. Here the steps begin in earnest. Many of them are topped by puddles or mudholes, keeping us on our toes as we trudge through the gloaming.
The first patches of snow appear beside the track after the sun has set. We walk through snow lying in the track. Suddenly wooden stairs rear up in front of us. The ice-coated steps are treacherous and demand careful attention. The staircase goes up, up, up through the tussock. No end is in sight. We plod on. Surely there must be an end to the hundreds of steps. Finally we regain the earth, and the track is marked by wooden standards. Negotiating snow and scoria takes all of our attention. A fall here could have serious consequences.
Suddenly we are surrounded by cloud. The next marker is lost to us in the gloom. The atmosphere is demoralizing. We continue going up. We know that as long as we keep heading upwards, we will eventually reach our beds. The rocks get fewer and fewer; the snow gets harder and icier – more dangerous. Finally we find a rock to sit on and don our crampons. We can see the top, but distances are deceiving in the darkness. We continue upwards, feeling a lot safer with our crampons biting into the hard snow.
We reach the ridge and angle left. Now the ground falls away below us. Fantham’s Peak has been reached. Where is the hut supposed to be? With the light of our torches we discern Syme Hut. Exultant but weary, we tramp across the plateau. At 11:20pm, four hours after beginning our climb, we reach our destination.
“Anyone want to take photos of the sunrise?”
We were wakened at 6 am on Saturday morning by Dad posing this question to us as we reposed in our sleeping bags. Yes, we did lug two big Canon cameras all the way up to Syme hut. Looking east we could see the silhouettes of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongaririo framed by orange and pink clouds. Egmont was surrounded by low cloud so we didn’t get a glimpse of the surrounding countryside. We had a leisurely breakfast and organized the gear we would take to the summit. Dad took his rope, snow stakes, ice screws et cetera, just in case.
We walked out the door of the hut and suddenly we were in cloud. Mum didn’t want to hold us up, so she decided to stay back at the hut and attempt the summit the next day providing the weather held. The cloud rolled away as quickly as it came, and we were in brilliant sunshine.
The snow was firm and made nice, crisp cramponing. To get to the summit from Syme hut, you descend a few metres into a saddle, then climb 600 metres up the south face. There are no flat spots, no downhills; nothing to ease the task of ascending (until you reach the crater rim, which is only about 30 m below the summit). The slope started off benignly enough but gradually got steeper and steeper. Soon we were walking in zigzags to ease the burden on our calf muscles. For the last 300 vertical metres, the snow was merged with small sastrugi ice (lumpy ice which creates ‘cauliflower’ formations). This required care to walk on as it would be very easy to roll an ankle, sending you plummeting downwards. At every corner of the zigzag, Dad would cut a platform so we could rest our ankles. Walking with your feet facing sideways down the slope can be painful if done for a long time. The face got steeper and steeper. It was a bit out of my sister Angela’s and my comfort zone, but we pressed on. Angela’s crampon strap worked itself loose 20 m below the crater rim, so she got out her second ice axe for the last bit.
Once the rim was gained, we sat down with relief. The first real rest we had in about two hours since leaving Syme hut. Crampon straps were tightened for the final assault of the summit. We walked along the crater for a little bit before ascending to the very top. We stood on the summit, victorious. Well, half victorious. We still had to get down. Egmont was still surrounded by cloud, so we had no view apart from the top of billowing clouds below.
A brief rest on top as there was a bit of breeze, then we descended back into the crater for a longer rest and lunch. Dad happened to meet an acquaintance from the NZ Alpine Club, and they decided to climb the crater face of the Shark’s Tooth (a secondary peak), which was covered in ice. Magnus hadn’t brought any gear with him, as he had been soloing due to the lack of a climbing partner. He borrowed Angela’s harness, and it wasn’t long before Dad and Magnus were setting up a belay at the bottom of their intended route. Due to minimal gear – four ice screws and a snow stake – they had to do the climb in two pitches.
Dad led the first pitch up to a sloping ledge, and set up a belay point there. Magnus followed, then passed Dad and led the final short but hard pitch. At this time the first few wisps of cloud started rolling over the summit, at times obscuring the two climbers from view. Angela and I rested down in the crater (and took plenty of photos). There were lots of other mountaineers up there; we would have seen around twenty people in the time we were up there, but no other ice climbers. Eventually Dad reached the top of Shark’s Tooth, and we could see Magnus and Dad walking down the ridge. It took them an hour from setting up the first belay to reaching the crater floor again.
By this time the cloud was rolling in thicker and more frequently, so we decided that we had better start our descent. When we reached the crater rim above the south face, Dad short-roped me (tied a rope from his harness to my harness) as I wasn’t comfortable walking down the steep, icy slope. Luckily, I didn’t need to test the system. By this time it was white-out. We just kept heading down and occasionally saw our crampon marks and platforms from our ascent. But all the holes in the ice soon started looking like marks from an ice axe or crampons.
Being in a whiteout is very disorientating as you often can not see more than one step ahead of you. It is hard to tell whether the ground slopes up or down beside you, and it is very hard to keep in a straight line. This is one reason why Mt. Egmont has the reputation of the deadliest mountain in New Zealand; because it is subject to sudden and frequent whiteouts.
Dad had taken a compass bearing from the hut to the crater rim, so we knew we were heading in the right direction. Occasionally the cloud would lift a little and we could adjust our course according to the glimpses we got of our surroundings. It took a long time to reach the end of the sastrugi, which is around half way down. Dad and I unroped here, as I am comfortable on snow, albeit steep. The snow was softer and we could see our previous marks fairly well. We caught sight of the hut a couple of times as the cloud lifted briefly before rolling back in.
Finally we reached the saddle below the hut. One last slog up to the ridge, and we were greeted by Mum outside the hut. We relaxed in the hut, enjoying the sunshine which made its way through the cloud. It is surprisingly bright in a whiteout. Gradually, as the sun drew nearer to the horizon, the clouds sank down below us and we were bathed in glorious sunlight. We took a stroll around the four knobs of Fantham's Peak before dinner. A brilliant sunset drew the eager photographers out, and we watched as the sun sank in all its splendour below the clouds.