Scaling the symmetrical cone of Mt Taranaki is an inspirational experience, writes Paul Rush
The Shark's Tooth is now in view, a dull red monolith that stands out on the skyline like a harbinger of doom, threatening me with harm should I dare to ascend to the snow-packed crater and craggy summit that it guards. I'm climbing a mountain that Captain James Cook called "The noblest hill I have ever seen" and I'm a little apprehensive about the conditions I'll find at the top.
Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park is the picture-perfect cone that dominates the lush green dairying lands of Taranaki. Driving through the region, I have often looked up at its majestic tapering form and wondered what the view would be like from the top.
Kiwis revere the country's most recognisable mountain, but it could turn ugly. Scientists say Mt Taranaki is overdue to erupt, having shown no sign of activity for 200 years. By analysing core samples they have found that the volcano has erupted at least once every 90 years on average over the past 9000 years.
I have set out early on my summit attempt from Mountain House, at East Egmont, traversing Manganui Ski Field and sidling around the mountain through dark, ethereal goblin forest dripping with "old man's beard". The first rays of sunlight are spreading dappled light on the track. I'm impressed by the elemental beauty of colourful mosses and lichens.
Once I reach Tahurangi Lodge, the Northern Summit track winds ever upward over steep steps to The Puffer, an even steeper incline, which leads into slip-sliding scoria slopes (jagged volcanic gravel). This section tests my patience as I take one step up and slide back two. The secret is to place a boot into a previously formed boot depression and thus get enough traction to thrust upward.
I confront the forbidding rocky ridge called The Lizard which, when viewed from the lower slopes, bears a striking resemblance to a crouching tuatara.
The upward sweep of the ridge is so steep I find I'm clambering up crab-like, clutching at jagged outcrops to get a solid grip. I don't look down too often.
At the top of The Lizard I pause. Far away to the north-east I can just discern the distinctive outline of Mt Ruapehu through the haze. The great parallel razor-back ridges of the King Country lie between. The sunken outline of Whanganui River, the "Rhine of New Zealand" snakes through dense native forest like a shadowy, writhing beast.
To the south lies the attractive skirt of rainforest on the lower slopes and an emerald green patchwork quilt of dairy farms, dissected by dozens of tiny streams.
After shuffling around the Shark Tooth, lowering myself between car-size, ice-coated square boulders and crossing the small crater, I hoist my tired body on to the summit. I feel a flood of elation. I've climbed New Zealand's second highest volcano. My jubilation is short-lived, as the piercing wind is relentless, an ice-cold knife cutting into my chest. Flurries of water vapour are spinning and whirling around like driven snow, stinging my face. It's a complete whiteout.
Mt Taranaki is a vital part of our country's magnificent outdoor heritage. It's the country's most accessible and most-climbed major peak.
For a reasonably fit person it's a climbing excursion that's worth doing - an experience of being on top of the world on a sleeping giant.
Mt Taranaki is 30 minutes' drive south from New Plymouth.
The most direct route to the summit is from North Egmont's Tahurangi Lodge up a staircase to tussock, scoria slopes and over The Lizard outcrop to the crater, taking 6-10 hours return. There are shorter walks around the base.
From mid-summer to early autumn, the mountain is usually free of snow so ice axes and crampons are not needed. However, with unpredictable weather, the mountain should never be taken lightly and adequate wet weather protection should always be carried. Park rangers should be consulted before setting out.