This is a guest post from a buddy of mine, Kyle, over at Black Crow Travel. Kyle joined me on Mt Elbrus just after this Mont Blanc trip. It’s a great write-up so sit back and let him take you on a journey through the Alps.
Leaving Naples, and some of the best pizza in my life, I landed in Geneva Switzerland with the intent of taking a bus to Chamonix (The jump off point for Mont Blanc).
The bus proved way easier to navigate than expected; the stand was right outside of the arrivals gate and could be booked at a moments notice (Cheaper if you get it online though).
I used a company called Alpybus, but I’m sure any bus company would be fine. The ride was an easy 2 hours; through mountains,crazy bridges, and lots of wildlife.
I arrived in Chamonix, now lost, looking for my Couch Surfing host (I was running out of money /Shocker!/ so I tried to save some by Couch Surfing). After begging several people to use their phones, and getting rejected multiple times (The french…), some cute french girl let me use hers.
Chamonix was such a cozy little town. The snow-capped surrounding mountains, the local shops, and a small river flowing through made it easy to fall in love; Which I believe is the case with many, there seems to be a lot of locals or returning seasonal enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, the couch surfing profile said “Please bring a sleeping bag, I have a small apartment” which I didn’t read… of course. But my host graciously let me stay anyway and we were off to a festival after.
For some reason, and I’m not complaining, every city I go to has a random festival going on at the same time of my arrival. And I know what people are thinking ‘so what? It’s Europe in the summer… there’s always a festival’. Okay true, but what about my poor wallet/liver?
The night was great. People dancing on the roofs, drinks, signing… However, the following morning was the start of my Ice Climbing course, so I took it ease.
Since I’ve only had limited experience with crampons, ice climbing, and assists up until this point, I decided to take a Climbing course.
My course was set up through the local climbing organization in Chamonix. The guides were all local, all full time, and not part of a ‘company’.
Side note: Mont Blanc has a horrible reputation for taking inexperienced climbers up difficult paths, regardless of weather conditions. The reason being the commercialization of the climb and the view of it being ‘easy’. Be very careful of any guide promising “you’ll make it” or unwilling to call off the climb. Avalanches, random roll-in storms, and rock slides are VERY common. Your life is always more important.
The first day was basic walking in crampons, self assists, general rope and ladder work. The whole day illustrated just how unprepared I was for the climb in general. I left my water at the place I was staying, forgot energy bars, no sunscreen, no mitts, or knowledge of the gear whatsoever.
Relief came from seeing just how much worse some of the others were; No boots, wearing jeans instead of climbing pants, extremely out of shape, or giving up before we even started.
The day wrapped up with most of us needing to buy more gear from in town…. but the basics of Ice climbing were learned.
Day 2 – Our partners were assigned. Since most of the people came with buddies, not many were left alone. All except Christian, the 65 y/o man who was absolutely struggling on day one, and who was now my partner.
Christian turned out to be a really cool guy. Not in shape for the climb, but really nice to talk to which accounts for a lot.
Side note: Climbing is, and will always be, a sport of dreamers. And while I encourage dreaming as much as anyone, it’s somewhat disturbing the lack of self-awareness some climbers have. To climb a mountain; you need to be in excellent physical shape, have excellent mental will-power, have knowledge of the climb and your equipment, and also get lucky. The recipe calls for all four.
Day two didn’t account for anything special. The weather was too bad to climb on the highest level of the Aiguille du Midi, so we climbed the middle level. The day was more of a hike and further learning equipment.
However, I was able to go to the highest level at the end of the day just for the purpose of acclimation. Our guide Peter (what I’ll call him for the sake of his privacy) and Christian already went down as I looked up to the cable car ascending into the void.
On this level (Around 13,000 ft), you could start to feel the first signs of attitude sickness, signs I came to recognize from Kilimanjaro a year before. Before going down, I ran up and down the stairs a bit to help get ready.
Funny side story: On the lift down, I was eating candy that I bought in town when, this random Asian lady (The lift is a major tourist attraction as well) started starring at me and the candy. Completely amazed by it. So I offered her some candy… of course, why not? She ate it and joyfully thanked me for letting her try it.
As I left the lift and started into town, She flagged me down and gave me this:
Day 3 – Our final day of training before going to the actual mountain.
Today the weather was perfect and we were able to climb the Aiguille du Midi on the highest level.
Stepping out from the platform was one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen.
It was like watching an imax movie, where everything looked too glorious to be real. I remember stopping so long that I choked up the rope, pulling and annoying the others. This moment may have justified the entire trip.
The day was an easy 8 mile loop of mostly flat altitude training. We descended into the valley, walked around, and then came back up. We saw the avalanche prone areas some guides try to lead their clients up. It was easy to understand how so many people could die on this mountain. This observation was only further solidified the next day when climbing the scree on Mont Blanc.
At the end of the day, Christian and I grabbed drinks then knocked off early to prepared for tomorrow’s climb.
We started the day from the “Normal route”. Originally, we were climbing a different route, but there was an avalanche warning in place for it (Common on Mont Blanc).
The ‘normal route’ started with a splendid train ride up the various cliffs and to the Nid D’ Aigle, the end of the line. The valley below was lush with the colors of summer and stretched on as far as one could see.
The resulting climb was mostly dirt and grass until around the 2,500 meter point, when we finally hit snow. From there we traversed over to the ‘main scree’ which would take us up to the Gouter hut.
The climb and scree in general was a total bitch. Again, I can see why people die on this mountain.
At one point we were crossing a gap between two screes (To those who don’t know, a ‘Scree’ is basically a climb with tons of annoying loose rocks… photo below.). The rocks from higher elevations would FLY down the valley at speeds greater than cars on a highway. This was caused from melting ice, people walking on them higher up, or just random chance.
The advice was, “I’ll tell you when to cross but keep looking up… If you see a rock, dodge it”…. Thanks man! I’m good now!
So I clipped on (Unhooked from our team rope and hooked onto a fixed line), took a deep breathe, and ran full speed across the divide. It was early enough in the day that most of the rocks were still frozen, but I’m told that crossing in the afternoon becomes an extreme hazard. This statement was reinforced by the memorial plaques following the crossing, dedicated to the people who didn’t “just dodge” the falling rocks.
After crossing, we had another 4 hours of knee crushing scree climbing left. The climb seemed infinite, to which I associate the endless stairs from Mario 64… You see the top, but never reach it. We were further delayed by Christian’s struggling and by our extreme caution when climbing the rocks. A loose rock up here, could mean a dead person down there… So we took our time.
Lifetimes later, we arrived at one of the coolest places on Earth. The Gouter hut was something you find on Instagram, not in real life.
The hut was sleeping on clouds and served surprisingly great food. Though the joys were overshadowed by the struggles I knew I’d face tomorrow: Summit day.
We were to wake up at 2am for a quick breakfast, and then it would be around 3 hours up and 2 back down. I didn’t get much sleep, and arrived at breakfast early. Anticipation is bad for nerves and for sleep.
At breakfast, I learned that Christian backed out of his summit bid. A storm came in last minute (shocker) and Peter advised him of the now elevated difficulty in the bid. Christian decided to back out to give me a better shot at making it, since he knew he’d slow me down. He even lent me his Ski poles to help.
I couldn’t get over hearing this. For a climber; to give up a summit bid is never easy. Heartbreaking even. But to give up your bid, that you fought for… all so that other could have a better chance of making it… Man… talk about motivation. No chance was I letting some little storm stop me now.
We rocketed out at 3am, ahead of everyone else. The storm, however, saw to our spry enthusiasm by punishing us gust after gust. Peter and I pushed forward, without breaking, till we reached the mid-way shelter. I didn’t take any photos of this shelter, as the weather didn’t allow for it. We hobbled into the little bomb shack for a quick break.
Cold started to seep into my now sweat soaked boats as winds battered the tiny metal cottage. Various luxuries found in the Gouter hut were not present in this small survival refuge. The thin metal door was haphazardly held shut by a bungee cord and bashed over and over again as the wind wailed on it.
There were two others in the hut with us, still sleeping from the night before. Not sure how they where so unfortunate to ended up in this shack, but we didn’t have time to ask. Cold was trickling back into our bones, and it was time again to move.
We left the shack in complete darkness as the winds continued to howl around us. Our bodies warmed back up as we contended the ice-covered bluffs for what seemed like hours and hours.
At 5:36am, we summited Mont Blanc.
Unfortunately, the weather did not allow for very nice photos:
But the storm broke on our way down and we were able to take better photos:
It was amazing, with the sun now up, seeing others attempt what we just climbed. Talk about self-empowerment, if you’re ever doubting yourself… go climb a mountain.
The time back only took us around an hour.
We made it back to the Gouter hut so fast that breakfast was still being served.
I’ll never forget walking into the mess hall to see Christian’s disappointed face as he looked at his watch. He thought we turned around and gave up.
After eating a 2nd breakfast, that wasn’t included in our stay, we headed back down the horrific scree from yesterday.
The view was incredible. And I regret not taking the time to enjoy it more; but that 2nd breakfast I so greedily scarfed down, didn’t sit so well and I was now suffering.
There’s a lesson here somewhere
Racing down to stop at an out house was not a pleasant experience…But here’s some photos of the descent and looking back up.
Around 14:00, we were back at the tram. The total climbing day was around 12 hours. From the tram we headed back to town, 2 hours more… and then right to sleep (I’m a liar, I didn’t go to sleep.. ).
The next day I was back on the bus to Geneva, heading to Russia to Climb Mt. Elbrus.
While everything worked out for me, people do die on Mont Blanc. Many people take the mountain for granted; because it’s popular, because is not that high (15k ft), because they climb in the Himalayas, or whatever reason… But Mont Blanc is a dangerous climb: The falling debris, crowds, inexperienced climbers, and tour guides shoveling people up without any concerns for the weather or mountain conditions.
Some people in our group who climbed the Himalayas didn’t make it, one guy broke his ankle pretty badly. In our ‘group’ (I did the bid with just my guide Peter, but on the first day we were all one big group) of 15, 8 made it.
Stories of people dying happen all the time.
It’s up to you to decide who to climb with. Though I would Highly recommend the local Chamonix climbing organization, since they’re not affiliated with any big name company and don’t particularly care if you “Make it” as long as you live.
As far as enjoyment; I LOVED the Aiguille du Midi climb, but the ‘normal route’s scree was terrible. Not to mention I didn’t feel safe at all (with the rocks flying at me). Next time I would go a different route, or stick to a snowier mountain.
As far as difficulty; this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Exponentially harder than Kilimanjaro (20k ft) or Elbrus (19k ft). The Slopes were far steeper, the weather was worse, the acclimation period is much shorter, and falling debris was the rule, not the exception (there’s debris on Kilimanjaro, but it’s rare).
The total number of fatalities is between 6,000-8,000* and is ranked as one of the worlds deadliest climbs. The climb is to be taken seriously or not done at all.
Looking for a tale of adventure? Nothing will satiate that craving like one of the mountaineering books listed below. Incorporating all the tragedy, triumph and beauty that mountaineering can bring. Sit back and become absorbed in a different world. A harsher one yes, but also a simpler one, a more invigorating one. Above all, a more fulfilled one.
7 Years in Tibet
Though not a true climbing memoir as the others on this list, it is an incredible adventure tale written by a renowned climber. There was also a little climbing involved during this ordeal. 7 Years in Tibet follows the life of Heinrich Harrer as he and several fellow prisoners escape from an India prisoner of war camp, fleeing into the unknown kingdom of Tibet. Harrer established a life in Tibet at a time when few Westerners had been privy to the nation’s inner sanctum. He eventually became a friend and mentor the young Dalai Lama. Great read if you have any interest in adventure, culture or pretty much anything else in life.
Touching the Void
You’ve probably seen the absolutely brilliant film adaptation. Well, this is what inspired it. The ultimate story of human endurance, Joe Simpson is one tough bastard. The story follows Joe Simpson and Simon Yates as they make the first ascent on the west face of Siula Grande in 1985. That was all well and good. trouble is, they ran into some serious trouble coming back down. A storm kicked up, and Simpson fell on the ice, driving his tibia through his knee. His leg was a serious mess, and the pair tried to descend as fast as they could with the bad weather getting worse. I won’t give away the results, though you probably already know what happened.
The 7 Summits
What served as the inspiration for this 7 Summits Project. The adventures of Frank Wells and Dick Bass to become the first to climb the highest peak on each continent. It certainly struck a cord. It was a little different in those days however, and I’m only talking 30 years ago. Bass and Wells were blamed as 2 of the instigators in causing the explosion of commercial guiding on Everest and indeed on the other 6 as well. To me though, their journey was one of challenging themselves to a pursuit that was completely outside their comfort zones. They had already achieved tremendous success in life, this wasn’t about ego or bragging rights (well maybe a little.) It was a quest they both fell in love with and enabled them a new form of fulfillment in life. I can certainly relate.
The Goodreads Review sums this one up pretty well: “In 1950, no mountain higher than 8,000 meters had ever been climbed. Maurice Herzog and other members of the French Alpine Club had resolved to try. Their goal was a 26,493-foot Himalayan peak called Annapurna. But unlike other climbs, which draw on the experience of prior reconnaissance, the routes up Annapurna had never been analyzed before. Herzog and his team had to locate the mountain using sketchy, crude maps, pick out a single, untried route, and go for the summit. Annapurna is the unforgettable account of this dramatic and heroic climb, and of its harrowing aftermath. Although Herzog and his comrade Louis Lachenal reached the mountain’s summit, their descent was a nightmare of frostbite, snow blindness, and near death. With grit and courage manifest on every page, Herzog’s narrative is one of the great mountain adventure stories of all time.”
Being an Australian, I had to include a book written by Australia’s finest mountaineer; Andrew Lock. While Lock may not be a Hemmingway in his use of the English language, it’s a far better read than many of the works written by mountaineers turned authors. His dry wit and sarcasm blends well with the brutal reality of the life he chose to ensure over 2 decades. Perhaps no other mountaineering books I’ve read have adequately demonstrated the harsh and ruthless nature of high altitude mountaineering. At the end of each chapter, Andrew mentions what happened to the climbers mentioned throughout their subsequent climbing careers. There were few occasions where a death wasn’t the result.
No Shortcuts to the Top
For eighteen years Ed Viesturs pursued climbing’s holy grail: to stand atop the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, without the aid of bottled oxygen. But No Shortcuts to the Top is as much about the man who would become the first American to achieve that goal as it is about his stunning quest. As Viesturs recounts the stories of his most harrowing climbs, he reveals a man torn between the flat, safe world he and his loved ones share and the majestic and deadly places where only he can go.
A preternaturally cautious climber who once turned back 300 feet from the top of Everest but who would not shrink from a peak (Annapurna) known to claim the life of one climber for every two who reached its summit, Viesturs lives by an unyielding motto, “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” It is with this philosophy that he vividly describes fatal errors in judgment made by his fellow climbers as well as a few of his own close calls and gallant rescues. And, for the first time, he details his own pivotal and heroic role in the 1996 Everest disaster made famous in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
In addition to the raw excitement of Viesturs’s odyssey, No Shortcuts to the Top is leavened with many funny moments revealing the camaraderie between climbers. It is more than the first full account of one of the staggering accomplishments of our time; it is a portrait of a brave and devoted family man and his beliefs that shaped this most perilous and magnificent pursuit” Taken from Goodreads.
K2: The Savage Mountain
The world’s second highest mountain is renowned for its consistently poor weather and very short windows of opportunity, which, in conjunction with the high technical difficulty, make K2 the hardest climb on the planet. More than a century of attempts have resulted in a small number of summits (in comparison to Everest for example), along with many dramatic retreats, the majority of which have become epics in mountaineering history and literature. It is a beast of a mountain, defeating many of the greatest climbers to ever live. The common thing conjoining all these stories is the frighteningly big loss of life. K2 is also one of the deadliest mountains. In the light of such inglorious reputation, the events endured by the 1953 American expedition and portrayed in The Savage Mountain must surely qualify as one of the greatest survival stories of all times.
Are there any classics I’ve missed that you’d add to this list? Let me know in the comments below…
Continuing the New Zealand Great Walks theme, here’s a guest post from Clare, an avid hiker who’s just completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand’s north island. She covers practically everything you’d need to know about the journey. Check it..
By Clare Groom, editor & blogger at Altitude Treks
Where: Tongariro National Park, North Island New Zealand
How long: 19.4Km, 12 miles (I took 7hr 15 minutes, but allow 7-9 hours)
Elevation gain: Start: 1100 m, Red Crater 1886 m, End 800 m
Often hailed as the “best one-day hike in New Zealand” (if not the world), the Tongariro Crossing is an alpine trek through the active volcanic zone of the central North Island. Past Emerald Lakes and steam vents emitting sulphurous fumes up to Blue Lake and through valleys and past volcanos. And views!
It simply had to be done.
My research had led me to “take it seriously”. The changeable mountain weather conditions can easily make the journey hazardous, and with exposed ridges and loose scree I had visions of myself hurtling headlong into a bubbling, stinky volcano.
So prepare I did. Taking the Department of Conservation’s advice, I duly packed clothing to see me from summer heat to winter blizzard. And “enough” food. I should mention here that “enough” food for me tends to mean elephantine servings of deliciousness that don’t feature in my daily eating habits!
Emerging from our winter hibernation, I had not been out in the bush for many months. So I dusted off my trusty hiking boots that had seen many successful Kilimanjaro summits – and carried me to Everest Base Camp. It felt good to be loading up my daypack again and heading for the hills.
New Zealand’s weather is a fickle witch. If the weather forecast is bad, the trail will be closed. However, just because the trail is open doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be safe. What starts out as a crystal clear day can rapidly turn wintry. And Search & Rescue takes a dim view of rescuing people from a mountain who are dressed for the beach.
At 6am on the 23rd October, we waited by the roadside in a small town called Turangi, for a bus to take us to the trailhead. It was a clear morning, cold, with frost on the ground. I was glad I had packed the extra layers. On the half-hour drive to Tongariro National Park we were afforded amazing views of Mt Ruapehu, still snow-covered and the dramatic Mt Ngauruhoe – famously Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.
Revelling in the wilderness, we were slightly taken aback at the trail-head where numerous buses were jostling for position. The queues for the toilets were long, it suddenly felt as though we’d happened into a theme park or something. Note: I would not advise doing this crossing in the height of summer, as there can be over a thousand people on the trail at the weekends!
Undeterred, we set off on the trail, the sun shining bright and the day promising to be clear. Mt Ruapehu loomed bright and white to our right, and the trail mostly flat…
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs (~1-1.5 hours)
The first part of the trail is flat or with a gentle incline. Alpine plants predominate, with tussocky grasses and heathers. The sun quickly burnt off any residual frost. The trail is typical of New Zealand – well maintained, with boardwalks across the boggy parts (this helps to protect the fragile environment, it’s not just for the trekkers convenience).
Rounding a corner, we get our first view of Mt Ngauruhoe, looming ominously in the distance. A perfect stratovolcano, with the top still covered in the remnants of snow, it’s easy to see how this sacred mountain was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Mt Doom.
So far, so good. A lovely easy hike through dramatic countryside, and an opportunity to make a big dent in my food supplies… in spite of a hearty breakfast, food was on my mind.
This part of the trek is by far the easiest. We climb out of the valley and after a couple of uphill sections, there is a flat, rather barren-looking plateau. The heather at the start of the trail gradually recedes, leaving only the tussocky grasses and rough alpine plants in the moorland zone. Rocks underfoot and scree remind us that we are in a volcanic region.
Soda Springs is a 15-30 minute diversion off the main track – and the toilets mark the end of this section.
Rounding a corner, it’s clear that the easy part is over…
Soda Springs to South Crater (~1 hour)
Through the volcanic rock and scree, we are greeted by this signpost:
Undeterred, we pressed on. Up the Devil’s Staircase. This section is steep, from 1400-1600m, hiking across lava flows, both ancient and modern. The track is rough, it’s hard-going and I was out of breath quite quickly. After about an hour of this – with fantastic views down the valley and a peek of Mt Taranaki in the distance, we got to the top.
A quick rest to get my breath back was a perfect opportunity for a bit more food. I was enjoying this “eat as much as you like, when you like”.
The Devil’s Staircase is a tough hike. But taking it slowly, enjoying the views and resting when needed – it’s easy. The views are spectacular, how lucky we were to have such a clear day!
South Crater to Red Crater (~1 hour)
A chance to catch our breath, the flat plateau is partially covered with snow. The dramatic Mt Doom towers over us. We had wanted to climb to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe but the previous day two people had been badly injured in a rock slide and it was out of bounds. Onwards we went, enjoying the bleak and inhospitable land, but well aware of the steep ridge ahead of us that we would need to scale.
As we reached the ridge, the combination of compacted snow and scree made the trail slippery and I almost fell on my backside a couple of times. I was glad I’d brought my hiking pole! Much more rugged than the Devil’s Staircase, the trail climbs up slippery, exposed tracks, climbing over rocks with a rather precipitous drop to one side.
Sections of this path have chains – and with the frost on the ground we were quite literally hauling ourselves up with our arms, unable to get a proper foothold. I won’t lie, it was exhausting and only a little bit terrifying at times!
At the top of the ridge we were starting to heave a big sigh of relief that the worst was over. How wrong we were! The last part of the ridge, around the Red Crater, is a slippery, narrow track, exposed on both sides. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a windy day. Abandoning my reputation, I decided to proceed through the steeper parts on my hands and knees. I was fully aware of what an idiot I must have looked.
Arriving at Red Crater – I could smell it before I could see it – and finally looking up from my study of the track ahead I was greeted by vistas that have to be seen to be believed. Photographs don’t show the half of it. Over the Otuere Valley, the Rangipo Desert, out over the Kaimanawa Ranges. How lucky we were to have such a clear day!
The Red Crater – it really is red, from the iron deposits – drops away steeply, deep into the volcano, steam wafts from the fumaroles, it’s like another planet. Mt Doom watches over, close-by now.
Next stop, those glorious Emerald Lakes.
But first… downhill.
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes (~15-20 minutes)
I’ll say it. I hate downhill. It always seems preferable to the relentlessness of uphill – but loose scree on a slippery slope and I do not get along. As I cling to a rock, easing myself off the lip of the Red Crater, I immediately start to slip. The descent is exposed, and the only way to remain upright was to crab-step and go very, very slowly.
I know, on Kilimanjaro I “skied” down the scree, fast and furious, crashing frequently. The steep drops on either side meant this was not an option, and after several hard-landings on my backside, I arrived at the Emerald Lakes.
They really are an Emerald color. Their colour comes from leached minerals. Sulphur deposits can be seen on the slopes, and the scent of rotten eggs pervades from the surrounding steam vents.
I had a celebratory sandwich, and worried that I was getting low on food.
Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake (~30 minutes)
Another short descent, a muddy and snow-slushy hike across a crater and it’s uphill again to the Blue Lake. This uphill section is short, and after what I’d been through climbing to Red Crater, nice and easy.
It really is Blue! A cold acidic lake, sacred in Maori tradition, apparently it is disrespectful to eat or drink on her shores. A blue lake with a bright white “beach” of snow. By this time we were feeling exhilarated. Knowing the worst of the climbing was behind us, we just revelled in the beauty of the pristine environment. Reflecting on how lucky we were to have a cloudless day with little wind. Feeling strong, we moved on, thinking ahead to that nice glass of wine back in town.
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut (~1 hr)
Leaving the Blue lake, we climb to the edge of the North Crater then descend into the gorge. The landscape becomes less bleak and the heath and moorland plants are in evidence again. A few more ups-and-downs and we get a view of our destination in the distance. And then it starts… the relentless downhill.
Relentless it certainly was. I mentioned I hadn’t worn my hiking boots in several months. My toenails were crying out in pain, threatening to go black and leave me. My creaking knees were complaining and it went on. And on. The track is well-maintained and the alpine zone is fascinating, with wonderful views over Lake Taupo.
After the first hour, I’d had enough. I was tired and grumpy. Even eating yet another sandwich didn’t help. My feet hurt and my knees hurt and it was down down down.
Arriving at Ketetahi Hut for a short rest stop, the end felt nigh.
Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car Park (~2 hours)
Oh no, more of the same. The moorland gave way to thicker, heather-type bush and the temperature was warmer, with no icy mountain winds. The path continues downhill for what feels like hours. Then the forest appears. A dense, montane forest, with a roaring stream through it.
And an ominous sign “if you hear a noise from upstream, do not enter” – it’s a live volcanic area and the Department of Conservation advises you to move quickly and not delay!
By this point, my spirits started to lift. The forest was beautiful and the path flattened out and my toes and knees allowed me to enjoy the hike once again. Winding through the forest and over a little bridge, eventually the hustle and bustle of the car park appears.
I did it! Very happy to have made good time, I could now look forward to getting out of my hiking boots and sipping the inevitable glass of wine.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, in good weather is a fantastic experience. In poor weather, it could be pretty miserable, if not dangerous. Whilst the climb to Red Crater is hard, there is a great sense of achievement on getting to the top and seeing the incredible views that this part of New Zealand has to offer. The walk out can get a bit boring as it feels you have done what you came to do – and still the hike goes on. I may have felt differently about the last few hours if my feet weren’t hurting.
Overall – well worth it for an amazing day out!
Yep, I’m calling it. Having finished the Cape to Cape earlier this year, as well as large swathes of the Bibbulmun, I can say this one tops it. No other hike in Western Australia offers the experience as provided along the Stirling Ridge walk. It had been on the list for a while but to be honest, low expectations had put me off. I’d been up Bluff Knoll and a few other peaks in the area and while providing a pleasant outing, weren’t really worth the long drive from Perth. I’m happy to eat my words on this one.
I was joined on the trek by a mate of mine, a welcome change from the usual solo endeavors. Early June was our time frame, perhaps not the best choice from a weather perspective but we decided to rough it. From a few of the reviews we read you’d assume this hike was equivalent to a venture into the Alaskan wilderness. Exposed ridges, arduous slopes, shit, even cyclonic winds were mentioned. I also read somewhere that 2 out of 3 treks that started didn’t complete it. Either someone was having a laugh or we were leaving Western Australia. We decided to risk our lives and do it anyway.
Embarking from Perth at 6am, we reached the Bluff Knoll campsite after 6 or so hours of looong, tedious driving. Parking the car up and grabbing our gear, we got a lift out to the East end of the track by an old gentleman from the camp. The long ride was made enjoyable after the driver mistakenly thought my friend, a female, was actually a man. I was in hysterics for quite some time. Small minds are easily amused as they say..
We’d heard traversing the ridge from East to West is the way to go, it provides a clear landmark in Bluff Knoll at to work towards and is a little closer to civilisation at the finish. Here’s a map of the whole thing. There’s a 5km walk along a firebreak to get to the start of the trek. While not generally amusing, my friend had a good laugh (& got one back) when I fell over in some mud. I immediately regretted wearing old, worn down running shoes..
At last we reached the base of the ridge. From here there’s a rather steep section up to the little knob of Ellens Peak (far left in the photo above). From there you can either go up the peak and back down the other side, or scramble around either side of it. We went around the northern side which involved a bit of a dip, then scrambling back up to get onto the ridge (just to the right of the peak).
We continued along the trail for another couple of hours, by which time the daylight was starting to fade. Time to look for one of the fabled ‘sleeping caves’ we’d read about. We tried to find the cave which was supposedly on the North side of the ridge. A GPS we’d brought along showed it was in our immediate vicinity but after a good hour of searching, we were out of luck and out of light.
We resorted to sleeping outside on the sloping ridge. That was an interesting one. Thank god we’d chosen a period of clear weather. Finding a spot free of vegetation, we laid out the sleeping bags and after a hearty feed, attempted sleep. We’d doze for a little while, wake up and find ourselves a meter down in the tussock, having to crawl back up the slope again. I don’t recommend it. Find a cave.
One perk of sleeping on the northern slope was the view it afforded us of the sunrise. All the sunrises and sunsets were pretty special along the ridge. Following an extended bout of admiration fro the glories of nature, we packed up the kit, had a quick bite and were on our way again.
Pushing on for a couple of hours, we came across an awesome cave that should’ve been our shelter for the night. The spot was incredible. It would’ve taken a big first day but should be quite doable. I don’t actually know the name of the spot but I’m sure you’ll find it on any Stirling Ridge Walk guide or map.
The terrain on this trek was a great deal more interesting and often challenging than I first suspected. For the majority of the first 2 days, you’re contending with brush and scrub that covers the track. When applied to the Stirling Ridge Walk, ‘track’ can be a fairly ambiguous term. Although there is often a fairly well defined trail, much of the route is open for interpretation as far as the best course to proceed. Cairns; piled rock markers are generally the only form of navigation you’ll find.
Once again, we timed things badly and were left without a cave to sleep in by the time the darkness began to take hold. At this point we were actually up on top of one of the ‘arrows’ (what they call 3 of the peaks in this range) so we decided to make our camp there. Not the best choice.. there was a little more wind up here and I shivered through a rather chilly night. Again, the views well and truly made up for it.
We kicked off the third and final day with our sights set on the big dog the range, Bluff Knoll. I really can’t remember the times we hiked each day, I’d hazard a guess and say roughly 6 hours for the first and 7 or 8 for the last two. The last one in particularly took a little longer then expected.
There was far less scrub on this section of the Route, rather mud and steep banks were our biggest challenge. I landed on my ass quite a few times, much to the amusement of my companion. Once again, please don’t use old runners on this trek..
When we were dropped off at the East end by the camp manager, he warned us several times not to take car keys up there; apparently several sets had been lost over the years. By the third day I had lost a shirt and the end of my trekking pole (which I never even used..) and my friend had lost her camera. It’s quite easy to drop things and have them torn away by the brush. Keep your gear tucked up inside your pack.
Another thing, the wind.. holy hell. I made a mock comment on a review that referred to the wind as ‘cyclonic’. Well, while that may be a slight exaggeration, it is damn strong. It was present on the first days along sections but it wasn’t until day 3 that we felt its full force. It’s legit!
Sauntering on, we finally approached the last climb up to the top of Bluff Knoll. Upon reaching the summit plateau, we were greeted by a complete white-out. Yep, we got lost as all hell. Thankfully the GPS finally did it’s job and we found our way to the summit marker and the well marked path back down the other side.
“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” ― Ed Viesturs
“Because it’s there.” ― George Mallory
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” ― Edward Whymper
“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” ― Nelson Mandela
“When you go to the mountains, you see them and you admire them. In a sense, they give you a challenge, and you try to express that challenge by climbing them.” ― Edmund Hillary
“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” ― George Leigh Mallory
“There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.” ― Mark Twain
“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Evan Hardin
“Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain… Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall — it’s great when you stop.” ― Chris Darwin
“Mountain climbing is extended periods of intense boredom, interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror.” ― Anonymous
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” ― Sir Rannulph Fiennes
“Identifying and overcoming natural fear is one of the pleasing struggles intrinsic to climbing.” ― Alex Lowe
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” ― T. S. Eliot
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place ? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” ― René Daumal
“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.” ― Greg Child
“Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.” ― Robert Macfarlane
“In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” ― Jack Kerouac
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street.” ―William Blake
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are thecathedrals where I practice my religion.” ― Anatoli Boukreev
“Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” ― Nemann Buhl
“In a sense everything that is exists to climb. All evolution is a climbing towards a higher form. Climbing for life as it reaches towards the consciousness, towards the spirit. We have always honored the high places because we sense them to be the homes of gods. In the mountains there is the promise of… something unexplainable. A higher place of awareness, a spirit that soars. So we climb… and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery.” ― Rob Parker
“In the mountains there are only two grades: You can either do it, or you can’t.” ― Rusty Baille
“Any coward can sit at home and criticize a pilot for flying into a mountain in a fog. But I would rather by far die on a mountainside than in bed.” ― Charles Lindbergh
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
― Friedrich Neitszche
And of course the ever popular Instagram staples..
“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
― David McCullough Jr.
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” ― Sir Edmund Hillary
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” ― John Muir
This is a particularly hard post for me to write. I hate failing to reach a goal, particularly when I don’t even get the opportunity to give it my all. If I had reached 6,000m and the mountain had beaten me, I could accept that. This is a much harder pill to swallow.
As I was getting ready to climb Mt Aconcagua (a trip I’d been looking forward to for the past 6 months), I made a short journey up to Bolivia, spending a few days on the Salt Flats above 4,000m and climbing Volcan Lazcar (5,500m) to help get acclimatised for the big dog. It was an incredible experience, well worth the journey in it’s own right. I was there for a purpose however, the fact that I got to experience the closest thing I’ve seen to an otherworldly landscape was just a bonus. I did manage to get well acclimatised and also managed to pick up a bonus Bolivian stomach virus to add to the bodily festivities.
I’ve always had an iron-stomach, having eaten Vietnamese street-chicken, New-Delhi fried gutter specialties, Nepalese shanty-cuisine and Tanzanian beef that had been out in the 30 degree sun god-knows how long. I’d never been sick until now.. and what a time for it to happen.
I first noticed the real effects on New Years Day, after a few too many drinks and not quite enough sleep (thanks to a certain Macedonian acquaintance). Frankly, I felt like shit, struggling to walk 15 minutes to book a bus back to Mendoza. From there I just deteriorated, spending the next 10 days hardly able to move; racked with fever, hallucinating (I was seeing these strange little things that kept trying to build structures around the edge of my bed), headaches and not able to hold any food down. I realised Mt Aconcagua 2016 wasn’t going to happen..
As I type this a few days later I still feel incredibly disappointed.. That’s the way life goes though I guess, it just means I’ll have to get back down here next year to make another attempt.
Everyone has been incredibly supportive which I really appreciate. It’s just a minor setback on this long journey I’ve committed myself to. Time to get back to training and preparing for the next one!