The King Country; or, Explorations in New Zealand. A Narrative of 600 Miles of Travel through Maoriland.
Chapter XVIII. — Ruapehu. — (Second Day.) — Ascent Of The Great Peak
Ascent Of The Great Peak.
The start—A lava bluff—Last signs of vegetation—Wall of conglomerate rock—The Giant Rocks—Ancient crater—Difficult climbing—A frightful precipice—The ice crown—Cutting our way over the ice—The summit – Peaks and crater—A grand coup d'œil—The surrounding country—Taking landmarks—Point Victoria.
As soon as we had made a hearty but very light breakfast, we started at once to make the ascent of the great peak, whose steep, snow-clad sides rose up at the end of the spur on which we had been camped. We got ourselves up as warmly as circumstances would allow. Our boots were stout, and capable of withstanding snow and ice; we wore thick overcoats belted round the waist, thick comforters round the neck, fur caps with flaps to protect the ears, while alpenstocks with flagstaff, and tomahawks to cut our way over the ice, completed our accoutrements.
At an altitude of 6480 feet we wound along a steep scoria ridge, and as the wind was still blowing hard from the south, we found it very difficult to make page 218headway. Even the light pole we had brought with us to place upon the summit became a great burden, and we each had to take spells every quarter of an hour to carry it. At 6800 feet the spur became steeper and steeper, and on one side it fell with a rapid descent of about 400 feet into a ravine below, while on the other it inclined abruptly towards the valley on our right. At 7000 feet we gained a lava bluff, which formed rugged giant steps of rock, over which we climbed with great difficulty.
At 7400 feet we came to another lava ridge, which rose above a steep scoria incline, covered with small particles of trachytic rock, pumice, and obsidian. From an altitude of a little over 6000 feet we had found no vegetation, save that represented by the two small plants known as the Ligustrum aromaticum and the Gnaphalium bellidioides, which everywhere grew side by side in sheltered positions beneath the rocks and boulders, forming, as it were, the crowning garlands of the splendid vegetation of the North Island. These small delicate plants held undisputed sway in this elevated region, and not even a clump of moss grew beyond the line which nature had defined as their snow-clad habitat.
At an elevation of 8000 feet the wind blew boisterously, and swept over the steep slopes of the mountain with terrific force. Here the whole geological formation was very curious, and we came on an immense ridge of lava and scoria conglomerate, containing big stones and boulders, which appeared to have been melted and fused together by a terrific heat. Here likewise scattered about in every direction were huge page 219masses of rock, some of which were from ten to twenty feet in height. At this elevation on our left was a stupendous mass of lava conglomerate, which rose up in the form of a solid wall over fifty feet in height, and so regular was its formation that it appeared to have been artificially formed.
When we reached 8400 feet we experienced great page 220difficulty in climbing up a frozen scoria incline covered with great boulders of volcanic conglomerate. Looking down from this point the whole mountain had a singularly wild and rugged look, and the giant, peaked rocks shot up in the form of bold pinnacles, and seemed to mark the site of an ancient crater, where the raging volcanic fires had rent the rocks into a thousand curious forms, and turned them into a deep-red colour.
At 8600 feet, we climbed up a precipitous slope of lava conglomerate, in the form of a rude terrace, upon which were gigantic boulders and masses of broken rock covered with a thick coating of ice and snow. Here it was almost impossible to stand against the wind, and we came to a steep scoria incline, covered with frozen snow as hard as ice. Up this we had to crawl on our hands and knees, as the wind sweeping around the mountain from the right, fearfully cold, and with unabated force, made it impossible to stand. The scoria ridge and masses of rock and. gigantic boulders that rose up around, were covered with festoons of ice, and the whole mountain shone and glittered with a dazzling splendour. Above the white snow, the dark ridges of lava rose like stupendous walls, rugged, bare, and desolate, but adamantine and colossal in structure, as if the Architect of nature had intended them to endure for all time. All about this part of the ascent the sides of the mountain were steep and broken, and the climbing along the frozen surface was so difficult that we had to creep along the edge of the great conglomerate walls and hang on to the big stones that jutted out page 221from their surface. We could now only go on for about five minutes at a time without stopping to rest, as we had not only to combat the difficulties of our own track, but the force of the wind, which, blowing with increased force as we mounted higher and higher, threatened at places to blow us over the precipices. Fortunately there was not a single cloud to be seen; nothing but a bright sun and a clear blue sky, from which the wind swept down cold, yet invigorating, but with tremendous force; and, indeed, so steep and slippery with ice was this part of the mountain that it was only by carefully navigating our own course, as it were, by keeping to leeward of the projecting peak above, that we were enabled to make headway.
At an altitude of 8900 feet, after a hard struggle, we gained the rounded top of the great peak, and when, under the shelter of a rocky projection, we lay flat down, and peered over the frightful precipice on our left, the whole aspect of the giant mountain, as it swept with its rugged, ice-bound sides down to the wide expanse of bare scoria ravines and black lava ridges, as they wound into the dreary Onetapu Desert below, appeared grand and beautiful, as much by reason of its vast incomprehensible proportions as by the wonderful effects of light and shade produced by the brilliant sunlight as it swept from the bright glacier above into the deep gorges and winding valleys below.
Even at this stage we were not yet at the summit of the mountain, for the great rocky crown which we had remarked from the plain below still towered above our heads to a height of 150 feet. We now page 222found that this singular monument was formed by a large outcrop of lava and conglomerate rock, which appeared at some remote period, when the volcanic fires were at their fiercest stage, to have oozed up above the surface of the surrounding rocks, and then congealed into a craggy mass with a symmetrical outline, which assumed the form of a rounded bluff towards the east, and tapered gradually off towards the west. Covered with a thick crown of snow that overhung its summit like a fringe, and glittering from base to top with sheets of ice and shining icicles, it sparkled with an almost dazzling effect beneath the golden rays as they shot from above, forming a grand and befitting crown to the grand mountain.
To scale this ice-bound pinnacle was our next task. Even to approach it at some parts was dangerous, for nature, in her certain but mysterious way, was doing her work as we looked on; and as the mid-day sun reflected its warm rays upon the icy festoons, they melted and fell with a crash at our feet, but where, at its further and shaded end, the wind blew with its cool breath the ice was as firm and as solid as iron.
With the cold blasts coming now and again with the force of a perfect hurricane, we crawled on our hands and knees along the steeps of the lower end, and cut footsteps with our tomahawks in the snow and ice, which spread itself like a white sheet over the precipitous inclines over which we had to make our way before we could reach the base of the rocky mass. Up every yard we had to crawl with great caution, and, in order to steady ourselves, we linked ourselves together by holding on to the flag-pole, as in many places a single page 223slip of the foot would have sent us rolling down the frozen steeps into eternity. The thrilling sensation caused by these adventures acted as a kind of stimulus, which was heightened by the fact that we knew when once on the summit of the ice-bound crown, not only the whole mountain, but the whole country would be beneath us. Cutting away the enormous icicles that impeded our progress, we climbed step by step up the treacherous, craggy sides of the towering mass of rock, but as we neared the top the gusts of wind swept round like a whirlwind on every side, so as to render it impossible at some points to approach the edge. Notwithstanding the wintry blasts, however, this day might be considered as a grand and a beautiful one for Ruapehu, but what the lofty crest of the great mountain must be like when storms break over it with terrific violence, when the wind howls from peak to peak, when the lightning leaps from crag to crag, when the thunder rolls and resounds through valley and ravine, when the snows descend, and darkening showers of hail and rain form bounding cataracts, no soul can tell.
Once upon the summit of the rocky crown, a glorious sight burst upon the view—one unique in itself, and unequalled in sublimity. It was now one o'clock, and since the time we had left the base of the mountain on the previous morning it had taken us nearly twenty hours of actual climbing to reach this spot; and now we seemed to have entered a new world —a world where there was no sound but the sigh of the wind, where there was no sign of life; a world placed high in the sky, made up of golden sunshine, page 224azure blue, and glittering snow and ice, but encircled as it were, by a broad expanse of green, bordered by the blue waves of the distant sea.
Looking towards the south, along the summit of the mountain, which stretched away for nearly a mile in length, peak rose above peak in colossal proportions from the dazzling expanse of snow. Each grand and towering mass of rock, tinted by the extinct volcanic fires of a reddish hue, standing out clearly defined against the light-blue sky, each pointed summit shining with ice beneath the bright light with grand and almost magical effect. Immediately beneath where we stood was a steep precipice which fell perpendicularly for hundreds of feet below, and beneath this again was a wide circle of jagged rocks, marking the outline of a gigantic crater, filled to its craggy brim with snow, which was furrowed into chasms of enormous depth, the clean-cut sides of which looked white and beautiful in their winding outline. The furthest southern peak of the mountain stood out in grand relief in the distance, its rounded, cupola-shaped summit being perfect in outline, as if artificially fashioned to serve for the dome of a Mohammedan mosque.
Turning from the wonders of the mountain, and looking out over the grand expanse of country which stretched far and wide on every side in all its pristine loveliness until it lost itself, as it were, in the wide expanse of ocean, just visible in the distance to the east and west, a wondrous panorama presented itself. Never had I seen a more varied and enchanting scene. I had beheld a wider expanse of country from the page 225summit of the Rocky Mountains, gorges and precipices more stupendous in the valley of the Yosemite, and I had gazed over a land very similar in outline from the summit of Fusiyama in Japan, but never before had I stood upon a glacier-crowned height in the region of perpetual snow with an active volcano, rising thousands of feet, beneath me, nor had I ever beheld so wide an expanse of lake, mountain, and rolling plain mingling together, as it were, and forming one grand and glorious picture. This wondrous Elysium, for in its primeval beauty it looked like nothing else, with, its colossal, glacier-scored mountain, had not the cold frigidity of the Alpine districts of the South Island, where Nature looks awful in its grandeur; but here was the mingling, as it were, of the torrid and the frigid zone—a land where the snow-field and the glacier rose in all their impressive sublimity above a romantic-looking country clothed in a semi-tropical vegetation, where the choicest and most varied of trees and plants grew spontaneously in an atmosphere which might rank as the most healthful and invigorating in the world. The sight was, indeed, one calculated to overawe the mind and to impress the imagination with a sense of the omnipotence of the Creator.
For a radius from where we stood of over 100 miles the whole country was mapped out and clearly defined beneath us. In the north, towering to the skies, we could discern the familiar forms of Pirongia, Karioi, Maungatautari, Te Aroha, Ngongotaha, Hapurangi, and flat-topped Horohoro, with Tarawera, Putauaki, and Tauhara standing further to the east. The forms page 226of Titiraupenga, Rangitoto, Haurakia, Tapirimoko, and Haurungatahi rose above the forests of the King Country; the pointed summit of Hikurangi shot upward from the East Coast, and snow-clad Taranaki stood like a sentinel in the west, while Pihanga and Tongariro rose majestically from the plains below—all grand, isolated peaks, standing alone, and whose united altitudes, together with that of the giant mountain on which we stood, would exceed twice the height of Himalayas above the sea. All the intervening space was covered with mountain, valley, river, plain, and lake, and was so clearly defined, that we could trace all the grand features of the country as if delineated upon a plan. In the centre of all shone the broad waters of Taupo as they stretched away like an inland sea – the winding form of Lake Rotoaira shone like a mirror in the plain below—and the miniature lakes on Tongariro looked like big turquoise set in a circle of adamant. Indeed, every feature of this wide expanse of country was both varied and beautiful. The broad, rolling expanse of plain which we had beheld during the night, with its coating of frost, was now radiant in its vivid mantle of green, which was relieved here and there by the winding rivers and rushing streams which burst from the sides of the great mountain and sped onward to join the Waikato as it wound along the base of the Kaimanawa Mountains, which rose like a series of undulating terraces, clothed with dark forests, above which their serrated peaks stood out in bold relief against the sky. Beyond the far-reaching mountains stupendous heights arose in the direction of the south-east, range page 227after range, rolling away as far as the eye could reach. to the distant Ruahine Mountains, whose stupendous outline bound the horizon in that direction.
When we had laid off on our map the leading features of the country through which we intended to pass, we set to work and built a cairn of rock, about four feet high, at a point which exceeded 9000 feet above the level of the sea, and on this we hoisted our flag. As this magnificent peak of Ruapehu, with its rocky crown of ice and snow, was not only the highest point of the mountain, but the very topmost summit of the North Island, we named it "Point Victoria," in honour of her Majesty the Queen.