CLIMBING A VOLCANO IS FUN, FOR SOME

WHAKAPAPA, New Zealand – Because it’s there, I know I shouldn’t be.

“It” is the volcanic Mount Ruapehu, looming and with the appearance of a gigantic molar with cavities.

“Looks like a sweet climb,” enthuses my friend, Aurelio, who would never deny that a mountain goat teeters somewhere on some altitudinous limb of her family tree.

Looks like a sweat climb to me. So, why?

“Because . . ..”

I know, I know. Everybody knows the rationalizing words in 1924 of the bravura Everest assaulter, George Mallory, the “because it’s there” guy. And was he ever seen again, Aurelio? Huh?

“This isn’t Everest,” she says, frowning at her timid escort.

You couldn’t prove it by me. Besides, it’s an alive-and-well 9,230-foot volcano that blew its top spectacularly as recently as 1995-1996. Why not let sleeping domes lie?

Because she has become a volcano freak, on discovering that this central neighborhood of New Zealand’s North Island is loaded with them. The cone-heads seem to follow you. Peaks popping up across the landscape, they peer darkly, ominously, over your shoulder wherever you might go.

Taranaki (a.k.a. Egmont, 8,309 feet), currently dormant, had been shadowing us since our departure from New Plymouth on the west coast. Big brother is watching. It plays peekaboo, frequently hiding in a cloud bank, then flashing gloriously when least expected.

This sort of behavior is a sexy come-on to Aurelio.

“Got to climb!” she yipped when Taranaki peeped into our room, along with morning, at a marvelous bed-and-breakfast in New Plymouth called Kirkstall, presided over so graciously by Lindy MacDiarmid and Ian Hay. Aurelio’s was the ebullient spirit of Gene Kelly crooning “Gotta dance!” in “An American in Paris.”

In fact she had been dancing – rope dancing and dangling in a harness – a few days before, back in Auckland, downscaling the 15 stories of the Novotel in a scary (to me) maneuver they call “rap jumping.”

“We have elevators in this hotel!” I yelled at her in vain as she stepped over the edge of the concrete precipice and happily bounced along the wall toward ant-sized pedestrians in Custom Street.

Oh, well. A hotel would do when she didn’t have a mountain like Taranaki handy.

“Good day, Mount T!” She shouted across the bedroom and onto the balcony – and beyond. Her voice carried over the furiously blooming back garden that tumbles down to a stream bordering a croquet club where mallets and balls clicked together irregularly on a freshly mown lawn, sounding like lazy woodpeckers.

“Very cordial of you to greet Taranaki even though it’s about 70 kilometers away,” host Ian said at breakfast, serving poached eggs – “wobblies” in his vernacular. “But it isn’t so easy to get to the top because the cloud cover can be tricky. People get lost and even die. A few every year.”

We had room-and-boarded with him and Lindy a couple of days for a couple of reasons. Only a hundred yards or so below the house is also the inviting Tasman Sea and a long beach where strolling locals unfailingly paused to say hello, maybe chat. And Lindy’s cooking was extra good, climaxing with her brilliant Pavlova, the fruit-filled meringue dessert that is a specialty of this country and Australia.

Taranaki was welcoming for a while . . . before pulling woolly clouds over our eyes.

“Better turn around and go down. That’s all for today,” a ranger advised, noting that the helicopter buzzing the mountain was searching for a lost group. It was OK with me. A smaller, darker cloud of gnashing gnats had been gnibbling my gneck and other tender areas, and I wished to retreat.

Aurelio, downcast for a second, brightened quickly, feeling we’d cast up our fortunes onto Ruapehu.

It was a lovely all-day eastward drive from New Plymouth through green, virtually unsullied back country of hills, ridges, gorges, forests, monster ferns, and broad clusters of beige reeds called toi toi that bowed in the breeze like charging troops. On those pinched roads, as twisted as Slobodan Milosevic’s mind, a traffic jam means seeing another car.

Towns hardly worthy of that description were blips until Stratford, which boasts a tall clock tower overlooking a business district of a couple blocks. It was lunch time. Years ago, a bush-wise Aussie counseled me about traveling in remote areas of his country and New Zealand: “When hungry, look for the Chinaman. You’ll usually find one with a wok in a small joint. It’ll be clean and they won’t poison you.”

Good thinking for the stomach-conscious. Fitting the description well were immigrants from the People’s Republic, Heng Kong Chen and his wife, Jian Wen, a pleasant young couple with two little kids running around their Broadway Fast Food. Bankrolled by his brother, a restaurateur in another town, they are improving their English and the cuisine of Stratford.

The cuisine of Whangamomona seems to be mainly liquid, consumed in the barroom of the 88-year-old wooden hotel of the same name, the principal building in the settlement of 30. Probably most of the populace gather there to greet any passersby in a friendly manner. Sinewy Johnny Potou, who says he was a miner for 30 years in a now abandoned neighborhood coal shaft, pointed to “my retired banjo” – a shovel nailed to the wall. “It was hard work. I might as well have been using a spoon.”

Past a fork down the road, Te Wara is a jumble of collapsed buildings looking as though a tornado had knifed through. One frame structure stands unsteadily, the home of “me, the mayor of Te Wara,” says tattooed Phil Holdaway, standing in his front yard. “I have to be the mayor – population of four, and I’m the only man left. Just me and my girlfriend, Sharon, our two kids, and six dogs. I suppose the dogs could out-vote us.

“No storm here. The town just fell apart. Everybody left, and we’re going soon, too, so I can find a job.”

By dusk we were at Whakapapa in Tongariro National Park, amid three volcanic pinnacles, two of them retired and harmless. Ngauruhoe was haloed in silky smoke-ring clouds. Tongariro and the lone angry, active spouter, Ruapehu, were shadows.

“Tomorrow, an early start,” Aurelio pronounced. We were camped at the elegant Grand Chateau, a 70-year-old brick hotel of European ambience, a fine restaurant, and a golf course at the base of her target, Ruapehu. It seemed an excellent place to spend the day, gazing upward at somebody else climbing.

No chance – because “it’s there.” Remember?

“Oh, it’s just a walk. No ropes or pitons,” she says. “We’ll have guides. You go part of the way on a chair lift. In the winter this is a ski resort.”

The guides are kindly and adept, Dave Cooney and Murray “Foz” Byrne, who lead people to the top practically every day of the year – “if the weather’s right. If it turns bad or cloudy,” says Dave to his platoon of eight, “we turn back. We don’t want to lose even one of you.” He seems to mean it.

Did they attend the last eruption?

“Yeah,” says Foz. “It was a great fireworks show, three years ago. Nobody got hurt, but it was like shrapnel flying everywhere, covering everything with black ash. Not as bad as the tragedy of 1953, before my time. A fierce lava flow toppled the railroad bridge at Tangiwai just before a train got there. The wreck killed 151 passengers.” He confirms the cautionary pamphlet handed to every climber: “Volcanic activity can occur at any time with little or no warning . . . anyone climbing does so at their own risk.”

Swell.

“But it won’t blow up today,” he says, smiling encouragingly.

Where’s the oxygen supply, I wonder.

“This isn’t Everest,” Foz says with a laugh.

I’ve heard that line before. Up we go.

“Just your own pace,” suggests Foz. “It’s not a race. Forget about the others. You’ll never catch your lady, so don’t worry about it.” Right. I play the role of caboose, and Foz is my shepherd-conductor. Play it one step at a time, I tell myself. Like old Chairman Mao said: A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step. Perhaps he also said, “Who needs the first step?” – but not for publication.

It’s “a primo day,” in Foz’s words. Gentle breeze. Sunshine. Way over there in the distance Taranaki is still glowering at me in a pale cumulus sea. But Ruapehu is the assignment here. The trail is easy in some sectors, a carefree wade through onyx fields of lava grit, and dingy veins of leftover snow. But then it becomes bolder bouldering, an amber clamber over huge slabs, jutting at all angles. Feet must be placed carefully – I understand now why hiking boots are required – and hands also to aid balance.

On the far left, a jagged wall rears up. “That range, called Cathedral Rocks, is 250,000 years old,” says Foz.

That’s how I feel. Nevertheless, onward and upward, halting frequently for a breather as Aurelio and Cooney’s front runners become dots on the rusty landscape. Foz is good company, a pro. You can tell that whatever pace – breakneck or glacial – matters not to him. He figures we’ll get it all done in eight hours and be down for a beer before dinner.

“Just watch where you put your foot on these rocks. No hurry, no worry, mate.” He goes slightly ahead to give me an idea where the clefts and niches are friendliest.

All’s well . . . until . . . perched on my left foot, I miss the next step with the right . . . and fly . . ..

Into chin air! The attacked mountain has counterattacked.

Face first, I land on a rock face with a loud – to my ears, anyway – crrrackkk that sounds like McGwire pulverizing No. 70. As visions of plastic surgery and weeks in a dental chair limp through my neural mush, I hear Foz, calm and comforting.

“Don’t move. Just rest. Lie there for a while and see how you feel.” Considerately, he doesn’t say, “I score that dive a 1.”

Waiting for teeth to fall out, I realize that, really, I don’t feel too bad. Embarrassed, yes. Angry. Discouraged. But also very lucky. Remarkably, my jaw is in one piece. Other than a chipped tooth and gashed lip (and maybe an upgrade of whatever brain damage I started the day with), I’m all right.

“You want to call it a day?” Foz sympathizes.

“Damn the rocks – one-third speed ahead!” is my groggy answer, realizing that halfway up “there” isn’t what Mallory, Hillary, David Breshears, and the rest of the Everestians had in mind. “A knockdown isn’t a knockout.”

What is this place called? “Restful Ridge,” he answers.

Oh, sure.

Plodding, slogging, skidding, sliding between sectors of rocky battlements, then inching with more care and concentration, we pass Glacier Knob and reach the notch that surveys a vast burnt-out crater, not the current troublemaker.

“Almost there, mate,” says Foz, smiling. But I don’t like a lot the home stretch, Dome Ridge, a lengthy, slushy razor’s edge five or six feet wide with an awful drop on either side. Eyes front, focused on the feet, and nothing else.

“Welcome,” beams Aurelio as our group reunites, gathered together again with Cooney at the snow-blanketed top. Just below is the mischievous, hostile crater, filled with ominous gray water – a caldron that steams like hell. A snarling, greasy beast.

“Over 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and sulfuric,” says Cooney. “You don’t want to fall in.”

I wasn’t thinking of getting even close. Where are the witches chanting, “Boil and bubble . . . toil and trouble”? I’ve had enough toil and trouble, but Foz says there’s no helicopter, or even witchly broom, to take us down.

Down is harder than up, and weariness doesn’t help. Sick of looking for footholds and handholds through the same junkpiles of rock, I don’t have much choice other than to take care. Shepherd Foz hangs in there with me, and we make it to the bottom. Turning in the rental boots, I laugh: to think I actually paid for this.

“Fun, huh?” says Aurelio.

“More than fighting Mike Tyson,” I decide, although Ruapehu did bite me. The mountain won the decision but I went the distance. Now, baby, may I just get outa “there”?

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