The eastern face of Egmont as seen from the Stratford trailhead

 

Mount Egmont NZ: 1951-2000


On the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, the 8,260' high volcanic cone of Mount Egmont rises from the green pastures of Taranaki. The Tremayne family has a long association with this mountain, beginning with my Dad, Trevelyan William (Bill) Tremayne during the 1930's. At that time, Bill was based in New Plymouth with the New Zealand Air Force in the years leading up to WWII. The provincial city of New Plymouth lies only 15 miles to the north of Egmont, thereby providing quick and easy access to the the inviting snow slopes of this very climbable mountain. So my Dad took the opportunity to ascend Egmont on numerous occasions and much later, in 1951, was to introduce this fine experience to me and my brother David.

When our Dad passed away in 1987, David and I decided to honour his memory by placing his ashes on the slopes of this mountain that had meant so much to him. So in the spring of 1988, with Dad's youngest grandsons, Bill and Jordan, we set off from the North Egmont trail-head at 3,000' elevation on a typical rainy mountain day. Considering the bad weather conditions and young ages of Bill (9) and Jordan (6), we did well to make it to the Razorback, a narrow and exposed ridge at an elevation of 4,000'. Here is where we placed the ashes, still in a metal container and buried beneath a prominent rock that I knew would be easy to find at a later date.

  • A late 1930's aerial photo of Mt. Egmont, looking east toward Mt. Ruapehu A late 1930's aerial photo of Mt. Egmont, looking east toward Mt. Ruapehu
  • A late 1930's photo taken from the summit of Egmont, looking into the crater A late 1930's photo taken from the summit of Egmont, looking into the crater
  •  A Late 1930's photo of Fanthams Peak crater and it's well worn trail A Late 1930's photo of Fanthams Peak crater and it's well worn trail
  • 1988: The old track from North Egmont to Razorback ridge. Jordan and Peter in front. 1988: The old track from North Egmont to Razorback ridge. Jordan and Peter in front.
  • 1988: The family group on the Razorback ridge ... Bill, Jordan and Humi. 1988: The family group on the Razorback ridge ... Bill, Jordan and Humi.
  • 1988: Peter standing by the rock on Razorback ridge ... where his Dad's ashes are placed 1988: Peter standing by the rock on Razorback ridge ... where his Dad's ashes are placed
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During the southern summer of 1991, I decided to finish what we'd planned for Dad's ashes in 1988. I arrived in New Zealand from my home in the USA with the intent to retrieve the ashes from the Razorback and carry them to the summit of Egmont. Accompanied by my mother, we drove from her home in Rotorua to the Stratford Mountain House high on the eastern slopes of Egmont where she'd stayed with Dad in the years leading up to his death. From this location I faced the difficult task of how to reach the Razorback on the northern slopes where Dad's ashes lay buried and still climb to the summit in the same day. My plan was to use the around-the-mountain traverse from the Stratford trail-head to the North Egmont trail, descend 1,000' down the ridge to the Razorback, dig up the ashes and then climb to the summit, returning finally to Stratford House by late afternoon. An awesome task on the map, and in the event an almost impossible physical challenge for an aging climber like me.

Extract from my Journal - Feb. 1991: I began at first light, moving easily and fast on the mountain traverse and intercepting the North Egmont trail feeling strong, but the visible distance down to the Razorback was a daunting sight. So very far, and I was already half way to the summit - I'd have to climb the darn mountain twice! Oh well ... the family's expecting me to do this, so let’s get on with it. Going down was easy, but very aware that each step was taking me further from the summit. I began to pass climbers on the way up - it's Waitangi Day, apparently a traditional occasion for the fitter members of Taranaki to climb the mountain. What a day for me to pick. I finally reach the Razorback at a time when hordes of climbers are passing by. How the heck do I make the search for Dad's ashes beneath the rock appear a normal activity?

I scratch around for 20 minutes, becoming desperate to find the metal box I'd placed there in 1988. There’s no sign of it, even down the steep slope below the rock. I give up in despair. What to do now? I decide to continue as planned ... climb to the summit and not tell the family about the lost ashes. In the circumstances I feel sure Dad would approve of this minor deception. Without thinking, in almost a panic to get moving back up the slope again, I race off without considering the idea of taking token soil, or stones from beneath the rock. I'm some distance up the ridge before the obvious dawns on me. Sorry Dad, I screwed up again. Maybe another year I'll put it all right and collect items from the Razorback, and then take them to the summit. For the meantime, I pick two small rocks from the ridge with the intention of taking them there today ... if I ever make it? I'm exhausted and thirsty by the time I reach my previous high point and the sun is beating down on a day that promises to be scorcher.

I was eleven years old when I last climbed to the summit of Egmont and little is familiar on the slopes above. Where last I scrambled over steep lava beds with Dad and David in the summer of 1951, there's now an incredible wooden staircase reaching up to the scree slopes below the Lizard. No doubt it's purpose is to protect the flora and not for the benefit of climbers. By the time I reach the last section of this marvelous piece of mountain carpentry, my thigh muscles are cramping ... the effort of the last three hours has pushed my physical capacity to the limit. I crash at the top, slumping into a hollow on the side of the trail, watching climbers stream by. The summit is still a long way off, it's hot and my water supply is being consumed at an alarming rate. I think of turning back, particularly since I'm without the ashes I came for. With the pain in my legs gradually dissipating, I finally elect to continue, but gone is the verve and enthusiasm with which I began this adventure. I battle uphill like a beaten old cur, dragging along behind the pack.

 

  • The eastern face of Egmont as seen from the Stratford trailhead parking area. The eastern face of Egmont as seen from the Stratford trailhead parking area.
  • Looking northeast down the slope to Razorback ridge and Humphrey's Castle Looking northeast down the slope to Razorback ridge and Humphrey's Castle
  • Looking northeast down the slope to the old Alpine Club mountain hut Looking northeast down the slope to the old Alpine Club mountain hut
  • Almost off the scree and onto the Lizard ... the rock ridge visible on the skyline. Almost off the scree and onto the Lizard ... the rock ridge visible on the skyline.
  • An alternative route down. First ascend the rock wall and drop down onto the east face. An alternative route down. First ascend the rock wall and drop down onto the east face.
  • In the summit crater. The normal north side route is down the gully and across the rocks.  In the summit crater. The normal north side route is down the gully and across the rocks.
  • Peter on Mt. Egmont summit in 1991, his first climb of this peak since 1951, at age 11! Peter on Mt. Egmont summit in 1991, his first climb of this peak since 1951, at age 11!
  • Graham on the summit of Mount Egmont in 1991, proudly holding the New Zealand flag. Graham on the summit of Mount Egmont in 1991, proudly holding the New Zealand flag.
  • The eastern face of Mt. Egmont The eastern face of Mt. Egmont
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But then, help is at hand from a most unlikely source. It's the barman, Graham, from Stratford House and his mate Barry, a Taranaki dairy farmer. What an incongruous pair to find high on an alpine mountain. Graham has the appearance of tending bar all his adult life in less than first class establishments, thin and pale without the physical strength to lift a flagon of beer. Barry, on the other hand, has the ruddy rough skin complexion of a typical Kiwi farmer ... tempered by rain, wind, sun and mud. Although he's lived at the foot of Egmont all his life, it's the first time he's attempted to climb this 8,000' monolith in his backyard. His clothing and equipment is astonishing in it's simplicity and uselessness. His boots are well worn quarter Wellingtons, inflexible and tight. His dress, the ubiquitous black singlet and soiled woolen jersey of the New Zealand cowshed. His backpack, borrowed from a teenage son, is a simple sports clothing bag with it's handles looped over both shoulders. Un-bloody-believable! What a joke now the perfectly equipped (Eddie Bauer, REI, NorthFace) climbers of North America. My spirits rise in recognition of a fellow Kiwi outdoors man ... sans style, sans image, sans bullshit.

 

I'm so embarrassed to be overtaken by these two mountain misfits, I have no choice but to stagger along behind, uphill again, with leg muscles screaming to turn back. They're both moving along well, although Barry's mildly cursing his too tight boots. Hell's teeth, Barry! I can't even comprehend what you're doing up here, so far above the fat plains where you belong, and your only complaint is sore feet?

Together, like three Don Quixote's, we charge upwards, towards glory, in pain, with bleeding feet, scrambling, sliding, gasping, cursing .... a ragtag band of would be heroes who should be anywhere else but here. Eventually the long remembered Lizard of my youth is within reach ... it's the final stairway to the summit. Maybe one more hour of uphill agony? Graham and Barry forge ahead, or so it seems, perhaps because I'm down on all fours. We traverse the narrow rock ledge into the summit crater, filled with climbers milling aimlessly around in the snow. What a happy bloody mob of idiots! I’m knackered, and desperately thirsty, so while my two companions stumble up to the summit pinnacle, I attempt to melt snow into my water bottles. Another surprise from Graham: He produces a large New Zealand flag, which we take turns in holding high, posing for summit photographs.

The descent is anticlimactic, although not without some drama. A tough looking friend of my two loony companions invite us to clamber down the East Face direct. This route is covered with steep rock outcrops and a final long scree slope above the Stratford ski field. Our new climbing friend turns out to be a retired goat hunter, who's traversed these slopes numerous times. He's accompanied by his 10 year son who moves just like his father, with the agility of a mountain goat. And so, this strangest of mountain days comes to a successful conclusion. I return to Stratford House to find Mom still sitting alone in our room, wondering throughout this long day whether I was safe and where I was up there. Graham is barely able to serve us drinks that night, Barry has staggered off to milk his cows and the goat hunter and his son just disappeared as strangely as they appeared on the summit of Egmont.


The Final Act - Feb. 2000: On what will likely be the last occasion for me to stand on the summit of Egmont took place in the southern summer of 2000. In the company of Lucy and Mal Hill, I'd decided to climb Egmont once more, this time to carry my Mom's ashes to place on the summit. Mom had died in 1994 and the family had kept her ashes for a suitable occasion such as this. It seemed appropriate that her remains should join Dad's on the slopes of this very special mountain. We began the climb from the Stratford trailhead using the same route that I'd taken in 1991, but without the detour down to the Razorback. We were in cloud for much of the day and buffeted by high winds during the ascent. We did reach the summit in good time, buried Mom's ashes among the summit rocks and made a video record of the day.

Shortly after the brief burial ceremony and much to the amusement of Lucy and Mal I slipped off the summit rocks, executed a few somersaults, tumbling down 50 feet before my head stopped the fall. The scar on my skull is still evidence of that day.

 

©PeterTremayne, Reno Nevada 2012

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