“Anyone interested? Weather forecast is dry.”
I check the forecast. Clear skies and a freezing south-easterly, snow down to 1100m not too far above the top of the route, possibility of frost on the rock or verglas. Numb fingers, frozen toes, an ice cream headache, chattering teeth, shivering legs.
“It will be cold. How enthusiastic are you two?”
I consider Richard’s email.
“He’s been patiently waiting for suitable conditions to climb Bomb Arête for a few months now. I’m keen.”
I recheck the forecast. Temperature -6 degrees before factoring in wind chill.
Mangatepopo car park is stripped bare, the crowds of Crossing pilgrims long gone. The southerly funnels hair into my nose, eyes and mouth as we crouch on the leeward side of the car unpacking. A few scrawny pale clouds hurtle across the horizon, silver and bronze tussocks quiver and flap against the rusty volcanic soil. Tongariro blazes the horizon, Ngaurahoe is shrouded in low cloud, Ruapehu is a flat white mushroom pushing up against blue sky.
As I ponder whether to jettison any of my four down jackets Richard eyes Gecko’s giant castle of spikey metal protection, the shiny stacks of biners and neatly knotted rows of slings.
“We need to get better at thinking about what gear we require for particular routes” he observes.
I gather the almost new 60m green half rope and plonk it atop my down mountain. Richard grabs a few armfuls of metal and shoe horns it into his small pack. Gecko keeps stuffing metal into his faded red pack till there is none left then he plonks the pink half rope on top and clips his helmet and shoes to the bulging exterior. I test his pack, it still feels like he has a rhinoceros or two crammed in there but I can lift it off the ground now. Richard shares out a round of peanut slabs for us to munch as we walk. A quick check of the route guide and we set off towards the Bomb Bay Cliff.
Crunching our way across the brittle volcanic gravel Richard and I reminisce about park adventures. Richard has a passion for ski touring while I enjoy a bit of alpine climbing, instruction and trail running here. Richard explains how the wind funnels across from the south meaning we won’t necessarily find sheltered conditions at our crag. Gecko keeps walking. If he is listening to our chatter he gives no hint of it. His expression is unreadable. Shuttered beneath his spectacles his hazel eyes are dark against his pale face. He has already mentioned he did the Crossing with his family when he was 15.
Up at the toe of the buttress Richard and I empty our packs and inspect the bottom of the route. As Gecko predicted, Bomb Arête is dry and the volcanic rock is absorbing the sunlight and warming up although we can see a few ice patches on the shady right hand side and water is seeping out of rock further down the wall. When Gecko arrives we discuss how we’ll climb. As Richard will shortly be leaving the country Gecko generously offers him the lead of the more interesting middle pitch. I decide my role will be to focus on removing protection, getting up the route without drama and snapping a few pictures. Richard produces a small day pack for transporting our trainers up for the descent. We add to it a drink bottle plus some food. I’m wondering how to broach including my PLB when Richard solves my dilemma by enquiring whether it’s in.
Gecko extracts an unworn pair of crack climbing gloves from his pack and pulls one over his favoured left hand after first applying some new tape to a graze he acquired the weekend prior. Finally he ventures up the first pitch, his smooth grey helmet and light grey jacket separated from his black trousers by a rainbow and silver corrugated metal skirt rattling and bouncing against his narrow hips. His faded rock shoes match his orange corduroy chalk bag which is decorated with black stars and securely fastened to his harness with a liberal length of orange cord. I have coveted the chalk bag since I first spotted it in the gym. It’s a taonga, gifted by one of his brothers. Gecko disdains the use of chalk preferring to concentrate on positioning his body for maximum balance before every precise move. He once remarked his fingers seldom get moist and I spread enough chalk around the holds for both of us.
Gecko’s head moves systematically from side to side and up and down as he takes a mental stocktake of the options. Unhurried he rubs his long white fingers on the rock feeling for hand holds while balancing on his feet. Once resolved on a course of action he wiggles slowly and steadily upwards his grey and black body hugging the rock. Before a difficult move he pauses to gather his energy, his shoulders tighten then series of moves complete, he pauses and his shoulders relax outwards. Mostly he moves incrementally but he can surprise with big steps, balancing his weight over a single long leg and leveraging himself vertical. Observing his progress Richard asks me if I would mind taking out all the gear so he can climb the hand and fist cracks on the arête. In his search for good gear placements Gecko has headed left of the route.
I make easy work of the lower reaches then err by following Gecko left only to have to reverse back onto the arête. I’m unsure about the middle slab as there are no obvious hand holds.
“You need to stand up, press your hands against the slab and traverse left” Richard says.
I study the slab in front of me and with a quick pull on the green rope traverse to the easy groove on the left. Looking back I watch as Richard glides smoothly straight up the slab.
Gecko has established his belay station on a large rock platform. The half ropes are entombed together in the bowels of a crack. Richard and I extract a rope each and flake. I dig a scrap of paper from my jacket pocket and read out what I’ve scribbled down about the second pitch. We eye the crux corner.
“Do you feel comfortable climbing that or shall I leave a sling on the rope so you can move the green rope to the right?” asks Richard.
“Put the sling on thanks” I respond gratefully.
In a series of fluid movements rapidly executed Richard confidently transports his short, compact body across the rock. His shoes barely skim the stone before he moves again his muscular form twisting and sliding at his command, part rock skier part monkey. Years of experimenting with various outdoor sports that rely on strength, flexibility, balance and co-ordination mean he instinctively knows the best line to take and how to position his body on surfaces and in space. He races up the arête, pausing briefly at the ledge before swinging out to the left and up the smooth, slightly overhanging corner. “I like the exposure here, there aren’t really any hand holds” he remarks. His red helmet disappears from sight before I can take a picture.
On the ledge below the corner I study the right hand access which the route guide suggests is easier. I make a couple of genuine attempts to get onto it. It is more awkward than it looked from below, downward sloping, exposed and lacking in positive hand holds. I inch along the narrow ledge to inspect Richard’s route. I don’t like that either. If I fall off I will hang over a void. I squeeze back past Gecko to the right and make another attempt. As I have neither Richard’s agility and anticipatory skill nor Geckos patience, laser focus and ability to meticulously plot moves in advance I get part way up, find myself stranded with pumped arms and forced to retreat.
Gecko who has been watching closely makes a few suggestions for feet and hand placements. I try again with the same result. Gecko demonstrates a couple of moves. I try again landing back on the ledge. Gecko suggests I stand on his cupped hands to get higher. I take a few breaths. We have called up for Richard to provide slack and take in numerous times he must be wondering what is going on. Gecko continues to calmly survey me and the route. If he is concerned about how long I’m taking or regretting letting me come along it doesn’t show. “Stand on my shoulders” he offers in his deep reassuring voice. Initially I think he’s joking but then I remember he has seen me climb trees to get up routes. He stoops to my height, using his left hand he helps me place a foot on his shoulder between the straps of the day pack. I place my right foot on his right shoulder and we both stand up. I scramble from Gecko over the corner. “You’re awesome” I blurt as I go my voice cracking with appreciation and relief.
From my vantage point a metre above him I watch as Gecko’s first attempt to mount the corner fails. I suspect our acrobatics have upset his concentration but not his commitment. He studies the rock again his face a mix of determination wrestling with doubt. He launches himself at the corner getting his right foot high and scrabbling up with his hands. The moves are clumsy; Gecko does not look comfortable; his back pack is pushing him away from the rock. Grey helmet and white face snake into view followed by grey jacket, black knee then the other. I shout my congratulations and we climb up to Richard who in contrast looks completely at ease in the sun on a large rock platform beside his perfectly constructed anchor.
Gecko explains to me that the crux move was tricky because in the gym you never get practice at the moves required for climbing overhung right hand corners. Richard teases us about the time spent on the ledge below. Gecko teases Richard about taking the easy way up. Together we admire the aerial view of Mangatepopo valley where sliver lava paths glisten and weave like a frozen spider web or braided river. Richard cuts through the banter to remind me I’ll be on the exposed ledge for some time and should utilise his anchor.
Gecko disappears above us leaving a trail of criss-crossing ropes behind him. Too late we realise he has taken the pack with the food and drink. I search my pockets and find us both a peanut slab. I stuff my rock shoes down the front of my down jacket to warm them up like Richard showed me. We marvel at how warm we are.
For the last pitch I shadow Gecko up the shallow gully littered with broken rock clearing the gear while avoiding wet slabs. Richard searches for climbing challenge out to the right where the rock is overhung and exposed. I find a good vantage point and photograph Richard against the skyline. Gecko has folded himself onto a tiny belay ledge, his hazel eyes shine with satisfaction as he describes the horrendous rope drag he experienced on the final pitch.
Richard tames the pink rope into two matching coils designed for slinging over your shoulder or sitting neatly in the top of your pack. He calls them his octopuses. I sloppily coil the green rope in random, uneven loops. Richard recoils showing me how he makes his octopus. Gecko and Richard clown around accentuating their height differential.
Richard stresses to Gecko the importance of tailoring plans to suit the conditions rather than vice versa and the need to aim for efficient pitching to minimise the risk of getting caught out by weather changes or darkness. Gecko nods gravely still wearing his crooked smile recognising perhaps that while there will always be more to learn he has commitment and in its many nuances this is the most valuable skill for climbing and the key to living versus merely existing. The ability to make a calculated decision to do something even though you don’t know for certain all the ins and outs that will be required along the way or even how it will work out. Commitment is both an action and a mind-set.