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November 2013 Issue
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New Zealand vs The World

Aoraki/Mt Cook is New Zealand's highest mountain - but how does it compare to Everest? Photo: Mark Watson

We often dream of climbing the great summits of the world. But for most of us, work, money and commitments stop us from reaching those lofty heights. Luckily, New Zealand has a host of summits that could have been separated at birth form their overseas relatives

If you’re anything like me you’ll often look in awe at photographs of the iconic summits of the world. You’ll examine them to the finest detail figuring out the best routes to the top, the perfect camping spots and the places you’d least like to stand when the wind picks up.

But for many of these photos I may as well be looking at Middle Earth or Pluto. For I have about as much chance of climbing Mt Doom as I have summiting Carstensz Pyramid or Everest.

This is partly a money issue, but it’s also a commitment issue – these expeditions can take months, especially if the weather’s not playing ball. And many more days, weeks and months are needed to prepare yourself physically for such a venture. It would mean no steak and cheese pies for a few months… I’m not sure that’s a commitment I’m prepared to make.

But we’re in luck. New Zealand has such diversity that many of our finest mountains are comparable (at least partly) to some of these global icons.

With the help of those who have climbed and photographed the earth’s most remarkable natural structures, Wilderness has compiled a list of seven New Zealand summits separated at birth to famous peaks from across the globe.

To tick these off would still take a full dose of skill and fitness – but at least you may still have a few dollars left in the bank and a partner who’s still talking to you by the end of it.

Aoraki/Mt Cook vs Everest

Aoraki/Mt Cook, left, has been a proving ground for Kiwis wanting to ascend Everest. Photo: Mark Watson (Aoraki/Mt Cook)

Aoraki/Mt Cook, left, has been a proving ground for Kiwis wanting to ascend Everest. Photo: Mark Watson (Aoraki/Mt Cook)

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time for guided climb Cost of guided trip
Aoraki/Mt Cook 3754m Canterbury Six days $5000+
Mt Everest 8848m Nepalese Himalayas Nine weeks $78k

Why they’re similar: Hillary, relief from base to summit, terrain (in places) and relative size

Why they’re not: One’s much bigger than the other

There are so many links between these two mountains it’s almost silly. For starters, in a comparison piece such as this, it seems natural to link the highest summit in the world to the highest in New Zealand.

Then there’s the Sir Edmund Hillary link. Aoraki was his training school for the climb we all remember him for. His first ascent was in 1948 when he climbed the South Ridge – now named Hillary Ridge. And when he agreed that his face could be used on the $5 note he insisted that Aoraki, not Everest, be used as the backdrop.

Those who have climbed both mountains say there are certain similarities that can’t be ignored. Cinematographer Mark Whetu has recently climbed Everest for the movie Beyond the Edge, a documentary film depicting the 1953 Everest Expedition.

“The characteristics are similar on both mountains,” says Whetu. “You have huge crevasses and glaciers on the approach to Aoraki in much the same way as you do on Everest. The grades and the distances are similar, as is the weather and the technical merit, making it a good parallel in regards to the challenges you face.

“The relief from the Hermitage to the summit of Mt Cook is similar to the relief from Base Camp to the summit of Everest.

“This is why I think Kiwis have done so well on Everest – they’re not so intimidated.”

The action shots from Beyond the Edge were actually filmed on Aoraki and there are several references in the movie about the similarity between the two mountains.

“Aoraki/Mt Cook is an exceptional mountain in so many respects,” says Whetu. “I’m an extremely biased Kiwi but, as a guide when I was a young bugger, I used to take clients up there – many of whom had done a lot of climbing – some had climbed Everest. But Mt Cook always blew the wind out of their sails. It was never easy for anybody.”

 

Mt Aspiring vs the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn, right, is a perfect example of natural architecture. And, in Aspiring, left, we have a summit to match. Photo: Nick Groves (Aspiring)

The Matterhorn, right, is a perfect example of natural architecture. And, in Aspiring, left, we have a summit to match. Photo: Nick Groves (Aspiring)

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time for guided climb Cost of guided trip
Mt Aspiring 3754m Otago Five days $4000+
Matterhorn 4478 The Alps Six days $5700

Why they’re similar: Both picture postcard perfect mountains

Why they’re not: Different rock, different weather patterns, different problems

If Aoraki and Everest are the Shanghais of the mountain world then Aspiring and the Matterhorn would be more akin to Venice or Prague. The two are examples of the finest natural architecture, standing prominent and glorious in a way that few others compare. Both protrude from the horizon and can be seen from many miles away. Both seem to say ‘climb me, for the good of your soul’.

Tony Brindle, mountain guide-cum-management training consultant, says that although the mountains have an exceptional appearance, they’re different animals when you get onto the rock: “Visually they’re both stunning and, when you get to the top, you get full panoramic views,” he says. “But with the Matterhorn you need more technical ability. The weather can play havoc there. I’ve been on trips where I’ve not got away from the top hut. If you’ve had a bit of rain and a cold night you can get a thin layer of ice on the rocks which impacts on climbing and makes it a serious undertaking. But you can clip into bolts on the Matterhorn, which can make it easier in that regard.

“The north-west ridge of Aspiring is technically a very pleasant way up but on the top third of the mountain you often get sastrugi ice (sharp, irregular ridges in the snow formed by wind erosion) which can make it very hard going.”

 

Mt Egmont/Taranaki vs Mt Fuji

Which one’s which? Both look like your classic cartoon summits. (FYI, Taranaki is on the left.)

Which one’s which? Both look like your classic cartoon summits. (FYI, Taranaki is on the left.)

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time to climb
Mt Egmont/Taranaki 2518m New Plymouth One-two days
Mt Fuji 3776m Japan One-two days

Why they’re similar: Are you kidding? Look at them!

Why they’re not: Taranaki seriously lacking bears and a summit post office

This comparison is a no-brainer. The two mountains look almost identical – so much so, that Mt Taranaki was famously used to represent Mt Fuji in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai.

They look like cartoon summits – ask a five-year-old to draw a mountain and they will quickly pencil something that looks very much like Fuji or Egmont.

Both have erupted within the last 350 years, both take about four or five hours to climb from where the road ends and both involve steep rocky ascents.

But the fact that they’re relatively straight forward to climb means both are commonly underestimated. The changeable weather makes Taranaki statistically one of the most dangerous mountains in New Zealand. And regular deaths on Mt Fuji have resulted in Japanese authorities urging wannabe peak-baggers to climb only in July and August, when conditions are mildest.

Experienced mountaineer and climber Allan Uren says Mt Taranaki often takes people by surprise, but that didn’t stop him heading up there once with a garden hoe.

“I was with a group of friends who were all surfing,” he says. “We had no intention of climbing but we all decided to do it at the last minute. They had their gear but I had nothing so I went to the garden shed and found a hoe to use as a brace. It was quite a pointy one which was good for cutting little steps.

“I also used socks for gloves, but my hands got bloody cold so after we’d finished lunch I put bread bags over them which were really good wind stoppers.

“It wasn’t out of disrespect for the mountain. I’ve done a lot of mountaineering and I saw it as a challenge. I wouldn’t recommend others doing it – Mt Taranaki’s a dangerous place with great big slopes and no ledges breaking your fall.”

However similar Mt Taranaki and Mt Fuji look, there are marked differences between the two. For starters there’s no post office on the summit of Taranaki. There are also no bears to worry about on the way up and no tractors dropping off food at the huts.

And, despite it being a popular mountain to climb by New Zealand standards, this pales into comparison to the 300,000 who climb Fuji each year. Climb the Japanese volcano at the height of summer and you’ll be queuing for much of the way up.

 

Mt Ruapehu vs Mt Kilimanjaro

Ruapehu, Left, and Kilimanjaro, volcanoes of girth - as broad asn they are old. Photo: Shaun Barnett (Ruapehu)

Ruapehu, Left, and Kilimanjaro, volcanoes of girth – as broad asn they are old. Photo: Shaun Barnett (Ruapehu)

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time to climb Cost of guided trip
Mt Ruapehu 2797m Central Plateau One-two days Not necessary to be guided
Mt Kilimanjaro 5895m Tanzania 13 days $5300+

Why they’re similar: Broad, ancient volcanoes with similar gradient

Why they’re not: Very different scale, terrain and likelihood of seeing elephants

The classic image of both these mountains is of a broad, snow-topped massif behind wide empty plains. Neither has the steep sided cone shape of Ngauruhoe, but their grandeur is one of girth and body mass.

True, Kilimanjaro is perhaps more likely to have giraffes or elephants plodding past, but don’t let that destroy the comparison.

There’s a variance of scale. One is a day trip, the other takes several days and altitude acclimatisation. One is an ancient volcano, the other is a collection of ancient volcanoes that have merged into one monstrous beast.

Guy Cotter, director of Adventure Consultants, has climbed both mountains. “Both are volcanoes with an ancient crater basin at the top,” he says. “The gradient is similar and this makes Kilimanjaro more like Ruapehu than Ngauruhoe in that respect.

“It’s about 3500m to the top of Kili from where you start walking and it can take three, four or five days to the summit, stopping at predetermined huts. On Ruapehu you’re free to roam – you don’t need a permit and you can do it as a day trip if you want.

“There’s a gravel path all the way up Kili and it’s pretty dry, whereas on Ruapehu you cross different terrain and there’s snow and ice on the upper part which requires extra skills. So in that sense Kili is easier, though you also have to acclimatise to the altitude.

“Another major difference is the number of people. There are 3000 people at any one time on Kilimanjaro with hundreds reaching the summit each day. Ruapehu’s streets apart – you feel all by yourself up there.”

 

Mt Pembroke vs Carstensz Pyramid

Two remote mountains cloaked in rainforest. Careful planning is essential to climb either. Pembroke, left, by Mark Watson

Two remote mountains cloaked in rainforest. Careful planning is essential to climb either. Pembroke, left, by Mark Watson

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time for guided climb Cost of guided trip
Mt Pembroke 2015m Fiordland Five days $3000+
Carstensz Pyramid 4884m Indonesia 20 days $22k

Why they’re similar: Rainforest, rainfall, muddy and swampy underfoot

Why they’re not: One’s in the tropics, the other’s clearly not

Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Punack Jaya) is the tallest mountain in Oceania, making it one of the ‘Seven Summits’.

Its rocky jagged ridges protrude from lush Indonesian rainforest. It wasn’t climbed until 1962 (one of the expedition members being New Zealand’s very own Philip Temple). Climbers have had problems getting consent from the Indonesian government to climb it. In fact, it was closed to all climbers from 1995 to 2005.

Now, even once you’ve received a permit to climb, without a helicopter you have to hack through dense jungle for five days to reach base camp. And if that’s not enough, some tribes in the region have been known to practice cannibalism.

An obvious comparison to such a remote, rain forest-cloaked mountain is one of the great Fiordland mountains. Mt Pembroke is big, tough, remote and on many a mountaineer’s to-do list.

Freelance mountain guide Paul Rogers says there are surprising similarities between Fiordland and the jungles of Indonesia. “They both have a remote feel and a wild setting,” he says. “You get heavy dumps of rain and swampy, muddy ground conditions. There’s some surprisingly similar vegetation with lots of sphagnum moss and tree ferns.

“Carstensz Pyramid has a very demanding approach: for the first two days you head up a river gorge, then the next two days you tramp through swampy jungle. After that it’s alpine terrain and it’s weird to see it change from jungle to the sort of karst landscape you see in Kahurangi and Paparoa.”

Although the approach to Mt Pembroke is far shorter and there’s less fear of cannibalistic encounters, it’s still one tough cookie, as Alan Uren explains: “Mt Pembroke is also really hard to reach. Once you’ve made it to Milford Sound you have to cross the fiord and then go up the Harrison River. Then it’s a tough climb with a fair bit of bush bashing – it’s a real mountaineer’s mountain.”

 

Elie de Beaumont vs Denali (Mt McKinley)

The similarities are as much about the journey as the way they look. (Elie, left, by Mark Watson. Denali by Alain Beaupairlant.)

The similarities are as much about the journey as the way they look. (Elie, left, by Mark Watson. Denali by Alain Beauparlant.)

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time for guided climb Cost of guided trip
Elie de Beaumont 3109m Canterbury Five days $3000+
Mt McKinley (Denali) 6168m Alaska 3+ weeks $8200

Why they’re similar: The journey to the top

Why they’re not: You get Elie de Beaumont all to yourself

Sometimes a mountain can remind a climber of another summit they’ve scaled, not by the way it looks, but by the experience.

Elie de Beaumont and Denali are both big mountains – Elie de Beaumont is the most northerly 3000m summit in the Southern Alps and Denali is the highest in North America – but there are dozens of other sizeable mountains in New Zealand, too.

For Allan Uren, Elie de Beaumont specifically reminds him of his epic venture up Denali in 1996, especially when climbed in winter.

“The similarity is not about the climb but about the journey. Both mountains provide fascinating journeys which follow a similar pattern.

“With McKinley you fly into base camp, then on to the Kahiltna Glacier which winds its way round as it goes up. You then head up a subsidiary glacier, up the headwall, across a glacial basin and up the ridge to the summit.

“In a similar way, the Tasman Glacier winds its way up to Tasman Saddle Hut. Then you head up a subsidiary glacier and up a ridge to the summit of Elie de Beaumont.

“At the top of Elie de Beaumont you can see ocean one side and out to the Canterbury Plains the other. With Denali you get wonderful views over the Alaskan Tundra.”

One early explorer described the view from the top of Denali as “like looking out of the windows of heaven”.

“As with a lot of New Zealand mountains, if you climb Elie de Beaumont in mid winter you get the place to yourself, but at Denali there are always lots of people,” says Uren.

 

Mt Hector vs Ben Nevis

Mt Hector, left, and Ben Nevis are popular climbs on which the danger is underrated. Photo: Mark Watson (Mt Hector)

Mt Hector, left, and Ben Nevis are popular climbs on which the danger is underrated. Photo: Mark Watson (Mt Hector)

How they compare

Peak Height Location Time to climb
Mt Hector 1529m Wellington One day
Ben Nevis 1344m Scotland One day

Why they’re similar: Size, easy track available, both underestimated for danger

Why they’re not: Far more people on Nevis, nearly always snow on top

One New Zealand peak you’re unlikely to have to yourself is Mt Hector. It’s the tallest in the Tararuas and is ogled by thousands of Wellingtonians each day. For those who live in its shadow, it’s a must-climb: achievable, satisfying… yet it’s more dangerous than people think.

Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest summit, is of a similar scale. It doesn’t form the skyline of any major city but is still a must-climb because it’s talked about, achievable, satisfying… yet is more dangerous than people think.

On a fine day the two summits are nothing more than a good day’s slog. They’re not technical if you take the most popular paths – in fact, you’ll never once have to use your hands.

But when the weather turns it’s easy to lose your bearings.

Photographer Mark Watson is a big fan of Mt Hector and ‘The Ben’, as the Scottish summit is affectionately known by the locals. “Both of these mountains are very accessible with similar elevation. They each have a lot of people wanting to obtain the summit – Ben Nevis because it’s the highest in the UK and Mt Hector because you can see it from Wellington and there’s a real urge to climb it.

“There are various deaths and tragedies surrounding both mountains. People can walk up but the danger is underestimated – both mountains lure people in, to some extent.

“The track up Hector is well made and a bit of a highway, but perhaps not as much as Ben Nevis, and both are craggy at the top.

“Both mountains give you that sense of being quite obviously higher than everything else around you. The views are really special.”

 

Time and money

It takes a fair bit of commitment to summit one of New Zealand’s tallest peaks. They’re generally technical so your fitness and skill needs to be up to scratch, you have to allow a week for the climb and, with a guide, your wallet will feel lighter.

Yet all this is magnified if your ambitions extend to one of the Seven Summits or a Himalayan Expedition.

A trip to Denali, for instance, takes more than three weeks and will cost more than $8000 compared to, say, Mt Aspiring, which takes up to a week and costs $4000.

And the ultimate ascent of Everest will set you back nine weeks and $78,000. “Everest is so much more because of the length of time you’re out there, the permit price and the number of staff,” says Suze Kelly from Adventure Consultants. “In total there are 40 members of staff for a group of eight climbers.

“Anything you do in the Himalayas requires acclimatisation, making every trip there at least three weeks.

“But the same level of fitness is required for both New Zealand and overseas mountains. The big New Zealand climbs are usually on technical terrain and you generally need one guide per climber, which brings the price up.”

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