Four Summits: Recce No.2 Mount Ruapehu

During our last recce trip to Mount Ruapehu we were unable to summit the peak we had intended to, due to the ice and snow in the glacier. Following that we had a long discussion and researched into whether it would be acceptable to summit on the North East Ridge at Te Heuheu (2732m), and thus remove the glacier completely from the picture. Looking over the maps it seemed possible and having come up the North side on our last trip we knew that we could reach the Glacier Knob. Following this, we would cycle down Bruce Road and follow the tarmac clockwise to the start of the Tongariro crossing, to see how long it would take us on the day. This would give us an idea of the best time to start our planned adventure and allow us to have a rough idea of where we can sleep/rest/eat more fulfilling food/drink tea, etc as we traverse the 4 summits, cycle and pack raft between them (previous blog).

The view from Te Heuheu summit, looking towards Tahurangi

Friday night we camped up at the Whakapapa Holiday Park in the van and sorted equipment for the morning, ready for a quick get-away. On the drive in you could see the snow line had receded immensely since our last visit, and although this time we decided on taking our boots and crampons, I was hopeful to not need them.

Saturday morning we woke early and drove to the car park at the top of Bruce Road for a 6.30am start. We timed our start so it was just becoming light, but the visibility was poor from the offset as we steadily made our way from the car park and up through Happy Valley at the base of Whakapapa ski field. We used a map and compass to track our progress and ensure we stayed on our intended route. From the prior visit we knew we wanted to stay further to the right of the Rangatira and Waterfall Express chairlifts, and we were able to do so along rocky terrain with no sign of any snow or ice. At times however, the sky cleared and the thin fog that surrounded us would lift enough to begin to see the wide-ranging views, reminding us of the mountain’s beauty and power.

The route we took, Tukino Peak, then onto Te Heuheu

We continued up through the rock, and volcanic landscape, crossing streams, circling the Third Waterfall and up to the Knoll Ridge T-Bar. On our previous trip we again went too far left, and the terrain became steep. This time we stayed right and kept on the ridge line to the North side of the Whakapapa Glacier. This initially allowed for steady climbing and bouldering, but as we started to reach Glacier Knob at 2500m the scree set in with force. Two steps forward and five back with each step sinking into the broken rock fragments. A definite test of patience here. Several sense of humour failures later and I was wondering whether this terrain would ever change, but as quickly as that thought entered my mind the fog began to lift and blue sky above the cloud line shone down on us. You could see Nguarahoe to the North peaking out from the white puffs of cloud below, and to the South East was the Summit Plateau in its harsh bright, white with steep edges and raw rock of the crater surrounding. Such a contrast to 1 month ago where snow covered all the intricacies of the sharp-edged terrain. We steadily traversed North East across the ridge towards Tukino Peak (2720m), and then on to Te Heuheu (2732m). It’s hard to not be stifled by the 360degree view from the top here, and it was a special moment standing atop Mount Ruapehu and being able to see Mount Taranaki in the distance to the South West.

The initial descent made the scree much more palpable as we floated through the rocks, and cut across the North edge. We made quick progress here and only slowed to cross some small patches of thawing snow as we traversed to the right of Valley T-Bar and down to the First and Third Waterfalls. We then retraced our steps, continuing the descent through the rocky terrain to the car park. A much faster descent than ascent and we were back at the car park within around 4.5 hours total moving time (GPS file).

From my first mountaineering experience back in Scotland, I know that climbing mountains can never be taken for granted, and it’s only half of the journey reaching the summit. The hardest part can at times be the descent. We were fortunate and had a relatively simple descent, but that can never be a blueprint. In the back of my mind I always have the mantra of full respect for the mountains and alpine environment, because you never know what it may uncover for you.

The second part of this recce trip involved a cycle down Bruce Road and around to the start of the Tongariro crossing. We decided to drive down to the campsite as we were staying there that night, and refuel with some Performance Radix Nurtition and tea. Perhaps here would be a good point to say that on the walk up the Mountain I’d mainly eaten bananas and Em’s Cookie Bars (along with some Marks and Spencer’s Percy Pigs I’d found in the cupboard) and drank Nuun electrolyte tabs in my water bottle. I find this combination of carb and electrolytes works well on longer treks, and will do the same when we attempt our 4 Summit Mission.

We soon got going on the mountain bikes and although there was a strong headwind we flew down the rest of Bruce Road, past the Chateau Tongariro and onto SH48. Turning right at the junction onto SH47 the sun was beaming down and I could hear the tarmac crunching under my tires as they rolled over, gathering pace and sticking in the heat. I was thankful I’d brought all my water bottles with me, using my race vest to carry as many as possible! Another right turn onto the Mangatepopo Road and then came the dust and gravel along the steady incline for 6kilometres. As cars sped past my contact lenses filled with the remnants of dust from their speeding wheels, and I calmed my disdain by eating some jelly snakes, and ensuring I kept my mind on the job in hand. Ali’s wit made further light of our situation…and I was shortly chasing her up the last part of the ascent to the car park at the end of the road. The Tongariro Crossing can be accessed from here, and the 4hour limit on the car park had ensured that only a few vehicles were present. We noted the visibility of the mountains from this height was minimal, and I was pretty happy for the views I’d seen that morning from the very top.

A quick turnaround and off we went descending fast on the gravel and then back to the heat of the tarmac. Two left turns and some North easterly winds in our favour and we were back on SH48 before we knew it. I’d cycled this road before with a headwind and I knew it could be a killer on the incline, but we had a tailwind the whole way, and I was grinning from ear to ear. The Chateau Tongariro suddenly came into view, and with its faded façade I couldn’t quite remove the image of the hotel from a dark film of the 1980s, it’s just missing the maze from out the front! With that thought in my mind, the final hill was completed at full speed and I was suddenly in the tranquillity of the campsite.

As recce missions go this one ticked all the boxes: mountains, summits, trails, mountain bikes and tea. Not only that but we’ve made some good insteps into timings and logistics for our 4 Summits Adventure around Easter 2019.

Please note: Alpine experience and a high level of fitness are required for this trip. Please also respect the local Iwi and their sacred mountains.

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