Mount Ruapehu Recce

Last weekend we packed up the van and took a trip to the mountains. This was to be a recce trip for our big adventure in February (summitting all 4 mountains). We wanted to see whether it would be possible to summit Mount Ruapehu by trekking up from the Whakapapa side and traversing along the south west ridge to the Tahurangi summit at 2797metres. Following this we were to descend via Turoa ski field, joining the Ohakune Mountain Road and subsequently the Round the Mountain track (Goat race in reverse), camping overnight mid-way along, and finishing the loop in the morning back at Bruce Road.

After checking the maps and discussing with people with local knowledge, we made the call to go without crampons, get as far as we could within our safety limit, and to start around 6am when it was light. Starting at this time we would hopefully miss the ice and as the sun rose we would get some thawing, making movements slightly easier in the first part of the morning.

Friday night we parked up at the Mangahuia campsite at the base of the mountain, ate our dinner and made a few cups of tea before settling down for the night in the van. I love sleeping in the van, perhaps it reminds me of camping out in my back garden as a child, but either way it always makes me feel excited for the day ahead and the experiences that are to come, and this was no exception.

We woke at 5am, breakfast of tea and Radix cereal and off we drove with our friends as far up the mountain road as we could. You can park at the top of Bruce Road where the ski field starts at Whakapapa, and this is where we left the van and started out ascent.

The first part of the route appears to be relatively simple: follow the ski lift as high as you can. We traversed and ascended through the rocky landscape, up, up and more up. We kept to the middle of the Knoll Ridge T Bar which brought us out around 2245m. Within 1.5hours we began to reach the starting edges of the snow line. Checking the map we continued using the rock and ridges as much as we could, but also began to kick in on the snow and make steps through the mildly thawing icy slopes.

It was tough going at some points, especially where the ice was a little more compact and the slopes became more severe in gradient, and the wind increased slightly as we neared the summit point. We topped out at Glacier Knob at 2642m and traversed across and further south to Dome at 2672m. Here we checked the map again and decided on a western traverse of the Crater lake. We had heard an easterly traverse isn’t recommended, and all of us were pretty keen to stay as far away from the edge of Crater lake as possible.

Crater lake, Mount Ruapehu

We started across the bright white Mangaturuturu Glacier skirting the Paretetaitonga peak, and began an ascent up the rocky ridge towards the lower summit at 2757m. We were then hoping to sidle around to Tahurangi at 2797m, our ultimate goal for the day. However, we were unsure of the terrain in that region so were not clear as to whether this would be possible with the kit we had on us, plus Ali and I had decided to take the kitchen sink (extra training weight), so our backpacks were pretty heavy.

A few big climbs over some steep rocks and some bouldering over the ridge, and we were at the lower summit peak at 2757m. The views from the top of any mountain tend to be spectacular, and this was no exception. As we sat atop the ridge and lower summit, Crater lake with its demonic darkness powered up to us from one side, and the sheer white snow with steep drops down to Turoa ski field beemed through on the other. We paused here for tea, and to have a think. Ahead of us was the sheer drop of one of the south west glaciers, and from our current position either side of the ridge was pretty steep with not much room for error, so we had to make some decisions.

Without crampons and ice axe, we decided it was safer to head back the way we’d come and either traverse down a different way, or head back to the Whakapapa ski field and to the Round the Mountain track from Bruce road. On a personal note, I feel that at this point when standing near the very top of a mountain your judgement at times can become clouded, I am no exception to this, and the will to keep pushing on to reach the summit can sometimes overcome your usual sound reasoning. So, yes, it was difficult to make the decision to turn back, because my desire was to reach the summit, but after all, safety is the most important aspect of the trek, and ensuring we all got off the mountain safely was always more important than reaching the summit.

This would be a good time to mention that between the 4 of us we had all the equipment needed for high level tramping, with safety gear in our packs, along with 2 personal locator beacons, and had told people back home our plans for the day and expected timeframes for return; a must when doing any hikes and trekking.

We headed back to the car park via a slightly easier route through the Whakapapa glacier and closer to the northern side of the Far West T Bar. This decision allowed for a much easier descent, and along with the thawing of the icy snow we made quick progress back to the rocky landscape and to the van.

We talked through what to do next, and decided to continue for a few more hours anti-clockwise around the mountain track to get a long day on the feet (as we’d planned), and we were about 7hours in currently. I was excited at the prospect of camping out that night, but I can’t say I was looking forward to the rocks and steep descents of the ‘goat race’ on the Round the Mountain track.

Several hours passed and many ups, downs and stumbles later, we found a great place to pitch our tent near a stream. Tenting in the middle of nowhere is something I’ve never done before, but it was one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had. No phone reception, no other people, just us, our camp-stove, tent and peace. We washed in the stream, set up our camp, drank tea and made our meals. Radix has helped us out with a selection of rehydrated meals, and they were thoroughly needed at the end of that day.

The sun was beaming for the rest of the evening and around 7pm we got into the tent for some relief from it. Sleeping in a tent brings its own nuances, weather, sounds, smells…but I managed to get a few hours sleep on and off. We woke early the next morning and again tea and Radix gave us fuel to begin the day. Both of us were in good spirits, and as the sun began to rise we continued along the path for around 1.5hours finding ourselves back at the van before we knew it.

The Round the Mountain track is undulating to say the least, and rocky ground is staple here. You can be crossing a fast-flowing river at one point, and the next you are clambering up tussocks and through what feels like clay and sand to top out with views across National Park, all with the looming beauty of Mount Ruapehu to your side. It is captivating being within the surrounds of such a beautiful area and mountain.

Since the trip, Ali and I have had several chats about the routes available for our 4 mountain summit adventure. Our initial plan was to start with Mount Ruapehu, summit this and cycle around to Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. However, with the difficulty and technicality of Mount Ruapehu from the west ridge at this time of year due to the amount of snow, we need to rethink. I would still like to complete the mountains in this order, however, I have some questions at the back of my mind. Is it possible at a slightly later time of year (1 month or so) to traverse along the south west higher ridge with no crampons or technical climbing gear? In which case we could do our original route of out and back from Whakapapa. Or how much longer would it be to summit from the Turoa side, descend the same side and mountain bike from Ohakune around to Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – via the Old Coach road? Or do we wait a few months and change things entirely?

Either way, I think another recce is in order, and some decisions need to be made following this.

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