Getting high on Mt Ruapehu

PAMELA WADE
Last updated 05:00 14/03/2012
Mt Ruapehu's Crater Lake
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LAKE IN THE SKY: Mt Ruapehu's Crater Lake sits high above the Central Plateau.

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Filial piety isn't what it ought to be. When I announced that I was going to climb Mt Ruapehu, both my daughters clamoured to come too, which I fondly put down to concern that their mother might need a hand up the mountain.

What I didn't foresee was that they would blithely spring up the rocks ahead of me and into the far distance, while I panted behind, glasses fogged with sweat, bitterly remembering all those times I had carried them as babies on long country walks, one in front and one behind, clambering manfully over stiles and gates.

When I finally caught up with them at the lunch stop, sprawled comfortably on the ground scoffing scroggin, they did have the courtesy to raise a small cheer, before channelling their inner mountain goats again soon after I'd thankfully thrown off my backpack to sit down beside them.

Fortunately, I wasn't dependent for my wellbeing on the fruits of my womb: we had taken the guided option for the Crater Lake Walk, and while Ryan was up the front with what was hard not to label "the show-offs" in our party of 14, I followed at a more considered pace with Foxy, who has lost count of the times he has done the trip, although the number must be nearly 2000 by now.

As we gently swayed up on the first of two chairlifts from the Whakapapa skifield car park to the start of the climb at 2020 metres, he pointed out the hut where he and other workers had been enjoying a beer at the end of the day in 1996, when one of them glanced out the door and exclaimed: "Look at the [unprintable expletive] mountain!"

A vast and silent ash cloud was billowing from the crater, the tiny figures of four climbers fleeing ahead of it, before it concealed them from view. Even so many years later, Foxy's awe at the power and drama of the eruption was undiminished.

For me, just the sight of an entire mountainside strewn with violently shattered rocks was enough to make me marvel.

Stark, bleak and barren, it has no vegetation, insects or birds: just rocks, boulders and gravel, here and there gouged out into wide channels by lahars from the crater lake.

"We don't build huts in the valleys any more," noted Foxy.

Melt water trickled down from the glacier under patches of snow still thick and white in mid-February. Although JRR Tolkien never saw it, it was exactly what he described when Frodo and his friends reached Mordor, and a gift location for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.

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Behind us, Ngauruhoe's cartoon volcano peak pierced the cloud that hid the ground from our view.

"On a clear day, you can see across the North Island, from Mt Edgecumbe to Mt Taranaki and the sea," another guide, Andy, said, "but when the cloud's like this, it's special to be up here in the sun."

We stood like gods on top of the world, the clear blue sky above and white cloud swirling around below us, concealing the domain of the mere mortals.

Not long afterwards, as we scrambled up the ironically named Restful Ridge, I was feeling less godlike, but Foxy distracted me from the toil by showing how to tell the difference between basalt from the volcanic plug, and the rocks trapped underneath it, and pointing out the striations on algae-orange boulders ground smooth by the glaciers that once covered the area.

"Pace yourself," he advised, when the incline seemed very steep. "Let's do 100 steps before we stop."

When we did, it was a chance to look back down the mountain, at the ground fleetingly visible through gaps in the cloud, and at the flushed faces of the independent walkers behind us, grateful, too, for the excuse to stop for a breather.

Finally, we had a proper rest at the rim of the Summit Plateau, several hundred metres above the 2300m boundary of the original gift from Te Heuheu Tukino in 1887.

The gift was a generous and astute move on his part to preserve the peaks, so important to the Ngati Tuwharetoa iwi, from exploitation by settlers.

Despite the sunshine, the wind was sharp, but thankfully not strong, as we followed the narrow ridge along the rim, the odd rock bouncing down the slope to the packed ice in the crater below. Whiffs of sulphur and warm steam drifted across the path, adding to the theatrical unreality of the scenery.

When we reached the snow-covered Dome Hut, with water dripping from the icicles fringing its roof, the view of the Crater Lake below was both beautiful and strange, its milky turquoise water strikingly out of place in this monochromatic landscape.

Beyond, Tahurangi, at 2797m, is the highest point of the mountain and of the North Island, and some walkers headed off that way, but we were satisfied with reaching 2670m at the hut.

Andy, who had been one of the rescue party, showed us the battered and repaired entrance of the hut where in 2007 tramper William Pike was sleeping when the mountain erupted unexpectedly. A boulder fell on the hut, trapping his leg, which later had to be amputated.

It was hard to imagine such violence and danger on a bright, sunny day, but when Foxy explained the concept of "blue-sky eruption", meaning with no warning, it seemed like a good time to move on.

Following the same route on our return, we detoured slightly to have fun in the snow, where I glimpsed my daughters sliding down the mountain, while I stayed upright, mostly, for the nearest thing to skiing without skis.

Down among the swirling cloud again, I was glad to have the guides to follow across the trackless rocks back to the top of the chairlift, where at last I caught up with my daughters.

"Good walk?" they asked. "You did all right." High praise indeed.

- The writer was a guest on the Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake Experience.

FACT FILE

The Crater Lake Walk is one of several ways to experience the summer environment of Mt Ruapehu: the guided walk leaves at 9.30am and returns five to six hours later.

It runs from mid-December, when there is thick snow cover, until late April, and costs $145 adult/$95 youth/$290 family.

There are also several shorter self-guided walks in the area, and the chairlifts are a scenic experience in themselves.

There are cafes top and bottom with spectacular views.

Stay six kilometres away in the historic and comfortable elegance of Chateau Tongariro, or less opulently in Whakapapa Holiday Park.

- The Dominion Post

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