Hike, ski, live and be free! How often do you get to ski down the side of an active volcano? No, this isn’t the new James Bond film. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or avid photographer, keen to get some postcard ready snaps, this majestic mountain, as seen above in front of the picturesque Chateau Tongariro, has something for everyone. What can thrill seekers and sightseers enjoy alike? Venture up the brand new Sky Waka 10 person capacity gondola, offering 360 degrees of Mt Ruapehu and out over the horizon onto Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom, The Lord of the Rings) and Mt Tongariro. Need to warm up? How about toasting those ski legs in front of the fire, whilst sampling some of New Zealand’s delectable craft beer culture in the local Tavern – make sure to check the quiz night out.
Mt Ruapehu, situated in the Tongariro National Park, is an outdoor enthusiasts playground of epic proportions. I love this place – it’s properly my favourite spot in New Zealand – and that’s saying something, given how packed to the rim with an exhaustingly long bucket list of other extraordinary natural places, this modestly sized country has to offer.
Central North Island just had it all for me – sandwiched between NZ’s largest city in the North of the island, Auckland, and it’s Capital city in the South of it, Wellington, this UNESCO dual world heritage site is conveniently situated for excursions from both ends. It’s closest large town, at 1.5hrs drive north, is Taupō, sitting on the extensive Lake Taupō, it is in and of itself a stand out destination to visit. The region is full of life – most of it under the surface. From the bubbling geysers of Rotorua, to the prominent coned stratovolcanos of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Taranaki, it’s hard to miss the central North Islands volcanic presence, much of it encompassed by the Taupo Volcanic Zone, active for the last two million years and still going strong today.
My first encounter with the area, was with the tramping of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. You can read about it here;
The hike sits in the shadow of its impressive neighbour, Mt Ruapehu. This active stratovolcano is the largest in New Zealand, standing at 2’797 metres in elevation – it is also the North Islands highest point. It hosts the ski resorts of Whakapapa and Turoa. I had been desperate to work my first ski season, so having been thoroughly charmed during the course of the Tonargiro Alpine Crossing, I applied to work at Whakapapa.
Whakapapa, pronounced “fakapapa”, laying snug on the northern side of Mt Ruapehu, has 12 lifts, spread over 1360 acres, with a top elevation of 2’300 metres.
A month or so later, I heard back. I powered up for an interview without much second thought, despite the distance from Wellington, where I was then working, and was more than frilled to secure the job. The manager divulged to me, that as soon as I had told him I was coming from Wellington, he knew I was keen as mustard, committed, and unlikely to let him down – it was much a done deal. I was pumped. I knocked back a couple of Macs that evening to celebrate – I mean, I probably would have done that anyway, but, why just drink, when you can celebrate, right?
I was all ready to go – first season, brand new snowboard and bindings set up, about to blow the cobwebs off my wealth of two-holiday experience. I was packet fresh and ready to get some air! Yewww (and all that). But, there was still a surprise in store – I had originally been hired for the job of “Lift Operator”, a pretty to the point job description, I’m sure you’ll agree. But, Ruapehu isn’t just any ordinary mountain, it’s a fricken volcano after all – before I continue, let’s just touch on that again… – you’re literally snowboarding down the side of an active volcano! Primed and ready to go at anytime – complete madness. It was a mountain of extremes, and now, manifold winter seasons down the line, in many different places around the world, I can say resolutely, Ruapehu is up there as the most bipolar mountain of the lot.
Predictably unpredictable weather, world class terrain, fun times, Herculean challenges, and a cast of characters, with equal polarity. But, the main character in this story, is the mountain herself. It’s not a place to be taken lightly. Sadly, it’s a place where people loose their lives every year, including during my time there. Mother Nature is a powerful force and must be respected. Don’t be deceived by its majestic beauty, it can be as deadly as it is awe inspiring and alluring.
The company itself, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts sorted us out abundantly for gear. By far the most generous resort I have ever worked at in terms of PPE and perks.
The first chairlift up the mountain was a jarring introduction. Our induction was being held in the “Knowle Ridge Cafe”, the highest restaurant in the Southern Hemisphere. It was preseason and yet to snow heavily. I could hardly believe the topography of the mountain. It looked, well, just like a volcano. Prolific volcanic rock structures jutted jaggedly, many metres high, away from the earth in every direction. I just could not get my head around it snowing enough to fill it all in, but I was assured by the locals, it would come!
During the induction, we were let in on information surrounding a tragedy befalling an employee, which had occurred during the season of 2012. A ski instructor had been last seen heading off by himself after work. He wasn’t reported missing for two days. His body was found near the Pinnacle Ridge, challenging terrain, which wouldn’t have been in itself an issue for this experienced skier, however, he must have fallen down the wrong side of the ridge. The next day was his day off, and the following day the resort was closed due to weather. Without a radio or having told anyone his intended whereabouts, his absence wasn’t alerted to until his coworkers noticed his equipment missing from the staff room. He was only 25 years old.
This set a stark warning – Mt Ruapehu is a place to be underestimated at ones own peril.
All you need to do is Google “Mt Ruapehu death”, and you’ll see an exhausting list of fatal misadventures.
In 2017, the year of my time at Ruapehu, a man went missing at the Crater Lake. His last location could be identified by his skis and polls, left resting by the lake edge. I watched the helicopters fly overhead, as they repatriated his body. The lake, which holds two volcanic vents, is formed by melted snow and ice, filling the crater with warm acidic water and steam. It’s nestled around Ruapehu’s three peaks, Tahurangi – 2,797 metres, Te Heuheu – 2,755 metres, and Paretetaitonga – 2,751 metres. The man had slipped and fallen into the Lake during bad weather. His body was later reclaimed. In response to a second man losing his life after falling into the lake, in 2018, within the space of 12 months, local iwi Uenuku, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Rangi placed a rāhui (temporary access ban) on the surrounding area.
The maunga, the Māori word for mountain, Ruapehu, means “pit of noise”/”exploding pit” in Māori.
There have been over 600 volcanic events documented at Ruapehu since 1830. Phreatomagmatic eruptions have occurred around 50 years apart, and can go on for several months. There have been notable eruptions in 1895, 1945 and 1995 through to 1996. These major eruptions, have over the last 2,000 years, been active through the Crater Lake at the summit. More minor phreatic or hydrothermal eruptions, happen a decade or longer, on average, apart, with notable eruptions occurring in 1969, 1975, and 2007.
The infamous catastrophe of the Tangiwai disaster, where 151 people were killed when a railway bridge support gave way, the result of a lahar, caused by the collapse of the temphra dam (temphra is a material produced during a volcanic eruption), which was holding back the Crater Lake.
Lahars are landscape changing debris flows, caused when the water level rises in the Crater Lake through volcanic activity. A rise in the water level can cause to the temphra dam to break under pressure, or overflow. Debris of mud, hot water and rocks pick up astonishing speeds, travelling at tens of metres a second, melting the surrounding snow and ice, which feed into the lahar, growing it in size and force, and picking up more debris. Lahars can be extremely destructive forces, destroying any structures in its path, and carving new features into the rock face.
With the last Lahar occurring during 2007, as of 2017, during my time at Ruapehu, it was right on top of being due for another event. Scientists, having been dispatch, had recorded small activity changes at the Crater Lake. The mountain authorities were on high alert, and primed to react. Special training in the event of a lahar was given to all lift operations staff, and indoctrination in the importance of assertive life saving action in the event of a lahar, to protect resort guests, and self. Whakapapa’s fantastic terrain, with its variable valleys and warren-hole like runs, is in part thanks to lahar pathways, pushed out of the rock through past eruptions. Some of the resorts lifts were built in these volcanic footprints, granting access to the great runs it offered – one such lift was the newly installed (to 2017) Delta Quad chairlift, right in the groove of a lahar run out. As I greeted some pink cheeked customers at the load of the Delta Quad lift, my welcoming smile dropped as the siren rung out across the mountain. I spun my neck to look toward the Crater Lake – it was the lahar warning alarm.
You can read about my journey to the Crater Lake, learn more about the Tangiwai and other disasters, lahars, and the aftermath of the terrifying moment my bubble was pierced by the lahar warning signal, in Times of Travel: Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake, coming soon.
Ruapehu’s location, in the centre of the narrow New Zealand landmass, means that it is affected by weather coming in from all sides, across the ocean, largely at the mercy of severe weather patterns. It suffers from rime ice build up, where moisture in the air freezes on contact with a cold object. It builds layer on layer, creating rock hard, cement like ice, which encases, before it consumes, the lifts and lines entirely. In 2010, two towers on the High Noon chairlift at Turoa bent double and collapsed under the weight of ice build up.
This means that somebody has to clear the ice, before the lifts are able to be run. One of those somebodies ended up being me. Together, with a group of selected Lift Operators, a de-icers job is to climb the lift towers and manually remove the ice by force – with clubs – B grade baseball bats, and occasionally aluminium mallets. These operations would often – due to their nature – be carried out on days in which the condition of the weather would not permit the mountain to be open to the public, exposing de-icers to extreme weather; high winds, low visibility and freezing temperatures.
The Lift Operations manager gathered us all in the staff room. He surveyed the room with his dark eyes and presumptive smile; “Congratulations boys, you’re the chosen ones”. Oh, I wondered what I had won? Naively, I fed off the excitement in the room. My intrigue turned to terror when I heard about what we had been chosen for – I was petrified of heights!
Read about my experience de-icing at Mt Ruapehu in Times of Travel: Mt Ruapehu De-icing.
Thank you for reading, my fellow Earth worshipper!
You can watch the de-icing process in the link below. This video is not my property – it was shown as an introduction to de-icing by the department manager at Whakapapa. The video was filmed at Whakapapa, Mt Ruapehu.
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