Times of Travel: Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake

Distance: 10km+
Elevation gain: 1,072 metres
Top elevation: 2,672 metres
Time: 5 - 7 hours

Difficulty: moderate
Summer conditions: December - May
Winter conditions: June - November
Location: Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park, North Island, New Zealand

This overview encompasses the Crater Lake hike, from the Whakapapa side, focussing on my experience during the winter of 2017.

The summers hike, is an unmarked route to Mount Ruapehu Crater Lake, on the North Islands highest mountain, ascending over rugged volcanic terrain. A brief detailing; take the Waterfalls trail, to Knoll Ridge Cafe. Its straight up, it’s hard to miss. Luckily, there plenty of infrastructural landmarks to aid navigation toward this point. From here, there are two routes, via Knoll Ridge, or Restful ridge to the Dome Summit.

The winter hike, can be tackled in much the same way as the summer hike, starting at the Whakapapa ski field car park. However, it can be hard going, trudging through snow. Factor in extra time. Either, summer or winter, this is a single day hike. Set off early. Only hikers with alpine experience should attempt the full hike during winter, making sure to be fully prepared and equipped with all additional winter hiking gear, as needed, such as crampons, and ice axe, if intention is to to add the 3 peaks of Ruhapehu, Tahurangi – 2,797 metres, Te Heuheu – 2,755 metres, and Paretetaitonga – 2,751 metres, to your itinerary. If there’s any variable weather conditions forecast, you’ll need a GPS, and know how to use it. Weather at Ruapehu can be unpredictable. Getting stuck in a white out is no fun, and can be disorienting, if not deadly. If you haven’t got one or the knowledge to navigate with it, only go out on a bluebird day (clear weather). If you own a transceiver, bring it, even if the avalanche risk is low to non-existent, it’s always good practice to have it on you. It won’t save your life sitting at home in a draw. With that said, if you are an experienced winter hiker and/or climber, this will all be old news to you.

If you are purely hiking, without carrying skiing and snowboarding gear, for the down route, then the hike will start from Iwikau Village, at 1,600 metres above sea level, which is located above the Whakapapa car park, or you can utilise the chairlifts, and take the Rangatira, followed by the new Sky Waka gondola, to The Knoll Ridge Cafe, at 2,020 metres, the highest restaurant in New Zealand.

Reaching the Crater Cake is the premier challenge, whilst visiting Mt Ruapehu for your snow sports holiday. A must do, for those fit and keen, on a clear day.

There’s nothing better than the uninterrupted top to bottom ride of your life!

Don’t despair if you can’t commit a whole day to it, if you’re making the journey in winter and are a strong skier or snowboarder, the simplest way is to make your way to the furthest and highest lifted point, at the top of the Far-West T bar. From the unload, at an elevation of 2,300 metres, you can head straight up, and be at the crater lake within an hour or two, depending yours and your parties fitness.

This will leave some energy in the tank for the 1,072 metre run you’re about to revel in. In reality, the vertical distance doesn’t do it justice, as you are required to traverse diagonally around the mountain, to get back to the base. It’s a very long run, let’s leave it at that!

On my trip, I was joined by a comrade in arms, surviving the cold winter in the Stalinist Gulag – the Whakapapa staff accommodation – the communist experiment, where 55 adults, living under one roof, fought over peanut butter and told of war stories between hands of cards. This slab of prime American beef, and resident Cribbage champion, worked in the rentals department – the hire shop for Whakapapas fleet of skis and snowboards.

Image credit: Bicycle Playing Cards

Our third musketeer, was his colleague in rentals, who, having only shared this fleeting experience with, I have forgotten the name of. Sorry dude, your poncho rocked, that I’ll never forget.

A Brit, a Kiwi & a Yank – the start of a bad joke

I’ve withheld all names for privacy, regardless.

Before starting, check in with ski patrol to apprehend weather conditions, and get the “good to go”.

Travel in groups is always advisable, to enhance safety. Whether you’re alone or not, make sure somebody knows you’re going and when you’re scheduled to be back.

View over Ngauruhoe from the Far West T-Bar

As with any starting position on this hike, from the top of the Far West T-Bar, the route is not signposted, but, there will usually be plenty of footprints in the snow to guide you. It’s relatively quick, yet has a steep incline to the top.

It’s absolute vastness is starkly apparent. The wide gully you’ll be trudging through, with its sheer white floor, has the sincere ability project magnitude, at the expense of your own sense of scale. If you had an ego before you came here, let it be washed away, as you feel the stoic colossus sleeping beneath your feet.

Although straightforward, be prepared for some deep breathes ahead, as even this modest altitude can compound with the added labour in your step, as your feet sink through the snow. It’ll all be worth it.

The panoramic views from the top, stretching unending in all directions, are just what we came for.

Having personally made the trip during the latter part of the season, the snow and ice build up had created a ridge around the lake, roughly 2.5 – 3 metres off the water. The slippery surface ice on the walk up to the edge added impact, as I stared down over the dancing steam, twirling off the shimmering marine green surface. I wondered, how would I, or anyone else, be able to climb out, if one slips in?

During my time at Mt Ruapehu, there was a tragedy of this nature, as I recall in Times of Travel Mt Ruapehu. This, after all, is an active volcano. Without retreading too much ground, that you can read about above, here’s some key information;

Ruapehu is colloquially known as The Maunga, the Māori word for mountain, Ruapehu means “pit of noise”/”exploding pit” in Māori.

Phreatomagmatic eruptions have happened approximately 50 years apart, and can sometimes rumble on for several months at a time.

These major eruptions, have been active through the Crater Lake at the summit, for at least 2000 years.

Smaller phreatic/hydrothermal eruptions, occur roughly a decade apart, with the last eruption occurring 2007.

The most deadly event, infamous Tangiwai disaster, happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 1953. 151 people were killed by the result of a lahar, caused by the collapse of the tephra dam, which had formed after a 1945 eruption, now no longer holding back the Crater Lake.

Tephra is a material produced during a volcanic eruption.

Lahars are landscape changing debris flows. A rise in the water level, through volcanic activity under the surface, can cause to the tephra dam to break under pressure, or overflow. Debris of mud, hot water and rock, pick up speed, which reaches of tens of metres a second, feeding itself on melted snow and ice and collecting more rubble, creating a “snowball” effect. Lahars are extremely destructive forces of nature, totalling any structure in its runout, and etching new features into the mountain terrain.

Image credit: Dougal Townsend, GNS Science

Sometime shy of 10.15am, a lahar tore through the Whangaehu River striking the ageing concrete pylons of the Tangiwai rail bridge, significantly comprising it just an express train traveling from Wellington to Auckland approached. Arthur Cyril Ellis attempted to warn the driver by waving a torch at the train. An engineer onboard, named Charles Parker, applied the breaks. It was too late. At 10.21am, as the locomotive advanced onto the bridge, its weight buckled the damaged pylons, collapsing it into the river. It killed over half the occupants – still the worst rail disaster in New Zealand’s history.

With the last Lahar occurring during 2007, as of 2017, during my time at Ruapehu, the mountain was on high alert.

As I lingered at the waters edge, I felt a mercy. I was grateful to place my diminutive footprints at the mouth of such a potent, untameable, primordial force.

The ride down is the prize, inside the prize. Ruapehu is the gift that keeps on giving. The trip is like a Matryoshka doll.

Image credit: Sandra Castro

It was time to strap in and enjoy the off piste section, before overrunning the resort boundary, tearing down the mountain like an invading horde.

The large faces on either side of the gully, that had been hiked up earlier – Dome Ridge, made for a generous canvas for some pencil line turns. Every nook and cranny was penetrated, darting between natural features, swarming like frantic insects, pumping in and out then getting low and digging the edges of the snowboard in hard – biting ravenously for extra deep carves. I was like a coiled spring, overly excitable, popping off anything with even a minor convex exuberantly. Expending energy impulsively, every trick in the arsenal was exhausted, veering around the mounds of tumbled learner skiers through the lower mountain, before finally, screeching to a triumphant halt at Iwikau Village.

Unstrapping from my bindings and stepping out onto the slushy spring snow…

…“So, this is what walking feels like!”

It was a hell of a ride.

I said before in a previous post – Mt Ruapehu is a place of extremes. It doesn’t do things in half measures. You work hard, play hard. But, notice how work comes first?

A lift operators carry a shovel like a pocket knife

Behind all these life affirming experiences, comes plenty of planning, trials and tribulations. I had been tested as I worked as a De-icer, climbing the chairlift towers through the unrelenting storms, and clearing rime ice build up. You can read about it in Times of Travel: Mt Ruapehu Deicing.

Don’t look down

Whilst working as a Lift Operator, we were drilled in the importance of assertive action in the event of a lahar, and trained in evacuation procedures, to protect guests, in the event one occurred.

Whakapapa’s terrain, with its undulating valley runs, is in part carved by lahars. Some of the chairlifts sit in these pathways, granting access to a fantastic scope of riding. The Delta Quad chairlift, is one of those lifts. As I stood there, greeting gleaming, pink cheeked children and their entitled, *cough*, I mean, valuable lifetime pass holder parents. (I’m not a dartboard, but it was thrown around like it. Understand Dear Sir/Madam, I am just a simple employee. I can listen to your opinion, but, honestly, you can’t change the direction of the wind with a paper fan. Write a letter. Jheez.)

I stood there, bouncing from foot to foot, charming my way through the waves of skiers approaching – like re-spawning Space Invaders – firing off greetings like I’d had too much coffee. My peppy pronouncements would occasionally ring off like robotic sound bites, repeating exactly what I just said, in exactly the same way, to exactly the same person in 15 minute intervals, as they lapped the chair (you see exactly how repetitive that gets?).

Suddenly, my cheerful daze was cut in two by the razor sharp sound of the lahar warning siren. I cranked my neck to look toward the Crater Lake. An ignorant bliss had been severed. I swung my head back to the public. They stared at me, expectantly. I looked back to the Crater Lake. Back to the public. They were still staring at me. Worried faces blinked around me, from all directions. Oh shit.

I jumped into action. Signalling to my French counterpart, working with me on the lift. We divided roles instinctively, as my English was fluent, I began lead the crowds to the designated safe zone – raised terrain above the lift – whilst he went inside the control room, to run the lift and clear any guests who were currently on it. Each chairlift had a designated safe zone, and it was important we knew everyone of them.

A lift control room

I waved my arms commandingly, bellowed and hollered in my big boy voice, as I stamped hurriedly through the snow, pointing directions as they passed, staying at the back, so I could make sure nobody was left behind. Once I had made sure everyone was out of the runout zone, I signalled a quick thumbs up to the Frenchman, who had started making his way across the snow, presumably having cleared the lift successfully, with it now shut down. I turned to the maddening crowd.

“What’s happening?!”

One panicked young girl asked trepidly from beneath oversized goggles, two mousey blonde bangs, twirling out from either side. of a cherry blossom pink helmet.

I answered thoughtfully, clear and calm. Hands open, reassuringly.

“It’s the signal to warn a lahar is coming. We’re standing in the safe zone, we should be alright.”

I caught, even in myself, the uncertainty of the end of my sentence. I stiffened up, stood tall and composed – professional.

I looked up and focussing unwaveringly, toward the Crater Lake. My heart pounded in my chest like bare hands on the skin of an African drum.

A few questions shot my way at once. The voice of another young girl, slightly older than the first, rose shrilly above the rest;

“Are we safe?”

– It was picked up by my heightened senses.

I was asking the same question.

I suppose, the outcome is set, if we’re to go out like this, for her sake, let it be swift and void of fear.

“Of course, we’re in the safest place here.”

My lips moved to soothe the crowd. My head replied to itself, silently;

“I don’t know.”

One man dropped his rucksack and drew the zip a quarter of the way around, enough room to reach in and pull a leather backed clipboard. Flick, flick, flick, he went with a pen, decisively, in a promising direction.

“Well done.” He nodded my way.

I breathed an earnest sigh of relief.

“Alright, everyone, it was just a drill, thank you for your cooperation. Lets her back to having fun!” I proclaimed.

I laughed it off, with self gratifying grin, as if I had somehow been privy to it. I had managed to maintain the mocked up air of authority, as a spectacle of buoyancy began to dust over people’s faces again.

My colleague, the Frenchman, who spoke surprisingly little English, for a job which benefited intrinsically in communication, stood there wide eyed, unnervingly, with his mouth ajar like a hungry goldfish.

I felt mildly better, knowing I wasn’t the last one not in on it.

Thank you for reading.

If you’re lucky enough to be in New Zealand, and want to work at Ruapehu, or, to book your snow sports break this season, check out the link below;


And, for all those waiting for international travel to recommence, fear not, Ruapehu isn’t going anywhere – the Maunga will be waiting in restless slumber, until she wakes up once more.

What is life without community? I would love to connect with other nicecissists out there. Seeing as you’ve got this far, that’s probably you! Reach out, drop me a message and let me know what you think in the comments, and of course, give me a follow for more – nice!

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