If there’s one thing that’s been on Jordan’s mountaineering bucket list it was camping up on the crater on Mt Ruapehu. We waited weeks for a good weather window and it finally arrived after a week long cold snap across New Zealand.
The snowy week nearly foiled our plans though as road closures around the mountain and up to Tukino Lodge forced a last-minute change in plans. Heading up after work on Friday we devised a new plan and decided to stop in Mangaweka to have an early night, sleeping in our car at a small campground. With risk of the road up to Whakapapa ski field also being closed in the morning we took our time getting up and enjoyed the ride to the mountain as we passed snow-covered fields! A first time for us in New Zealand!
Starting off at the Whakapapa ski field, it felt like everyone in the North Island was on the mountain hoping to get in a blue bird day of skiing. It was PACKED! Somehow amongst the crowds we ran into our friends Richard and Sophie who were planning to do some ski touring up on the mountain as well. With a late start (11:30am) we decided to walk up the groomed trails as we dodged the skiers and snowboarders making their way down the mountain.
I still find the ski fields in New Zealand so different from home. With so few options, EVERYONE crams onto the small mountains where you have to drive UP to the snow line, sometimes through narrow, steep roads only possible with snow chains. And people get excited over a few inches of powder. Not to be a ski snob or anything but there is nothing like skiing in knee-deep powder through backcountry trails with barely anyone else around.
Anyways, back to the mountaineering adventure!
It took us about an hour to reach the top of the chairlift on the mountain. Before we continued onto the backcountry we stopped for a quick bite to eat as we watched the crowds race down the hill. At this point I had to mentally pump myself up to continue on. We had a really long week trying to get our glowworm video out and hadn’t had a good night sleep in a week. Jordan also insisted we bring every piece of camera equipment (including motorized slider, drone, extra lens, etc) in hopes of finally filming a behind the scenes videos for our followers as it’s been an ask we’ve heard a lot the last few months (sadly that gear would mostly go unused but more on that later) so our packs were really heavy.
Pushing through we made the slow, steady walk up to the top of the last t-bar before descending down into a valley. Here we met up again with Richard and Sophie and both made our way up the valley towards the Glacier Knob. From here the views really became quite incredible. Mount Nguarahoe (Mt Doom) was crystal clear in the distance covered in a beautiful blanket of snow. That would be our next adventure tackling it in winter with hopes of sleeping up in the crater!
The snow began to turn from the nicely grooms trails to slick icy patches the higher we climbed. Up ahead a group of three guys who we saw playing around in the snow, were soon descending back down the mountain to our surprise. Apparently one of the guys stabbed himself with his ice axe by accident so they were heading back to get him some medical attention. He seemed ok, but was holding onto his chest with his arm up, and by the looks of the blood splatter we saw in the snow later on that was definitely the right decision. While an ice axe is there to save your live in a fall, it is a sharp object that can do some pretty good damage if you’re not careful!
Up ahead Sophie and Richard began to struggle with their touring skis on the crusty ice. It was great mountaineering terrain but not when you’re trying to skin up the mountain on skis. They would later continue down to Tukino Lodge where they were booked to stay (but were unable to start from earlier due to the road closure). Unfamiliar with this side of the mountain Jordan and I made a few guesses on the best way to get down into the summit plateau. We ended up overshooting our entrance and made a bit of a detour around the Dome (2,672m) but eventually found our way down into the crater for our final walk across the flats.
By now it was just after 4pm so we began to set up camp while we still had light. Camping in the snow is a lot different from on solid ground. Our ultralight tent is not self-erecting (to save weight on the extra pole) so the pegs are really important to keep the tent up. This was our first time using it in the snow so it took a few tries to get the stakes buried deep enough to stay put. Jordan would pile a bunch of snow while I would stamp it down, compacting the snow into a hard surface above the pegs. In the distance another group was also setting up camp, but they were making an elaborate ice igloo to sleep in which was damn impressive! I bet it was warm in there with a few bodies!
Now it was time for dinner. This would also prove to be more difficult than expected as our trusty JetBoil didn’t work so well in the cold and at altitude. With barely any water left we used what we had to fill the bottom of the pot so it was easier to melt the snow for more water. For the next hour I was in a pattern of constantly filling the JetBoil with snow, giving it a stir, and once boiled pouring ¾ of it out before re-starting the process again. After a hot cup of Milo (hot chocolate) we were feeling much better but after I managed to drop our freeze-dried meal in the snow I nearly sat down and cried. I was SOOOOO hungry and just wanted a hot meal to warm me up. Instead I buried the mess I made in the snow and sealed what was left in the bag for us to chew on a bit later.
With sundown at 5:30pm we crawled into our little tent and piled up our packs and boots underneath the fly of our tent. In preparation for winter adventures like this we recently invested in some proper sleeping bags and thermorests. Although it had been a beautiful sunny day with no wind, overnight it was going to go down to -20 degree so this was going to be a true test on our new equipment. Even with sleeping bags rated at to a comfort rating of -9 and Thermorest sleeping mats, I still had 2 merino layers on top, bottom and my feet and it still took a while to warm up. Too cold to do anything but stay as zipped up as possible we said goodnight at about 7pm and dreamed of warmer days.
The next morning I awoke to the feeling of snow falling on my face. Reaching outside my sleeping bag it was covered in a thin layer of snow and ice – was there a draft in our tent somewhere?? Looking over at Jordan his head was covered in a dusting of snow and as I gazed up at our tent it was clear that the condensation from our warm bodies had frozen into snowflakes, and every time I moved a dusting fell from the ceiling. Checking our Altimeter watch it was reading -1 degree inside, significantly warmer than the -16C temperature forecasts outside! Surprisingly we had survived the night with our layers on in our sleeping bags pretty comfortably, but the outside temperature was no motivator to leave the comfort of our cocoons.
Jordan was the first with enough courage to brave the cold. As I packed up the sleeping bags he started up the JetBoil. The cold temperatures overnight must have impacted the fuel as this time it was even slower than last night. And despite keeping our waterbottle beside us overnight, the water inside managed to freeze all but a tiny bit. We prioritized melting water for our waterbottle first, but nearly an hour later we only had a litre of water for the day. We ditched the idea of eating our second freeze-dried meal and opted for another cup of Milo and stuffed some One Square Meal bars and pepperoni sticks into us.
With another bluebird day ahead of us we surveyed the mountains surrounding us and decided to first tackle Tukino Peak and Te Heuheu summit. With 8 peaks over 2,600m there was plenty to explore so we decided to tackle two of the most intimidating peaks with giant sections of ice clinging to the cliff face.
We crossed the plateau before heading up to the left to catch the ridgeline to the top. From here we could see all the way to Taranaki with the mountain looking incredible covered in snow. It was so clear it almost looked like it was just a hop skip and a jump through the valley below. We plan on tackling Taranaki again in August with some other friends soon!
The snow changed every few meters from deep powder, to thin ice and jagged blue ice creating several trip hazards. It was tough not to stop every few minutes though to just take in the view. In the distance the sun was coming up behind Mt Nguarahoe and we could see all the way to Lake Taupo.
As we walked along the ridgeline towards Tukino Peak it was tough not to get that unsettled feeling in your stomach as we looked down and saw a sheer drop below. I just hoped the snow we were on clinging to the rock face held as my brain toyed with the idea of it breaking free…
Jordan made a precarious run up to the top of Tukino Peak (2,720m) while I snapped a few photos before following in behind. While it looks like a fluffy cloud he was climbing it was actually huge chucks of ice making it a challenging ascent.
In the distance we could see several small groups exploring the other peaks. I wondered why no one else had ventured to this side to climb these peaks, but assumed it was just a matter of inconvenience than danger that deterred them.
With one of the two peaks under our belt, we had to walk down a bit before heading up to the 2,732m summit of Te Heuheu. Looking down we could see the Tukino Lodge nestled amongst the snow where we had our first mountaineering experience last year (link). Reaching the top we had 360 degree views of the entire mountain! This little video gives you a bit of an idea of what we experienced (while it sounds windy, it actually wasn’t at all!)
Crossing the other side of the plateau we climbed up over the ridge we had descended last night and crossed into the gully at the base on Paratetaitonga. Looking up we had two options – following the ridgeline to the right, which would be longer but more straight forward. Or take on the challenge to head to the left side on the summit and front point up a steep section that would be faster but more dangerous – can you guess what we picked? Of course the challenge 🙂
It was a steady slow climb up, zig zagging a path through the steep sharp ice. As we climbed higher we finally got a few of the crater lake in the distance. Although it has a pH of 1 I wished it was giant hot pool instead that I could jump into after making this summit – wouldn’t that be amazing if it was??
With determination we made it up to a plateau before taking on the straight climb up to the top. We surveyed the options and decided to go with a path that would at least provided a bit of a run out should we slip and fall.
This was by far the sketchiest and scariest part of the weekend. The ice was protruding from the mountain, creating jagged points that would likely tear you up pretty bad if you skid down. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind and just concentrated on making strong points into the ice. “Ice axe, left hand, right crampon, left crampon, ok move up.” I repeated that over and over, resisting the urge to look down. With such little sleep and food the last two days my energy was at an all-time low but I couldn’t let that get to me now. I pushed to the top and was never so happy to be on a safe ridge as I was in that moment. WOW!! That was definitely a rush!
Looking down there was no way we were going to follow our path back down. That was way to exhausting so we searched for other options. I took a look around the back side of the mountain, and while Jordan started to search for a way to the true summit I urged him not to go that way and follow me around the back. This was definitely not an easy route but it was better than our other options.
Slowly and carefully I stepped along the back side of the mountain, dodging huge ice chucks that came in my path. Jordan decided to take a peak up at the top again and managed to find an easy route to the summit from the other side. I really wanted to follow as it was only another 20m or so, but I knew it was safer for me to get across to the ridgeline and just head down – when you’re this tired it’s just too easy to make mistakes.
We met up on the ridge which was the other option we considered and would have been an easy path to the top (if we took it!) We walked down a bit further before making a long traverse across the front of Paratetaitonga, keeping an eye out for any sign of avalanches as we passed remnants of small ones along our path. PHEW! So happy to have made it down and trekked back to our camp to pack-up.
We quickly tore down the tent and re-packed our bags and headed out down the shoot just under the Glacier Knob (2,642m). This was a much easier path that we had taken the day before and would be noted for next time. The walk down was much easier as we looked forward to a cold beverage at the first ski lodge. It took us nearly 2 hours to get down to this point and I ran inside to grab an orange juice and L&P – soooo refreshing since we had barely any water all day in the hot sun. Not looking forward to walking down the groomed trails with crowds of skiers, I asked the lifty on a whim if we could hitch a ride down on the chairlift. SUCCESS!!! He did us a huge favor and let us get on with our pack and totally made our day. It was a lovely ride all the way to the bottom of the hill as we enjoyed the view from above and celebrated an awesome weekend up on the mountain!
Upon completing our first snow camping experience, we learned a few lessons along the way that may help others attempting a similar adventure:
1. Pack lots of water. There’s no easy way to re-fill your water bottle so be sure to carrying enough for the day, and a little extra to help get your stove started for melting snow. I wished we had taken a bit more water with us.
2. Bring extra (non-stove necessary) food. If your stove doesn’t work at altitude, or you run out of fuel, be sure to have extra snacks like pepperoni sticks, nuts, bars, and chocolate as a plan B.
3. Get the right gear. We invested in proper gear for winter camping and we still took over an hour to warm up, even with 2-3 layers on. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we didn’t have the right gear, so before you venture into the cold abyss of winter camping, be ready for the COLD.
4. Sleep with your stuff. There was no hiding from the cold, even inside our tent. Our water, apples and even pepperoni sticks froze overnight so put whatever you can (especially water and potentially compressed gas fuel) in your sleeping bag with you.