Exams done and dusted, I farewelled my friends in Auckland and began my southward journey: The Big Move - to Nelson. I gathered some mates to join me on my traverse of the North Island, Matt Ogden and Toby Scott. Both excellent orienteers, we were sure not to get lost on the way, and also sure to capture the optimal route to Wellington. I lured them along to the road trip with promise of grand mountains; they weren't disappointed. We were out of Auckland late so we literally didn't stop until we hit the central plateau, where we tasted the sweet volcanic waters of Taupo Nui a Tia.
Arriving late afternoon we were only planning a short jaunt into the Kaimanawa Ranges to the east of the Desert Road... but seeing the snow flaked peaks of Ruapehu from Lake Taupo... oh so tempting... We spontaneously swung a right, and despite the warnings of DOC Turangi, slipped on running shoes at the Top-O-the-Bruce and began the climb up Mount Ruapehu. Inspired by the Swiss machine, Euli Steck, and his mesmorizing speed climb of the North Face of the Eiger, we were spurred on towards the summit.
We were surprised by the volume of snow still lying in the valleys of the northern side of the mountain, but from Iwikau Village we followed the rocky ridges and mostly stayed out of the snow for the first half. Matt separated himself at one point from us trying to take a quicker snowy route up one valley, but found himself faced with some serious rock climbing. Having watched Dean Potter free-basing the north face of the Eiger he decided he wasn't quite up for it yet.
It was gnarly running up the jagged spurs to the NZAC Alpine hut, but we pushed a solid pace, the fear of impending twilight hurrying us upwards. We gained the hut in a fifth of the time it took me to walk with pack and crampons in winter - such an awesome feeling - running light with minimal gear made the mountain seem so accessible, and with daylight-saving hours our chances of making the summit were looking great. Though lacking an ice-axe, we shot down the self-arresting practice slope with confidence knowing there was sufficient friction between the icy snow and our bare thighs... Phwoarrr.
Still climbing higher into the mountain, the rocks thinned out and we found ourselves trying to perfect our snow-running technique, something you get little practice with in Auckland. The drop into the popular Whakapapa Glacier was too steep to risk without ice axes, so we ascended Glacier Knob - a great route choice, a final surge through the saddle and we burst out onto the spectacular Summit Plateau. 2620m above sea level, we were the highest men on the North Island... Achieving our goal in just over eighty minutes, our minds were blown - on top of the world! Believe it or not, this was Matt's first mountain experience. He'd been reluctant to try his hand at trail running, he felt naked without a map in hand. But now, he was convinced. A mountain running convert, to the rush of running high above the clouds...
The late evening mountain breeze was picking up so we didn't hang around - a quick reccie up Cathedral Rocks peak and over to breathe in the tangy aroma of Crater Lake, before striding down the hospitable Whakapapa Glacier. Landing into soft snow on the way down made it feel inviting to heel-strike; Matt Ogden fell into this trap and felt the burn on his shins later. Toby meanwhile mastered the forefoot glide across the snow. We lost our height half the speed that we gained it, and soon we felt the pounding transition onto the jagged rocks again. Mist rolled up the valley, and stripped away our visibility - this made it difficult to pick the best route down; too lazy to get out compass or map I just winged it - and paid the price. I ended up approaching the ski-field village from the west, and so gifted myself a few extra valleys to climb up and over before joining the others at the car.
The terrain here is remarkably rugged and its no wonder some of NZ's top mountain runners gather in December to run the GOAT, a 21km race around Ruapehu's crustiest flanks from Whakapapa to Turoa. Unfortunately I'll miss the race this year, locked away in the mountainous surrounds of Nelson.
|Route to the Summit|
Green - Fast, Red - Slow
Ruapehu - the Movie