9am. Monday, January 8th, 2018.
It’s go time.
After spending 12 days and some 260kms hiking on roads and through forests, experiencing scorching heat and icy cold wind & rain, it was time to finally do what we had come here to do – hike up Mount Ruapehu.
After waking up at around 7:30am and out the door by 8:30, we had organised with our driver – George – to pick us up and drive us to the start of the trailhead/ski field car park.
Interestingly enough two things almost got in the way of this hike not happening.
One, which wasn’t nearly so bad, was that I had developed what looked like the early stages of trench foot.
For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s what happens to your feet when they are wet for too long.
Remember that river crossing on the 42 Traverse during Day 11? Well, I crossed it with my hiking boots and merino socks on which then became sopping wet.
Despite the fact that I changed into another pair of socks, they were slightly damp too.
Combine that with my feet, and the last few kilometres on the Mangatepopo Track started to feel like I had several blisters on my feet. And I never get blisters!
Anyway, lashings of any moisturising cream or whatever else I could get my hands on seemed to do the trick and I was good to go.
The biggest hurdle we thought would prevent us from hiking up Mount Ruapehu was a) the weather and snow that covered the mountain and b) did we need a guide and potentially mountaineering gear.
Back in early December 2017, I’d spoken to what seemed like the only guide in the area and he said he couldn’t tell me if it was safe or not to go up at that point in time.
He said the excess snow could have melted by then or it could remain the same, but I was to call back a few days prior to the 8th to find out what was going on.
So I did so in Taumaranui and he basically said that while the snow had melted quite a bit, there was no way he would be guiding anyone up there.
So an ongoing Plan B for Mount Ruapehu was very much in place from thereon in.
That was until we arrived at the Skotel Alpine Resort the day before and thought it would be ideal to ask one of the staff given the mountain was basically on their backdoor.
She was incredibly helpful and informed us that not only was it safe enough to hike up there but we wouldn’t be needing any mountaineering gear or a qualified guide.
Cha-ching! We had just saved ourselves $200 NZD each off the back of that news.
She said the way that most people hike up to the summit is by following a fence and several wooden poles with yellow paint on the top of them.
So our driver George dropped us off just before 9am, we said our goodbyes, thanked him for all of his help and we were off.
The Tongariro National Park is pretty much covered in hundreds of lava flows that spit out from the various dormant and active volcanoes in the area.
Prior to the final section of each mountain, most of the park is covered in rocky paths that really make you work your butt off to keep moving.
Take the Mount Ruapehu Walking Track for example. It’s roughly 8kms and while you could really push yourself and get it done quicker, we were up and back by 3:30pm.
The rocky paths, climbing and scree that covers the area will slow you down in parts. Think one step forward, two steps back.
Before too long as we slowly made our way up whilst taking plenty of pictures, we came across our first section of snow.
Yes, in the middle of summer, a mountain such as Ruapehu still gets snow.
In fact, this wouldn’t be the last section we would come across, but more on that a little later.
Following the wooden poles, we basically zig-zagged our way up the mountain and coming across very few people on such a still day.
There is a fairly prominent point on the Mount Ruapehu Walking Track where you come to a plain of sorts where the ‘official’ track runs out. This is marked by a wooden pole that reads ‘The End?’.
However, do yourself a favour and spend some time at this point of the track.
To the left of you, there are two rocky outlooks you can safely scramble up which will give amazing views of the surrounding Tongariro/Ruapehu area and of Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s definitely a great spot for photography.
Beyond the wooden pole, you pretty much make your own way up the mountain.
If you’re not a fan of scrambling across decent size rocks, then you might want to think about going no further.
If not, then push on and make for the summit.
This is also the section where I found that terrain surface went from fairly sturdy to that good old scree which added a decent little challenge to the trek.
After some time of making our way up further and closer to the top, we came to a rocky cairn which is located roughly 2500m from the summit of the Mount Ruapehu Walking Track.
You know that section of snow/ice I referred to before? Well, this is when it went to a whole new level.
What lay in front of us on a roughly 45-60-degree angle was a 10m rocky path covered in what we thought was snow.
Either side of that path was a fair old slippery slope down to the bottom or somewhere near it.
In short, it was fairly sketchy.
Common sense got the best of myself and Keith and we opted not to push. Matt, on the other hand, was up for the challenge.
So, he pulled out his hiking poles and began slowly navigating his way across the snow.
About 8ms in, Matt yells back to me that he can’t go any further because the snow had become thick ice and he wasn’t confident getting across.
“All good, mate,” I yelled back. “Turn around and come back and we’ll start heading down”.
After a minute or two of really not moving much, it turned out that the fear of falling had got the better of Matt and he physically couldn’t turn around and walk back down.
He was stuck facing forward.
The next 12 or so minutes involved myself and Keith coaching him down backwards from where he was and get him back onto more solid ground.
The upside was that he had his poles and his footprints had left a reasonable impression in the snow for him to retrace his steps.
The downside was that not only did he have to do it backwards with a decent drop either side of him, but he also had to contend with the clouds that would roll over him every so often.
It took him 12 minutes to get back down to where we were and, as you can imagine, the adrenalin was pumping through his body.
The washup? Due to a 12m stretch of snow and ice, we were unable to summit.
Somewhat disappointing to know we got so close, but given what we had done these past 12 days and how far we had come to where we were standing at that point, it really didn’t matter in the end.
The trek down was one of reflection, celebration and pure joy. I will say that we did almost run into more cloud-related trouble as what looked like a black storm cloud coming seemed to be coming towards us from Ngauruhoe.
Thankfully it took off on a different course and disappeared shortly afterwards.
We took our time at various points on the way down as the crowds began to build and make their own way up the mountain.
At just on 3:30pm on January 8th, 2018, we took our last step off the Mars-like rocks of the Mount Ruapehu Walking Track and set off back to our accommodation to celebrate more.
Our journey was over.