High on Mt Ruapehu lie the only glaciers in the North Island. While they are mere remnants of their former ice age size, they still provide some of the best skiing terrain around. Ruapehu is a mountain created with ski-touring in mind, with access, terrain and (at times) snow conditions that are hard to beat in either island.
A standard day touring on Ruapehu might see one skinning to the summit plateau from the highest Whakapapa lift, doing a run or two of the Whangaehu or Mangaturuturu Glaciers before skiing down through the skifield to the Top o’ the Bruce. But how about linking all six major glaciers together in a single day into one grand tour? Most North Island alpinists would be hard-pressed to describe where the six glaciers are let alone attempt to name them all!
In early September we set out in search of the ultimate North Island ski tour. Jo and Rachel dreamt up the scheme and I was the doubting Thomas tagging along, fully expecting to get left behind when I ran out of steam.
The Saturday was perfect: clear skies and a fresh dusting of cold dry snow across the volcanoes. We gladly rode the lifts through the crowded Whakapapa slopes—by 9 am the new snow had already been torn to shreds. Above Knoll Ridge the summit plateau is only a 35 minute climb on skis, and then one enters an alpine wilderness.
On a journey like this you need some rules, since a turn or two doesn’t qualify as ‘skiing a glacier’. Besides, we wanted to find the best runs possible. A thousand feet became our reference descent. The first run of the day was down the Mangatoetoenui Glacier, high above little Tukino skifield. The snow was a bit patchy with occasional rime, but still a superb, steep run down past the ice-cloaked Ray’s Crag. The skins came out for a quick climb up to the col beneath the tall white-rimed cliffs of Cathedral Rocks.
We swooped diagonally down the Whangaehu Glacier on light, dry snow towards the Lake outlet gorge, where the altimeter told us to switch back to grunt mode. We climbed up the narrow valley under the face of Pyramid, and zig-zagged steeply to the ridge between Mitre and Tahurangi.
The Wahianoa is the most remote of Ruapehu’s ice siblings, filling the floor of a beautiful cirque which tumbles down the far southeastern slopes of the volcano. This day it held a treasure of deep snow and we carved down steep bowls to a short lunch stop under the dramatic peak of Girdlestone, where a group of climbers wound along the exposed ridgeline high above.
The climb to a col on the Girdlestone-Tahurangi ridge proved to be the most technical skinning of the day: edges softened by skins just didn’t want to grip the hard snow. At least we were over half way by then and the trip was looking a bit more feasible.
The upper part of the Mangaehuehue Glacier was blanketed in some rare powder and we enjoyed the best skiing in the North Island, finishing just where the field skiers on Turoa begin their runs, and where we crossed the only ski tracks of the day.
A long sidle across the crowded slopes of Turoa and an easy climb brought us to Pare Saddle. The Mangaturuturu Glacier is a magic place to ski. Virgin snow slopes tumbled down into gorges and Podocarp forest far below, and Taranaki stood clear and proud on the horizon. It was hard to stop where the altimeter told us to, but the last climb of the trip beckoned.
Just around the base of Paretetaitonga we peeled our skins off for the final time, and began the sixth and final glacier run, down the Whakapapa to the top of the skifield. It was 5.30 pm and the trashed snow of the field had frozen to lumpy concrete. Aching legs couldn’t control bucking skis, and we blundered our way downwards, the magic rudely snatched from the day.
Who would be a field skier when there are glaciers to ski?