One of the deeply alluring things about ski touring, and moreover about alpine climbing or ski mountaineering, is the challenge.
A big part of it for me is looking at an objective, thinking I can’t do it, then doing it anyway. The next level up? When you’ve already failed at it and you’re going back for another bite of the cherry.
There’s a gully on the Whakapapa side of Ruapehu that represents a two-time failure for me in the 2017 season. It runs down between the peaks of Te Heu Heu (2732m) and Tukino (2720m), and spits you out at the top of the Valley t-bar, the second highest lift-accessible point on Whakapapa.
My ski club mates refer to it either as Hazel’s Gully, or, more irreverently, as Sweary Pants Gully.
In 2017 I attempted it twice. The first time, we were plagued by breakable crust. My skis at the time were quite short, my backcountry experience wasn’t extensive, and my abilities on a mixed snowpack were limited. I simply couldn’t ski it, and ended up having to rack my skis on my pack and walk down.
The second time around I managed to stay on my skis, forgoing the walk of shame, but it wasn’t pretty. Others crashed, while I lost my mojo and swore extensively most of the way down. (The GoPro footage features phrases like “not having fun… NOT HAVING FUN” and other things too impolite to publish.) My ski technique mostly consisted of long traverses while trying to lose altitude, then a ropey turn, and another long traverse. (Imagine all of this with lots of profanity interspersed.)
Still, my club mates insisted that the gully had been an amazing run down in the past, when conditions cooperated and the snowpack was on. And as something of a wilderness sicko, I couldn’t let another season go past without at least attempting to conquer it.
I waited until early October, then seized a stable weather window with a high freezing level. For days it had been soft, and the weekend before we’d skied off Ringatoto (2591m) in creamy conditions, so optimism was high. I was also on a new pair of skis, fatter, longer and more stable, and had actually been enjoying backcountry skiing (“so this is why people enjoy it so much”).
A mate and I skinned up the Whakapapa Glacier, opting for an easy ascent. The glacier gives you 300m+ ascent but on a happy gradient, releasing you at the icy Whakapapa Col. From there we racked our skis, put on boot crampons, and enjoyed the feeling of grippiness and stability around the base of Dome (2672m) and across the Summit Plateau (below, looking across to Cathedral Rocks, 2663m).
Once across the Summit Plateau, it’s easy to hop on the ridge between Glacier Knob (2642m) leading up to Tukino Peak. But we were already in boot crampons, and decided to opt for a bit of extra-for-experts front pointing to ascend the ridge slightly higher up.
The ridge leading to Tukino Peak is mellow and easy on boot crampons but could be a trickier skin, given it’s usually very rimed up, and has some consequential bluffs further below on the other side. (Tukino Peak can be seen in the photo below on the far right side of the ridgeline. This side of the ridge faces into the Summit Plateau, away from the aforementioned bluffs.)
After an easy 100m plod up the ridgeline, we topped out on Tukino Peak then Te Heu Heu proper, which gives you a healthy view back to Paretetaitonga (2751m) in the background. Te Heu Heu is only two contour lines off the saddle between the two peaks, but the difference in wind and conditions between the peak and the saddle is remarkable. The peak is usually windy and rimed, while the saddle can be sheltered and soft.
Given it’s an easy one hour ascent up the Whakapapa Glacier, a bit of mucking around on the Summit Plateau, then a further 100m plod up the ridge to Tukino Peak and Te Heu Heu, I’m calling this a short drive for a pleasant day out at the beach. The going is good, and non-technical, and the ski descent is a blissful (well, this time!) 500m descent before you’re back in the realm of the lifts.
But as with all good type one fun, the ski descent is over all too soon – unlike the previous two times, which felt like an age, and a painful one at that. My ski touring buddy was kind enough to shoot video and grab some snaps on the way down to prove I’d skied it properly this time. “The only swearing,” he informed the rest of the club, “was expressions of delight”.
Our approximate route: From the Far West T-bar, ascend the Whakapapa Glacier to the col. Skirt around the base of Dome, cross the Summit Plateau, and ascend the ridge to Tukino Peak and Te Heu Heu, either taking in Glacier Knob as an add-on, or bypassing it for speed. The ski descent runs down the obvious gully off the saddle between Tukino Peak and Te Heu Heu. Repeat at will.