Of all the glaciers on Ruapehu, says the NZAC backcountry ski guidebook, the Wahianoa is the most difficult to reach.
And of all the summit peaks on Ruapehu, says my winter 2018 objective list, Te Ataahua was the only peak I had left to bag.
So it made sense that we’d design a creative route to try to tick them both off at once, right? Right.
Traversing from Whakapapa to Turoa, or vice versa, is a bit of a classic. The conventional route is going up the Whakapapa Glacier, skirting the base of Paretetaitonga, and dropping down the Mangaturuturu Glacier to the bottom of the Turoa ski field.
We decided to design a more adventurous, ski mountaineering style route, with big ambitions and the backup of longer daylight hours. I didn’t think we could do it, but that’s never stopped me before.
First it required a car shuttle, dropping one vehicle up to the Turoa car park the day before (with a note on the dashboard to say we’d intended to leave it there, and hence didn’t need search and rescue help). Then we headed back to Whakapapa for the night.
The next day we started from the top of Whakapapa’s Far West T-bar, skinning slowly up the Whakapapa Glacier to conserve energy for real climbing later. At the Whakapapa Col, between Dome and Paretetaitonga, we switched to crampons and ice axes, plodded around the bottom of Pare, and began to climb the ridge above the Mangaturuturu Glacier, to bag Te Ataahua (2757m).
Te Ataahua is a fun wee peak, appearing as something of a shark’s tooth on the skyline. It feels corniced, but does actually have a reasonable amount of rock stability on the ridge. Still, I stayed back from the edge, and enjoyed the view from what felt like a safer perspective.
We continued traversing the ridge, following in the footsteps of others for part of the way until their exploits got a little too exposed for our liking.
The ridge between Te Ataahua and Tahurangi has a few features that need to be turned on the western side and require some front-pointing – not always easy with skis on your pack and large, ice-crusted obstacles to navigate. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, so getting to the col beneath Tahurangi was a relief.
After some well-earned snacks with inadvisable levels of sugar we turned our attention to more front-pointing to attain the true summit of Ruapehu (2797m), three contour lines up from the col.
On Tahurangi itself, the wind had picked up. My buddies (whose skiing prowess is far superior to mine, and whose courage and appetite for steep slopes is also superior) wanted to ski off Tahurangi proper and down into the Wahianoa Glacier. Peer pressure got to me and I succumbed. After all, how often do you get the right conditions to be able to actually ski off the highest point of the North Island? It’s the poor man’s Mount Cook!
The ski down was appalling. Video footage exists, and I have indicated to my buddies that I will pay good coin for it never to see the light of day. I resorted to my usual technique of swearing profusely while conducting long traverses and ropey turns, in an effort to overcome the breakable crust (more on that technique here).
After a few hundred metres, the snow softened nicely and the quality of my language improved. For another few hundred metres drop, I was able to put in decent turns and enjoy the ride.
We bottomed out around 2200m, switched to skins and traversed around the base of Girdlestone/Peretini (2658m). There are three ridges to sidle before you can reasonably access the Mangaehuehu Glacier and ski down to the bottom of the Nga Wai Heke chairlift for an easy trip out. You could climb one of the ridges then ski traverse them, but it’s cruisy enough (and pleasant enough, on a nice day) to just skin and maintain your height.
I’d climbed Girdlestone the week before, so the ski down the Mangaehuehu Glacier – and where exactly to exit to get back to the chairlift – was thankfully familiar to me. We popped out in just the right place, took the Heke up, and skied a final run down the main part of the Turoa ski field to the car, knees aching. All in all, it took a full day, from a 9am start at the Whakapapa base for the first lift, through until 4pm when we reached the Turoa carpark.
We may have finished the day with woodfired pizza from Mizzoni in Ohakune, but I cannot confirm or deny anything.
Our route: 1) from the top of Whakapapa’s Far West T-bar to Tahurangi Col:
2) From Tahurangi, down the Wahianoa, around the base of Girdlestone and back to Turoa base: