I have just got back from a very quick holiday in New Zealand. With the trip only lasting six days it didn’t give me time to catch up with as many people as I would have liked to have seen. However, I still did manage to see a little over 30 family and friends, including a number of members of my extended family whom I had not seen in over two years.
The highlight of the trip was two days of Bluebird skiing conditions at Mt Ruapehu. It takes around 4 – 5 hours to get to Mt Ruapehu from Auckland. So to make the most of the day I got up at the insanely early hour of 3.20am on Thursday morning to do the drive to Whakapapa Ski Field. I arrived at the ski field just after 8am, got my ski gear on and hit the mountain.
After a few runs down the Knoll Ridge and Valley T-bars I ventured out into the Far West area of the mountain. Despite having skied at Whakapapa many times over the last seven years I have never encountered a day where the weather has been good enough to go out to the Far West so the first time heading out there made this trip especially worthwhile.
After a few runs down the western slopes in ankle deep powder I decided to traverse back to the main area of the mountain, just as the cloud rolled in and the visibility dropped to only a few metres. Because of the poor visibility I managed to get a little lost on the traverse back and ended up dropping in on one of the chutes above Hut Flat. This run is an extremely steep double black diamond and I am quite proud that I conquered it, even if it was an accident – because I doubt I would have gone down it if I had known fully where I was going.
I stayed overnight in Ohukane on Thursday night and ventured up to Turoa Ski Field on Friday morning. There is a lot more snow on the Turoa side of Ruapehu and for the first time ever I saw snow in the forest on the drive up to the ski area. The top part of the road was very icy and despite having hired a fairly powerful car it still struggled at about 20km/h up the final 3km of the road. Friday was another Bluebird day and the snow conditions at Turoa were even better than Whakapapa the day before. The powder wasn’t as deep but there was much better coverage across the mountain which meant I was dodging around rocks.
Despite both Whakapapa and Turoa being on the same mountain and run by the same company the two fields have quite different characteristics. Personally I prefer Turoa, all the times I have been up the staff have been extremely friendly, and there is much more open terrain to explore without needing to do long traverses.
Before I went to the ski fields one of my friends had disputed that I was any good at skiing – being a computer geek and not playing sports gives me that reputation – so I set up my GPS on my phone to track one of my runs down the mountain… and… I managed to get through 2.3km, 700 vertical metres in six minutes with an average speed of 23km/h and a top speed of 39km/h – a result that I am very happy with.
The remainder of my trip in NZ involved visiting extended family in Wanganui and catching up with many friends from my former university and workplaces. As I write this I am on a plane back to Sydney and I am already missing home. I may be biased as I am a kiwi, but New Zealand is simply the most amazing, friendly, and adventurous place I know. Australia may be my current abode, and the world may be my oyster, but New Zealand will always be my home.
Getting up at 5.45am was a lot easier than 3.15am, the extra two and a half hours of night time really helps. I left my cousins place just after six in the morning to head back to the snow. The first mission of the day was to remove the ice that had formed on my car, my uncle hosed it off but while I was loading my gear into the car it refroze so it had to be hosed off a second time.
The trip up the Paraparas was good. At one point I come around a corner and ran over what I thought was a paper cup, only a little while further up the road I came around across another paper cup, only thing was this one was flat, and had guts sticking out, it turns out I hit a Hedgehog. I will add that to my road kill tally.
I was expecting the Paraparas to be quite icy however lucky for me they were not bad. Only on final corner close to Raetihi where as I approached I could see a lot of glare coming back off the road, I slowed down and took the corner very carefully and I was glad that I did it was covered in Ice. I managed to drive the Paraparas in a little over an hour and twenty minutes, I have figured if you drive it in the dark it is a whole lot less scary because you can’t see the steep drops on the edges of the road.
Once I got to Raetihi I got my first glimpse of the mountain and it was stunning. The road from Raetihi to Ohakune and then up the mountain was very icy but I took my time. Only once did I get myself in a spot of bother and that was around half way up the Ohakune Mountain Road where the car in front of me went around a corner and cut across into the oncoming lane before sliding slightly across the road back into their lane on ice. I thought to myself okay take care and don’t do the same thing, the very next second I did the same thing (lucky there was no oncoming traffic), it really tested your reactions to it.
I got to the top of the Mountain around 8am and headed off to get my rental equipment. There I asked for some good skis to do some nice carving both on trail and off, I said I didn’t want to go fast, that I wanted to go to the top of the High Noon Express and safely make it down without coming off. The girl on rental was really nice and gave me some sweet as Fischer Skis, instead of being narrow at the front to give you speed they are really wide so that you have more control. They were absolutely awesome to ski on.
Once I got outside I joined the queue to head up the Movenpick Chair which opened at 8.30am. It is by far the longest chairlift that I have ever been on, up and down, and through valleys and up some more, it took around 15 minutes for the ride but took you ages up the mountain (in some ways better than Whakapapa’s two shorter chairs where you have to get off and then back on).
At the top of the Movenpick I went to the base of the High Noon Express but they were still de-icing it, so instead of waiting like others were I headed down for my first run of the day down the aptly named “boneyard” to the base of the Giant Chair, back up to the top of that and then back down to the High Noon Express just as it opened, I managed to be one of the first people to the top of the mountain for the day.
The High Noon Express is an amazing chair, in places the towers are 60m high, it carries 6 people on each chair, loading is done by riding onto a magic carpet the puts you into a perfect position to get on, it has padded seats, and foot rests and goes so fast. The really bad downside is the queues (see previous blog).
Coming down the runs off the Highnoon I headed to the giant cafe for my morning hot chocolate and packet of hot chips. After that I did two runs down the terrain park before deciding I didn’t yet have enough confidence to go very high off the jumps (one time I slowed down so much I almost didn’t make it to the top of the jump). So instead I went back to the top of the High Noon and then ventured out west, the first time coming down a run near the unused T-Bar, and the second going off-trail even further west into the Backcountry area.
The snow in the backcountry was awesome, knee deep in places and just so much fun, as well as challenging. I was really glad that I had done a private lesson last year on Whakapapa so I knew how to turn in the deep stuff and not get myself stuck, hurt, or off the skis. In places you still had to dodge rocks and ice but that comes with the territory, I was also quite lucky that I kept my wits about me and figured out the perfect time to cut back across to the ski area right at the base of the Giant chair so no worrying about having to spend ages walking back up hill.
After all that fun I decided to head off to Snowflake Cafe for lunch, bad idea. It was only ten past twelve but the place was already packed, I had to wait 25 minutes just for a packet of hot chips, but the one really good thing there was the cheese burgers. At $9.50 they were on the expensive side however they had a beef paddy that was close to an inch thick and tasted great.
After lunch I gave myself the biggest challenge of the day going down Hamilton’s run out East, it goes around the top of a frozen waterfall and then down the side of a steep valley. Very much black diamond, no groomed trails here, no markers either, only signs saying margin snow conditions take care.
The run down was indeed a challenge but a very fun challenge, in the end I made it down safely and like out west the snow was awesome, however this time I did have to hike out of the bottom of the valley and even though it only took five minutes it was still so exhausting that I decided not to do it again and go back out west where I knew I could make it back without walking. After a few more runs I headed back to the Giant cafe for another hot chocolate.
For my final runs of the day I headed back to the terrain park where I had now built up enough confidence (partly because all the annoying snowboarders had moved onto another area that had opened) to go off the jumps. I didn’t go as high as others on the jumps but I was able to get a second or two of air off the ground and I landed every single jump I did. Very pleased with myself I headed back out west to find a creative way back to the base area to head home.
The drive back to Auckland was much better than the drive down two days earlier. To keep myself awake I had the cd player playing and I consumed lots of V, a One Square Meal Bar, Moro Bar, and Hot Chocolate. After leaving the top of the mountain at 4.30pm I made it home at exactly 9.30pm a perfect five hour drive.
My only annoyance on the drive was people who do not use their high beams as they should. On the drive from Taumarunui to Te Kuiti I got stuck behind a car. That road does not have many passing spots but there are some if the driver in front will let you through. However this twat (and that is the nice way of putting it), would not let you through, and to make matters worse would low his lights to dip on the straights so you could not see far enough ahead to safely make a pass. I used my GPS to be able to see where the next straights and corners were so I knew where I could potentially look. But the only issue with GPS is that you do not know the scale that you are looking at as the map dynamically zooms in on corners and out on straights.
I finally got past just before Te Kuiti where I knew I had a straight piece of road, but it was still a challenge because the fool sped up well past the speed limit to block me getting through. The second annoyance in this saga was one the cars behind me. When you are in a queue of cars do not run your lights on high beam. It is really annoying because it reflects in the rear view mirror and into your eyes when you are trying to drive in the dark. High beams are meant to be used where there are no other cars in front of you and you need them to see, if you have cars in front of you then you do not need high beam.
My final rant for now is on the time advertised to travel from Turoa to Auckland. Ruapehu Alpine Lifts advertise it as four and a half hours. Last night bar one twat I had a near perfect run, and it took exactly five hours. Sure if there is not a single other car on the road and you are at the speed limit the entire time and do not stop you could do it in a perfect 4 hours 30 minutes but that would be near impossible. They should advertise it as 5 hours, that way it does not become an expectation that you need to do it in an impossibly short and potentially dangerous time. It also explains why coming down on Tuesday I didn’t have a hope of making it in time.
When I left on Tuesday I left at 3.30am with the aim of getting their at 8.30am (I had already guessed that 4 hours 30 was impossible), the fact that I didn’t make it to Whakapapa until 8.45am shows how crazy the timing is if you have a bad run. The same applies for Whakapapa it is advertised as 4 hours. The best I have ever done is around 4 hours 10 minutes and that was flying in perfect conditions. On Tuesday it took 5 hours 15 minutes. End of Rants.
Final comments: This was the best day skiing I have ever had, and my very first bluebird. If I went again given the same conditions I would go to Turoa over Whakapapa, having said that I have never been up Whakapapa when the weather has not been cloudy at best, and snowing heavily at worse, and I have never been up when the Far West has been open.
Also if you are a parent and sending your kids to the snow for the holidays be smart in what you give them to wear, I saw people yesterday with no gloves (really dumb), woollen gloves (almost as dumb, when they get wet they get heavy and freeze), Hoodie (wear that under a jacket not as your outer layer), woollen jumper (probably even worse than woollen gloves you need to keep your core warm). Skiing can become an expensive sport, but use some common sense always take gloves, do not use wool unless it is merino and then only as a base layer, and always wear a jacket.
Well I am off on my annual pilgrimage to the mountain.
The first day was very interesting, exciting, stressful and tiring.
The night before I left I went to bed around 8.30pm with the plan to get up and leave at 3.30am. As always trying to get to sleep when it is reality early and you are excited is always a challenge, I think I woke up every 40 minutes until midnight, before finally falling solidly asleep.
Also as always when your alarm goes at 3.15am in the morning it is always at the point where you are most asleep and absolutely do not want to get up. But I did, and had breakfast, put on my base snow gear, make sure I was fully awake, jumped in my car and headed for the mountain at 3.30am.
The drive out of Auckland was very good. I managed to cover 92km in my first hour on the road, which was very good time and probably the fastest that I could go without breaking the speed limit. My first sign of trouble was when I got around an hour and a half out and started to use my high beam lights on the open road. The problem was when I flicked them from standard beam to high beam the car stereo would cut out and cut back in. This happened a few times before I decided to pull out the stereo for fear of a serious electrical problem.
I made it down to Ngaruawahia where I headed for the turn off for the alternative and faster route south to Otorohanga as I crossed State Highway One my entire car died. Not a good feeling. I rolled to a stop on the side of the road, shut off the car and then went to turn it over and restart, it worked, first time, a little concerned by this I pulled into the BP station, went to the loo and grab a fresh fruit mix for a second breakfast. I waited there for around 15 mins for my car to cool and then set off south. To be on the safe side I decided to turn off all non-essential electronics on my car to see if that would sort out the problem with the high beams.
Unfortunately it didn’t. Twice on the road to Otorohanga my car cut out switching to high beam, lucky for me it came back almost instantly but not without first turning off all my dash, brakes, lights and power steering for a second, which is not a good feeling at 100kmh. To make a bad situation even worse around Pirongia I hit fog that was so thick that you could in places see more than 1 cats-eye in front of the car, and at best around 3.
The fog made me even more concerned for my safety and I came very close to deciding to head back inland to Hamilton to see if I could find a service station or something to get it checked out. In the end I didn’t but I did do one thing that I normally don’t do in worrying circumstances, I prayed. I am one who normally doesn’t think that situations that you get yourself in warrant prayers, but on the spot, there and then I think I said something like “God, I don’t normally do this to me, but it is really early in the morning, it is really foggy, my car is failing, please don’t let me break down in the middle of nowhere, and at 100kmh, it would not be very fun.”
I also turned back on my GPS unit so if I did break down at least I would have an idea of where I was. The final drive into Otorohanga became a case of counting down every km I got closer on my GPS after that. Once there I pressed on to Te Kuiti where my car did break down… Yay… Not.
I pulled into Te Kuiti around 6.15am where I parked to let my car cool down and for me to take a leak, and let my parents know I was safely on the road. All was fine until I hopped back into my car to continue the journey south. I turned the key, and nothing, no battery, no electronics, no nothing, not even the clock. Lucky for me I had parked on the main street and there was the local courier in front of me delivering the morning newspaper to the dairy. I quickly asked her where the nearest service station was, or if they knew how I could get my car jump started. The Mobil Station was 500m down the road, so off for the walk in the dark I went. Getting there I asked if I could get a jump, they asked where my car was I told them 500m down the road, they said stuff them walking back with me, handed me jumper leads and a battery and off I walked back to my car.
The car started first time off the jump and I drove back to the Mobil Station dropped off the battery and decided to head for Taumarunui, this time I decided not to use my high beams at all, by the time I had been held up close to 30 minutes so it was nearing day break anyway. Fog, frost, and a huge big rig continued to delay me on the road, by the time I made it to Taumarunui I decided to press on to National Park where I would make the decision of going up Turoa or Whakapapa. Arriving at National Park just after 8am I text messaged my mum asking for the snow report. The whole point of going down on the Tuesday morning was that it was meant to be a nice sunny day. Instead I had anything but. The snow report came back with the upper mountain on hold at Turoa so I decided to head up Whakapapa.
Overall it took me just over five hours to drive to Whakapapa, it should have taken four. If I had decided to go to Turoa I would have been more than an hour and a half later than my planned timing, as it was it took 1 hour 20 minutes longer then the same trip did last year to get down to Whakapapa. Showing just how much the fog, ice, and failing car cost me in time.
Heading up the Bruce Road the electronic signs showed that the road was open and clear, and the ski field was open. Like all electronic signs the reality was anything but, within a few hundred metres of going through the gate it started snowing, and heavy snow too. I had two four wheel drive jeeps in front of me, and another two behind, one of the jeeps in front of me started to struggle as the road got very slick, me in my 2wd without chains was just laughing at my luck how much more crazy could this drive get? To ensure I made it to the top I deliberately left the slick groves that the vehicles in front where laying into the road and tried to pick up the grit on the road that had amassed on either side of the groves, it worked and five or so minutes later I was at the top of the road.
Getting out of my car I headed up to the top of the Bruce and got my passes and rentals and up the chairlifts I went. My timing could not have been better I managed to get to the top of the first chairlift just as the upper mountain Waterfall Express chairlift opened, straight onto that and higher still I went, off that and up the waterfall T-bar. Straight to the top of the mountain. Initially the trails down the mountain were very icy because the snow had melted slightly and then refrozen, a common issue on Ruapehu, however throughout the day this became less of an issue as more and more and more snow feel turning most of the mountain into a beautiful fresh powder paradise.
At 10am I grabbed a hot chocolate at the new temporary knoll ridge cafe, it is very nice inside, but still is a complete shame about the arson of the old cafe.
While I was in the cafe a little bit of cabin fever set in an I decided to write an ode to snow:
Snow drops keep falling on my head
But that doesn’t mean my hands will soon be turning blue
Skiings just for me
Cause I’m never going to stop the snow by singing
Because I’m skiing
Nothings worrying me
The thing that amazed me the most about the day up the mountain was the lack of people. It is the middle of the school holidays and there was many kids about but very few other people, the lift lines were short and this means less people to crash into on the trails. The other thing that you learn very quickly is no matter how good you think that you are getting there will always be a six year old kid that is better than you.
The two most enjoyable runs of the day was going down the left hand side of the Waterfall T-Bar for the first time (the side nearest the Pinnacles), and going/falling down the Waterfall Black Diamond Trail around five times. The Waterfall T-Bar had some of the best powder on it, and was out of the wind for most of the day which made it great for carving up. The only issue was visibility at times down to only a few meters which meant hitting rocks and snow banks became a small issue at times. The Waterfall Express Trail was very popular and I found going down the Waterfall itself was the easiest way of avoiding the crowds but it still had a lot of rocks in it which made it a bit of a challenge, and after that heading straight down the waterfall near the chairlift towers rather than taking the “easy-way” down trail.
At around 3.30pm I decided to leave the mountain around 30 minutes earlier than closing because the visibility was becoming really poor, my goggles kept on icying up, and I was beginning to get quite tired and had to make it to Wanganui, on the last few runs of the day I managed to crash badly twice which are still hurting today (Wednesday), the first was hitting a small rock or drift on the Waterfall T-Bar and going face first into the snow and getting a frozen ear as well as my legs tangled in each other. The second was heading down the Rockgarden run to make it back to the base area and trying to avoid a fallen snowboarder where my evasive action caused me to fall very hard onto my shoulder and hand which is still hurting today. I have also managed to bruise my legs in a number of places (no idea how).
Today’s skiing was a good test for my new equipment and it all past beautifully. I was decked out in polypro thermals from Kathmandu (as always), and was for the first time using my Kathmandu Neptune long sleeve top, it is a blend of virgin wool (sports wool) and polyester and is very light weight, I was also using my Kathmandu Zinal mid-layer for the first time, and my Wild South Soft-Shell for the first time skiing. The four layers worked beautifully and at times I was so hot that I was sweating given that it was snowing all day it is a testament to the quality of the gear that these companies make. I was also using my Gyro Helmet and Outdoor Research Gore Windstopper facemask for the first time and these were also brilliant, almost everyone on the mountain was using helmets and facemasks, which was needed given the wind was making the apparent temperature close to -20C.
The trip from the Top of the Bruce down to Wanganui was a dream, I managed to make it in 1 hour and 45 minutes which is super quick for the Paraparas. Transit have done a lot of road works over summer near the Ratehi end of the road which has made it wider and a lot more smooth, there are still a number of really tight corners and steep bits, but it appears that some of the worst sections have been fixed. Other good news this morning is that my car appears to only have a lose alternator belt which cost $10 to tighten, thanks AMT Auto Electricians in Wanganui, so hopefully I will not have many dramas coming back to Auckland tomorrow.
Footnote: If anyone else has trouble with their car when switching to High-Beam it is probably the cars electronics overloading. I was right to turn off the stereo and air con and the like, but my mistake was to switch off my car completely when I stopped. Turn off all your electronics but leave your car running on the side of the road for a few minutes before turning it off, if your electronics are overloaded it will drain your battery and it will not be able to recharge, turning everything off will give the car a bit of time to recharge.
Because of some changes in plans I got to go skiing for a second time!
Don’t be fooled by the nice photos below the day started in much worse weather.
I left Wanganui at 6.30am to drive to Ruapehu and I arrived just before 8.30am. The weather was average to terrible driving up to the mountain. Snow in lots of places (not as bad as a week ago though) and lots of rain.
When I got to the base of mountain the upper mountain lift facilities were on hold. Because of this I decided to wait at the bottom of the mountain for an update on their opening status. This wait lasted almost a whole hour before I decided to head up the road at 9.20am.
In my hour of agony and dilemma I came very close to heading around to Turoa as it had more facilities open then Wakapapa. I was lucky that I didn’t though because it was only open for two hours before the weather packed in and closed the ski field.
Anyway back to the story. Like last week the road up to the ski field was closed unless you hired chains for your car. Chain hire costs $25 and there was quite a queue of cars waiting for chains to be fitted. I paid for my chains at 9.20am and then waited until 9.40am for them to be fitted. At 9.30am while I was waiting, and after I had paid, they decided to open the road up until Day Park 10. But no because I had already paid for chains I still had to get them fitted and go up the now open road on them.
This was a minor pain in itself but never mind chains are very helpful on mountain roads and because I was on chains I would be able to go to one of the higher and closer car parks when I got up the mountain. Sweet! However, when I got up the mountain I was directed to park at Day Park 10 despite having chains and arguing with the parking attendant. (I was told later he was wrong and I was right.) I was not happy about this for two reasons. The first is that I was made to hire chains that I did not need, and secondly I was forced to park low down on the mountain just because I was 2WD and the parking attendant was blind to the fact I had chains on!
Anyway. I couldn’t be bothered waiting for a bus so I walked the kilometer or so up the road to the Top of the Bruce. Here I hired gear and passes. The upper mountain was still on hold so they were only selling lower mountain passes. GRRRR I thought. By this time the weather had cleared a lot. After getting my gear sorted I headed out to head up to the top of the lower mountain. Well I ended up in a queue for this chairlift for close to 45mins! By this time it was approaching 11am! Yes I had been on the mountain for over two and a half hours and I hadn’t even got to go skiing yet.
When I finally got onto the chairlift they decided to open the Upper Mountain. When I had purchased the lift passes they had told everyone if the upper mountain opened everyone would have to go back and pay more. However, everyone on the mountain, including myself just headed for the upper mountain lifts without the extra passes. We had had enough waiting! There were at least 100 of us wanting to go higher up the mountain and it was not our fault they hadn’t sold us the right passes so thankfully the ski field operators saw the sense in letting us go higher!
After all this the weather cleared and the skiing was great. I skiied for just under five hours and now two days later I am still paying the pain for it. Sore legs, knees, bruised side and motion sickness is still mucking about with my sleep. But it was great. And fully worth it. Except for the chains!
Check out the reflection in the goggles. Nothing but snow and sky!
Note to self: When taking photos remember to smile!
Well this is me at the Dome 2672m above sea level on the top of Mount Ruapehu. Behind me is the Crater Lake and behind that is Tahurangi at 2797m which is the true summit of Ruapehu (but noone ever climbs it).
This is the second time that I have summited Rupaheu the first time was in January 2004 and the two main differences between this time and last time was the lack of snow. WE HAD NONE. Not even on the summit. Last time we had snow all the way from the top of Knoll Ridge at the top of the Whakapapa Ski Field. The second difference was the amount of ash on the mountain which made the climb and descent very hard because you had to be so careful not to slip. Oh and the minor third difference was this time we got a headstart by using the chairlifts which save you 400m of climbing and 3+ hours of tramping.
This is part of the party on the summit. 12 people went from Massey Albany.
This is some of our party and a whole lot of other people at the Dome using the Dome Shelter as a wind break to stop the wind. The air temp was quite warm (a few degrees above 0) but the wind was very cold, strong and icy when it got you.
This is the Dome Shelter with the very clear warning on it about not using it unless in emergency. Something that two climbers didn’t adhere to last year and almost paid with their lives because of it when the mountain did decide to make an emergency and erupt.
This is the Crater Lake which of course is the active vent of Ruapehu and causes all the eruptions.
These two photos show the damage that is caused when the Crater Lake gets too full and a Lahar occurs.
This is Te Heuheu (2732m) with the Summit Plateau in front. On our descent we cross the Plateau and came down over the Te Hehehu Ridge which is to the left. The Plateau was full of ash that sometimes you went ankle to knee deep in.
These are groups of people walking along the Dome Ridge to the Dome.
On top of the world. Looking South. You can normally see south to Taihape, Bulls, Palmerston North etc. Of course only when there are no clouds. But look at our height above the clouds.
Looking North. You can again normally see almost to Hamilton.
Looking down the Whangaehu Glacer. This is where the Lahars generally run. You can see the Dessert Road and the Army Training Grounds beyond that.