Climbing Te Heu Hue

In the second week of June 2000, a big Antarctic cyclone blew up across the Southern Ocean. Pushing a front 500 kilometres wide, the low pressure system sucked cold air up from the sea and drove it North to lower latitudes. On Sunday it struck the land mass of the South Island. The moisture laden air was driven upwards by the Southern Alps, dropping its load of water vapour as the first heavy snow falls of the winter season.

NZMS260 series map of the summit of Ruapehu (detail)

NZMS260 series map of
the summit of Ruapehu (detail)

In Otago and Southland 30cm fell overnight. The main road-passes over the Alps were closed. The Lindis, between Otago and South Canterbury, was uncrossable for two days.

Behind the cyclone, driving it north, was an expanding pocket of warm air. The high pressure system, the anti cyclone which follows the cyclone, in wave after wave of storm front and clear skies. This is the dominant weather pattern in the far southern reaches of the planet, where westerly gales blow unhindered all the way around the world, and the Antarctic ice refrigerates the air.

On Monday the storm hit the North Island. In Wellington it rained. It rained heavily for hours, and it blew. Snow fell to 800m all over the island. The Desert Road and the Napier-Taupo highway were closed. Snow lay 30cm deep across the volcanic plateau.

The volcanic cone Taranaki can be seen above the clouds
     on the western horizon. This marks the edge of the island.

Gradually it blew itself out, expending its energy against the ranges, dropping its load of cold wet stuff. Inexorably the storm faded, and the calmer high pressure zone drifted over the country.

When it cleared on Tuesday afternoon the Tararua range, visible from Wellington, was dusted like a Christmas cake. The sky was big and very blue, and a gentle Westerly whispered over the land.

Further North, the skifield operators were rejoicing as the snow had built up a decent base on the mountain and they could look forward to an early season opening. I felt pretty excited by it as well. For a while now I'd planned to climb to the highest point on the North Island, the summit of the active volcano Ruapehu. The fresh dumping of snow would be fun, and the system practically guaranteed three or four days of clear weather.

So Wednesday morning bright and early I head North up State Highway One, hitch hiking across the Desert Road. I planned to walk in at the Waihohonu track, cross the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, and climb the long easy Waihohonu Ridge to Te Heuheu peak.

I was lucky, and got one long ride for most of the way. Mr and Mrs Wilson. from the Wairarapa, were themselves headed to the National Agricultural field-days in Hamilton, and were taking an extra day off so they could stay in Taupo. They were as excited as I was to see all the ranges iced over heavily and gleaming in the sunshine.

The summit plateau

The summit plateau

At three o'clock the good Wilson family let me off. Would it have seemed strange, do you think, to deliver a hitch-hiker to the side of the road, in a snow-covered volcanic desert, and leave him there to fend for himself? A place that is to most people the very idea of the middle of nowhere. I waved them a cheery goodbye and turned to stare at the mountains.

The broken bulk of Ruapehu loomed against the big blue sky, with the perfect conical shape of Ngauruhoe beside. The Waihohonu ridge is visible against the skyline from this vantage, and it seemed a simple task, something safe and within my abilities.

In an hour I reached the hut, and paused to record my intentions. Snow lay all about, and both outside taps were open, with water flowing freely from them, draining the tank. Inside, there was no sign of anyone, but the gas heater had been left on. I turned it off, and closed the taps. On reflection, I opened the taps again. You can get water from the nearby stream, and it would be a shame if the plumbing burst when the pipes froze overnight.

Another hour down the track it was getting near dark. A camp beside the stream allowed time to reflect on the perfectly clear sky, the nearly full moon, and the spectacular setting of this high volcanic region.

The next day, Thursday, came with a worrying bank of cloud against the Eastern side of the mountain, and a foggy cap obscuring the head of Te Heuheu. But it might clear up, so starting early I hiked along the Tama Lakes track for awhile, then headed South towards Ruapehu, to the foot of one of the spurs which splay like fingers from the Waihohonu Ridge.

The Waihohonu Ridge at sunset

The Waihohonu Ridge

At midday I reached the snow line and crouched behind a rock for some lunch. By one o'clock the wind had completely stopped, and the summit was clear.

Affixing crampons, I stomped on up the ridge. Walking in the hard snow is fun, my feet sink to the sole of my boots and the spikes afford excellent grip. Far from being a treacherous climb up an icy mountain, it's more like a stroll in the park.

But I realised I wasn't going to make it up to the top and back down again before dark. I was tired from the steep walking, and really hungry. The laws of thermodynamics apply as much to the human body as they do to the workings of a volcano, and I decided to stop for the night, in the middle of the afternoon, and fuel myself for the climb.

I tried to find a campsite that had at least some protection from the wind which was likely to come up in the night, and one that was fairly flat, but the two requirements were incompatible. In the end I chose the top of a low rolling spur to site my tent, and dug all the guy ropes in with plastic shopping bags filled with snow. I still thought they might be a bit weak, might pull out in the wind, so I piled big chunks of icy snow on top of each bag.

I need not have worried. The whole night was crystal clear and gleaming in the light of a full moon. No wind sprang up save the occasional gust, and the surface froze so hard I had to dig the bags out with my ice-axe in the morning.

And what a morning. I watched the sun rise over the Kaimanawa Range, painting the sky in a wide band of intense colour, from North to South, all along the backbone of the island. The sky turned by degrees pink and orange and blue and then the sun burst over the horizon and lit up the mountains in brilliant ochre.

This day was going to be divine. I could see that as soon as it broke, perfectly clear and windless, with the world laid out below me like a tiny intricate model.

It took three hours to climb up the snowy ridge to the top. The crown of Te Heuheu is a kind of ice-castle, rising spires of black volcanic rock covered with hard wind-frozen ice. All but the Western edge of it is inaccessible bluffs, but to the far-right as you approach is a sort of ice-ramp allowing access to the summit.

Malcolm Hutchinson stands near the summit of Te Heuheu peak, Ruapehu.
Beyond is the active volcano Ngauruhoe, with Lake Taupo in the distance."

Te Heuheu (2,732m) is not the highest point on the island. That distinction belongs to Tahurangi, which at 2,797m looks a steeper and more technical climb. But it is the top of the volcano, and from up here you can see forever.

Taranaki is an exclamation-mark above a roiling sea of cloud, punctuated also by islands of flat-topped volcanic peaks stretching away to the horizon. Lake Taupo lies like sheet steel, glinting in the sunshine. On the eastern side, wave after wave of mountain ridges. The Kaimanawa and Raukumara ranges reaching wrinkled fingers out to East Cape. The white line of snowy mountain tops running south all the way to Wellington.

I spent maybe an hour up there, eating lunch and soaking up the views. Then it was time to leave. The retreat was to be back the way I came, down the Waihohonu Ridge and past my abandoned campsite. I thought I'd head all the way back to the hut rather than spending another cold night in a tent. A long way, but achievable, and far more comfortable after a strenuous day on top of the island.

Malcolm Hutchinson. Wellington, June 2000