Home / Articles / Features

Eleven peaks in one winter

Image of the July 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
July 2023 Issue

An enthusiastic skier and climber pays her respects to 11 Ruapehu peaks in the course of one winter, tracing their names through the decades as she goes.

One winter, when I set out to climb and hopefully ski Mt Ruapehu’s 11 summit peaks, another interest intervened and I began tracing the history of the naming conventions on my favourite mountain.

Which are summit peaks? It depends on who you talk to, and which topo map you look at. For me, it was Tahurangi (2797m), Te Ataahua (2757m), Paretetaitonga (2751m), Te Heuheu (2732m), Tukino Peak (2720m), Dome (2672m), Cathedral Rocks (2663m), Pyramid Peak (2645m), Glacier Knob (2642m), Girdlestone (2658m), and Ringatoto (2591m). However, some climbers reckon you should also count L Peak (2580m), a wee tooth next to Pyramid Peak that is not named or marked on the topo map, and the Clocktower (2480m), a rocky outcrop on the ridge separating the Whangaehu Glacier from the Mangatoetoenui Glacier – which I dismissed as utter folly. Eleven peaks would do. I hadn’t been anywhere near eight of them. It would suit nicely for a winter project.

Dome was the first peak. I was there multiple times over winter. It’s a doddle – a quick puff up from the Whakapapa Col or the Summit Plateau. The key summit was a jaunt on my fortieth birthday when I took my friend and birthday twin Tanja with me (she turned 28 the same day). Tanja hadn’t ever been up Ruapehu and we were both delighted with an uncharacteristically soft and gentle ski back down the glacier. A couple of workers up the T-bar towers were surprised when we suddenly emerged, zipping down next to them, hollering with happiness. Dome is otherwise, but not commonly, known as Patatau; I saw this indicated on an old map from the 1940s and found a mention in a 1954 English climbing journal of a trip to Te Wai-ā-moe / Crater Lake. It mostly flies under the radar, with minimal noise on topo maps until indicated as a peak proper on the 1989 map.

Tanja and I had attempted Paretetaitonga that same day, but the weather eventually closed in on us. I went back later with ski touring buddies, Cam and Nate. They bought into my madcap plan, trusting me far more than they should have. We ascended the Far West T-bar, traversed to the spine running up the ridge next to the Whakapapa Glacier and then navigated a few ice obstacles on the ridge to reach Paretetaitonga. It took hours longer than expected. Nate led each obstacle, a challenge requiring front-pointing on crampons. I snapped a crampon attachment but duct tape saved the day. Near the top I looked down and told Nate that I’d prefer to find another way. He cackled with laughter and started downclimbing, leaving me little choice but to harden up and follow. We skied off the slope to the Whakapapa Col and battled tired legs skiing down the glacier itself. Cam was not impressed, and I feel it is no coincidence that he moved to Africa soon after.

Hazel and Tanja celebrate their birthdays on the Dome. Photo: Hazel Phillips

As early as 1934, suggestions of a name correction were being made in the newspapers. A local man wrote in to say “the right thing has not been done” in naming Ruapehu as one collective peak, becuase it was divided up by the various peaks we now accept. Paretetaitonga means ‘a wall, or parapet, on the southern side’, and the local believed that Girdlestone was          actually meant to be called Paretetaitonga. “This, in my opinion, is a bad example of Pākehā interference, and a day must come when this matter will have to be adjusted.”

Girdlestone was previously called Little Matterhorn and shows on early maps as Matterhorn Peak. It was named after Hubert (Hugh) Girdlestone, an enthusiastic outdoorsman who surveyed the district, summiting Ruapehu at least 14 times. Girdlestone was a settlement surveyor and Ruapehu lover who ignored the peak’s proper name, Peretini, and dubbed it Little Matterhorn. Around 1912, Girdlestone swam across Crater Lake, which today would be considered wildly culturally inappropriate or offensive, as well as dangerous because of the pH levels. He was killed by shrapnel in his sleep during the First World War and his 1921 obituary in the Manawatū Times claimed: ‘It is fitting that amongst the old Māori names one peak should perpetuate a European name honoured alike by the Pākehās and Māoris, for amongst the native race Girdlestone had many true friends.’

A ski touring buddy and frequent contributor to the touring community, Ron Thomas, suggested on social media that Girdlestone’s rightful name was Peretini. Indeed, local iwi Ngāti Rangi know Girdlestone as Peretini, and when Ruapehu Alpine Lifts rebranded itself in 2019, the new Tūroa slogan showed ‘the three peaks of Mt Ruapehu that are visible from Tūroa, which are Tahurangi, Paretetaitonga and Peretini’. This conflicts with the ‘other Peretini’. Some alpine climbing material and at least one book refer to Pyramid Peak (2645m) as Peretini, or Peretina. Likewise, the English climbing journal I referred to earlier also calls it Cinder Peak: ‘On the east side of the lake rises a cone of scoriae (cinders) and ash, culminating in Cinder Peak (Peretini), often called the Pyramid.’

So far, so confusing.

Hazel ascends to the crater ridge leading up to Tukino Peak and Te Heuheu. Photo: Hazel Phillips

I visited Pyramid Peak from the Whakapapa Glacier with a climbing buddy on a bender to get as much snow time as we could before winter turned to spring. We skinned up the glacier, went to Pyramid and had a blazingly hot ski down the Whangaehu Glacier in soft spring corn. From there we visited Cathedral Rocks and Glacier Knob, both in a whiteout. Cathedral Rocks’ te reo name, Matihao, has unfortunately been wiped off the latest topo map. Its last appearance as ‘Matihao (Cathedral Rocks)’ is on the 1979 map; before that it was just Matihao.

The next day we greeted Te Heuheu and Tukino Peak, and climbed straight to the saddle just south of Tukino Peak as an ‘extra for experts’ task, two axes each. Neither peak has an English name but are named after Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, paramount chief of Ngāti Tuwharetoa.

We were up again the next day to finish the job, aiming to go to Te Ataahua from the Mangaturuturu col and straight along the ridge to Tahurangi. It was spicy, hairy – the exposure at one point made me dizzy and I questioned my life choices. Cam was behind me, joining our adventure in spite of the dally I’d taken him on to reach Paretetaitonga. (Te Ataahua, incidentally, isn’t named on maps, but is indicated as a dot and a height.) We turned a couple of icy, crusty obstacles on the ridge – delicate work – skis strapped to our packs, two axes each, and prayers to each individual’s deity of choice.

It seemed endless, but we reached Tahurangi col, admired the crater lake, climbed to Tahurangi itself – the highest point in the North Island; the Mt Cook of the North Island if you like, and at one point called ‘Ruapehu Peak’ – and while I was mentally preparing to climb back down again, Cam decided he’d ski off the ridge. There exists, somewhere, some appalling footage of me skiing off this ridge in very bad form, footage I will gladly pay to suppress. We skied (I side-slipped, mostly) eastwards down the Wahianoa Glacier, battling breakable crust for far too many contour lines until we hit softer snow. Cam made a fair go of some legitimate turns while I sweated with stress. We passed avalanche debris and reached a reasonable bench around the 2200m mark, and from there alternated between skinning and traversing the base of Girdlestone to reach the Mangaehuehu Glacier. After that it was a soft and glorious hero-snow ski down to the Ngā Wai Heke chair and Tūroa base, unfortunately not in time for a celebratory tipple but in plenty of time for a substitute Ohakune chocolate éclair.

Crater Lake and Summit Plateau as seen from Tahurangi. Photo: Hazel Phillips

The final hurrah is seared into my memory: Ringatoto. It’s now known on the map as Ringatoto Peak but it was only 1989 that it was designated as Mitre Peak – a disappointing and confusing name as there is a much more widely known Mitre Peak in Fiordland, and also one in the Tararua Range. The name lacked imagination.

Ringatoto’s north-eastern aspect is bluffy but it allows a relatively easy summit to the col between the peak and Tahurangi. We left Tukino at the crack of dawn and skinned high beyond Whangaehu Hut, briefly donning crampons to navigate the icy southern face near the hut before transitioning again to skins, making it up the snow bridges of the Whangaehu outlet. Rocks and ice fell from northerly aspects but the route to the col was clear and skinnable most of the way.

We topped out with skis on packs and dawdled along the low-slung ridge to say hello to the peak. The hot day allowed not only lunch on the ridge but also T-shirt weather while climbing and a roasting ski back down. The steep entry from the col back to the Whangaehu had me clenching hard but I made it, and after a short climb back to Whangaehu Hut, as we’d lost too much height, we were treated to a memorable ski to Tukino base. Eleven peaks in the bag across the course of one winter.

Ron Thomas confesses to having skied all Ruapehu peaks from their summits, but quietly, and “only ever when te maunga lets me, out of pure respect and patience over 32 years”. Maybe one day we’ll see the te reo names reinstated: Peretini, Matihao and Patatau once more gracing our maps.