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September 2011 Issue
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Follow the footsteps to beat the crowds

Resting by Crater Lake. Photo: Tania Seward
5 -7hr
Mt Ruapehu and Iwikau Village are accessed from Bruce Rd, signposted from SH47 between Turangi and National Park
Tongariro National Park map
Summit Plateau, Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park

By rights, Andrew and I shouldn’t have been on the mountain that day. The staff at the Whakapapa DOC centre had warned us of ice patches on the upper slopes and a relaxing week away in Napier’s Kaweka Ranges was beckoning. But the weather forecast was settled for the next four days, the chairlifts were running and Andrew is not the sort of person easily deterred by the possibility of having to turn back.

From Iwikau Village a service road runs from Top of the Bruce up to the base of Knoll Ridge. It takes about an hour to walk the stony and uneven road. An easier route – and the one we took – was to join the hordes of families and day-trippers on the chairlift and enjoy the tantalising view towards Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.

Although there’s no marked route from the Knoll Ridge café to the summit plateau, attaining the upper reaches of the mountain is reasonably straightforward with some navigational nous.

Directly behind the café, a short rock scramble leads to the Knoll Ridge itself, distinguishable by the T-bar that bears the same name. The top of the ridge makes for easy scrambling, gaining about 220m vertical height over 800m walking distance. After reaching the end of the T-bar, the ridge proper begins to give way to the gully that separates it from the nearby Restful Ridge.

It was about here that we crossed over the snow-filled gully and started winding our way up Restful Ridge. Perhaps it was something to do with the name, or else the unobstructed views over Iwikau Village, but we stopped frequently to capture snow-filled vistas on camera, listen to the sound of snow crunching underfoot and enjoy a moment in the sunshine. Restful it may have been by name, the terrain was anything but, ascending a cool 300m over less than a kilometre on the map.

Making our way steadily uphill, the only indicator that we had passed from Restful Ridge onto Dome Ridge was a sudden increase in both steepness and ice. DOC’s ice warning hadn’t been unfounded – we were wary of patches of snow that had a dull sheen to them, but were able to avoid the worst of it by sidling up nearby rocky outcrops.

A mere 500m along Dome Ridge, we spotted ‘The Notch’, a small gap in the crater wall between Dome (2672m) and Glacier Knob (2642m). Rather than continue to Dome, we decided to give our unashamedly tired legs a break and slip through the gap onto the Summit Plateau.

In winter or summer, the Summit Plateau is a sight to behold. Flat expanses of snow stretch almost a kilometre, ringed by the 12 peaks that make up the mountain. The Crater Lake takes up most of the southern corner of the plateau, a quiet teal-grey pond that belies its inherent danger. It’s a popular lunch spot for school groups and the day-trippers that venture down from the Dome Equipment Shed.

We spent nearly a full hour here, wearing out the camera batteries and searching for unmarked expanses of snow amongst the hundreds of footprints.

Reluctantly we set off on our descent; knowing we had experienced something special.

After assessing the snow pack, we took the fast route down the mountain – literally. Raincoats become makeshift sleds as we maneuvered our way down the gully between Restful and Knoll ridges. Eventually though, the snow slopes grew further and further apart and we resigned ourselves to trudging the last 600m beneath the Knoll Ridge T-bar.

Arriving back into civilisation on the chairlift, we reflected on our extraordinary luck with the weather, and a special day spent following in the footsteps of more than a few ordinary Kiwis.