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May 2012 Issue
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Second time lucky

Ngauruhoe Ski tour
Car park to summit, 4hr
Mangatepopo Hut, 20 bunks
Car park at the end of Mangatepopo Rd
Topo50 BH34, BH35

A classic tramper’s mountain proves good for skiing too, reports Neil Silverwood

Below, on the Tongariro Crossing, I watched guided parties and freedom walkers venture out across the Devils Staircase. In the height of summer I had seen the line nearly unbroken, like a trail of ants stretching the full length. The crossing has become more popular each year with now an estimated 70,000 people completing the iconic day hike. In winter though, it’s quiet. Snow covers the trail and numbers diminish. The area has a wild feel about it again – visited mostly by guided parties, climbers and the odd stray ski tourer.

This was my second time up the mountain. My first bid to ski Ngauruhoe didn’t go to plan. A high pressure system covered the central North Island, and most of the park was baking under sun. However, with its own micro climate, Ngauruhoe wasn’t so inviting. A raw, biting wind swept around the mountain and it was blanketed in cloud. Newly fallen snow had been swept off, uncovering hard, polished ice. In near white-out conditions we climbed the mountain, but were forced to turn around just below the summit. Clipping into ski’s I called out to my climbing partner: “If I take a fall will I stop?”

“Yes, sure,” she replied, “at the bottom!”

I don’t remember much of the decent now, but I can vividly remember the feeling of terror. The visibility had dropped to just a few meters. Rather than skiing it felt like a series of semi-controlled slides. The feeling of vertigo was overwhelming – a sensation known to most seasoned skiers who have experienced the Central Plateau’s fickle weather.

But this time it was different and the conditions were near perfect. In truth, I almost hadn’t come, memories from the previous trip were still fresh. I spent a restless night mulling over the trip. There had also been more than one metre of fresh snow in the last 24hr, raising the avalanche risk.

At the car park I met two friends, Adel and Aaron. We walked up to the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and climbed the north facing slope. The sun reflecting off the snow was near blinding. Crampons bit deeply into the ice and sastrugi. On the crater’s edge we crossed through crumbling vents pouring out steam.

To the north lay Mt Tongariro. Ancient craters covered the landscape – testament to the forces that shaped the park. To the south were the Tama Lakes and beyond Mt Ruapehu.

From a geological perspective, Ngauruhoe is the younger cousin of the three mountains. While Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu’s landscapes have been constantly altered over the last 300,000 years, Ngauruhoe begun to form only 2500 years ago – a mere blink of an eye in geological time. Although the last eruption occurred some 37 years ago, the mountain is still considered active. In 1975 a dramatic eruption spewed ash clouds 11km into the air and lava rose up through the vents to just 50m below the rim of the crater. Looking at the hissing, steam-filled vents I hoped it would stay dormant a little longer.

A rotten section of snow broke away below my feet, revealing a shaft, and reminded me to focus on where I was. On the edge of the crater rim, I scraped snow off my boots, breathed deeply, and dropped into a steep, icy slope. Beneath this the ice gave way to better conditions; soft sun-baked snow.

“This is good as it gets,” Aaron called out. The cream-like snow sprayed up, turns felt effortless. A far cry from the icy slopes I was expecting.

On the Devils Staircase we linked together slowly diminishing patches of snow. I looked up at our maze of tracks on Ngauruhoe. It had taken three hours to ascend and just 15 blissful minutes to ski. While climbing in the mountains everything usually happens slowly, metre by metre. Skiing on the other hand allows you to move quickly and always gives me an amazing sense of freedom.

At the end of the day I watched the sun sink below Mt Taranaki in the distance. I felt more at piece with my self after completing the trip. Ngauruhoe seemed less intimidating. We chatted about other ski trips to do with all the snow around. Tongariro? The Ruahines would be good or perhaps on the eastern slopes of Ruapehu there were many options.