A PEAK IN THE DESERT
There is no gentle introduction to Mount Ruapehu. In fact it is more of an abrupt interruption to the central North Island of New Zealand.
Surrounded by the barren Rangipo Desert, this giant of the North Island Volcanic Plateau stands at 2797 metres. Jutting out from tussock-covered flats, it’s the highest peak in the North Island; seemingly all the more impressive from its desolate surroundings.
New Zealand is covered with volcanoes – some extinct, some simply dormant, and some which like to remind everyone they are very much still alive.
And it is Mt Ruapehu which is in the Very-Much-Still-Alive camp. It is also home to the North Island’s only commercial skifields, Turoa and Whakapapa. Here, you can go snowboarding and skiing on an active volcano.
skiing on an active volcano
Turoa and Whakapapa offer excellent snowsport opportunities and of course the thrill of snowboarding or skiing on an active volcano. Both sides cater for all levels from beginners to advanced. On the eastern side of the mountain is a smaller club skifield, Tukino with more limited facilities.
So how do you choose which skifield?
Some say Whakapapa (“wh” in Maori is pronounced “f”) is best for skiers while snowboarders prefer Turoa. John snowboards & I ski – but we both tend to prefer Turoa.
Turoa typically has more ski days each season. The top lift point sits every so slightly higher at 2322m, compared to Whakapapa’s 2300m.
But you’ll find a better and more extensive beginners area at Whakapapa’s Happy Valley with plenty of space to move. Some consider Happy Valley to be the premier beginner’s ski area in New Zealand – but I haven’t skied at every mountain in the country to make that claim myself.
Here are some of the terrain details:
Beginner 25% 20%
Intermediate 50% 55%
Advanced 25% 25%
Groomed 30 22
I’m an intermediate skier who sticks to the trails and John is an advanced snowboarder who loves heading out to untouched areas on the mountain. We usually always chose Turoa over Whakapapa. There are plenty of trail options for different abilities and the chairlifts make ascending the mountain fast and easy, whereas Whakapapa has more t-bars which I tend to be a bit clumsy around.
To be fair, the time I skied at Whakapapa, we had miserable weather and I couldn’t see the edge of the trail. Subsequently my ski down the mountain contained a mix of hysteria and fear, followed with resentment and blame towards my husband for leading me up to a more advanced trail I was comfortable with then buggering off at speed.
The conditions didn’t faze John – he loved every second.
Having said that in 2016 Whakapapa’s new lift, the Rangitara Express, opens for business – a much needed upgrade for the mountain, increasing the number of skiers and snowboarders being transported up the mountain. But we’ll have to wait until 2017 when we’re back home before testing it out.
THE SKI TOWNS
We often stay at Turoa because we have access to a cabin in the town of Ohakune. Ohakune is at the base of the Turoa ski field and has plenty of accommodation options, a supermarket and of course the highly important après-ski! You can’t beat heading down to the Powderkeg for a post-ski beverage and bowl of hot chips. The Powderkeg, at the Powderhorn Chateau, is an iconic and buzzing spot in Ohakune after a day on the slopes, with beautiful wooden furniture, cosy interiors and good food and drink to warm the belly.
If you’re skiing Whakapapa then chances are you might be staying at Whakapapa Village. The village is just a 10 minutes drive from the Whakapapa ski field base. One of the most famous places here is the historic Chateau Tongariro Hotel , built in 1929. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, or dining under the chandeliers at the restaurant, it’s a beautiful old building to visit, with spectacular views of the mountain.
We stayed at the Whakapapa Holiday Park in one of their cabins, just 6km from the ski field. It’s an affordable option with cabins snuggled among native trees and bush.
Of course there are plenty more options on both sides of the mountain. We always use Booking.com and we’ve always found somewhere to stay. As with any ski town, accommodation books out quickly during the winter, especially during school holidays. In New Zealand that’s mid July for two weeks and another two weeks at the end of the ski season in September/October.
The last eruption on Mt Ruapehu was in 2007, which lasted about 7 minutes. GeoNet, New Zealand’s geological hazard monitoring system says the explosion spread ash and rocks spread over the summit and lahars in two valleys – including one in the Whakapapa ski field.
In early 2016 the volcanic alert level at Mt Ruapehu was raised due to an increase in volcanic tremors and gas output while the crater lake temperature rose from 25°C to 46°C. However as of July 2016 the alert was lowered after activity on the mountain settled.
Most of the time, there’s nothing much to worry about if you’re heading up the mountain but it is important to remember Mt Ruapehu is one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes. Rest assured, there’s plenty of monitoring at all times and consequently there are sufficient warning systems should it start to rumble.
GNS Science has produced a hazard map for both ski fields which outlines safe areas and advice in the event of an eruption.
There’s quite a thrill knowing you are going skiing on active volcano. But for the most part it is a quiet giant with only the occasional hissy fit – and an outstanding place to ski and snowboard in New Zealand.
DISCUSS: Have you been snowboarding or skiing on an active volcano? Do you worry about the possibility of an eruption?
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