Ultimate guide to climbing Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand

KEY FACTS


The highest mountain on the North Island of New Zealand. It is an active volcano (last activity was in 2007).


Elevation: 2797m


Return Distance: Full Hike 10km - Via chairlift 7km


Time: Full Hike 6-7 hours - Via chairlift 4-5 hours


Difficulty: Hard. This track is suitable for fit, experienced and well-equipped hikers who can make good judgements about alpine terrain and volcanic hazards.


Track: The terrain is rugged volcanic rock during the summer and covered in snow and ice in the winter. There is no official or marked track and hikers must find their own and safe route up and down the mountain.

(It is recommended that you follow the same route back as you took going up, this reduces the risk of getting lost.)


Suggested Route (Crater Lake):


The most common route for the average hiker is to begin at Iwikau Village. Please note that the Waterfall Express chairlift runs most of the year but if it’s windy the lift will not operate. If the life is not in operation or you decide to attempt this hike without using the chair lift you will add an extra 90 minutes to your walk.


There are two suggested routes, via the Knoll Ridge, which is best taken if there is still snow on the mountain or the Restful Ridge which is best taken when there is less snow. They both have pretty much the same trajectory, heading directly south towards the rim.


As you are climbing you will likely catch a view of the Summit Plateau, keep this to your left and follow the ridge to the right to the Crater Lake. Please note that the Dome Shelter has been relocated. You will see a big dome-shaped peak on your right, across a glacier. This is Paretetaitonga (2751m).


On the way back from the crater lake you can follow around the rim of the volcano and walk across the Te Ataahua ridge which tops out at 2757m. You may have to navigate back down from the rim to make your way around and back up.


Retrace your footsteps and head back towards Iwikau Village.


When to go: This track is best attempted between Dec to April when the snow is at a minimum. Only experienced hikers with the correct equipment should attempt this climb outside of these months.

Weather: This alpine environment is known for extremely changeable weather. It is recommended that you only attempt this hike on a day with good weather reports and light winds. If you find yourself on the mountain during an unexpected weather change make your way back to safety, don’t take any unnecessary risks.


Trail Start: Iwikau Village, Whakapapa Ski Area.


Getting there:

The drive from Wellington takes approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes.

The drive from Auckland takes approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes...


Parking: Free parking at the ski resort at Iwikau village.


Facilities: There is a public toilet at the ski village. During the winter all the ski lifts and the ski park are operational. The ski lifts run at times during the summer and if running can take you partway up the mountain, cutting some time off your journey. A new gondola has just been added to the park. If the ski lifts aren’t open when you are there then facilities will be limited to just the toilet.

There is a large Four Square shop on the corner of the turn into National Park that makes for a good stop to stock up on supplies. They also sell hiking and skiing clothing and gear.


What to wear: Whip out your hiking gear and bring extra layers for when you are at the summit.


Other gear: Hiking shoes, hiking poles. Always remember to bring sunscreen.


Food & Water: Eat a large breakfast before leaving and bring enough food and snacks to keep you fuelled for the day. Bring plenty of water with you as there is nowhere to fill up along the way.


Safety note: Please beware that while hiking Mt. Ruapehu on a summer's day in the right conditions and with the right gear is generally safe you should always prepare for the worst. This alpine environment is known for extremely changeable weather and your safety should not be taken lightly. Always prepare for the worst, let someone know your plans, bring emergency food and water, extra layers of clothes and check the weather before leaving.

The Dome Ridge is very narrow and steep in places and can be very icy in winter conditions. Do not continue if you have to walk on ice and do not have an ice axe and crampons with you.


Entering the crater area is not recommended as there is increased risk from volcanic and alpine hazards.



MY EXPERIENCE


My hike up Mt Taranaki left me with a thirst for more action, adventure and peaks! I set my sails towards the centre of the north island to climb to the highest point of the island. I had already been to the national park a couple of times to go snowboarding and to do the famous Tongariro alpine crossing but was already excited to go back.

Jumping onto google and researching the hike got me more excited than usual. I read about this hike being unmarked and having never attempted a completely unmarked hike before I welcomed the challenge.


The morning of the big day arrived. We woke early in Ohakune (a picturesque town on the foot of Mt. Ruapehu), had our breakfast in the hostel kitchen, grabbed our backpacks and started our drive towards Iwikau village. We stopped at the Four Square at the national park to grab some coffees, water and extra snacks. While we were stopped there we witnessed a beautiful sunrise over the mountains.

Excited we quickly jumped back in the car and drove towards the village. The weather was glorious and the views got better and better as we ascended towards the village. To our left Mt. Ngauruhoe (or Mt Doom if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan) and Mt Tongariro and to our right, my old friend Mt. Taranaki sitting in the distance.


When we arrived the village was nothing short of a construction site. Works for the new gondola were underway and the normal passage was blocked. The chair lifts were also closed but that didn’t come as news as we had done some investigation the week before. There was a big group of maybe 10 or so hikers starting to form in the car park who appeared to be on a guided tour and although we were tempted to wait and follow them we decided to get going on our own.


We found a route that took us around the back of the building site and started our trail. We pretty much followed the path of the ski lifts up the mountain until we made it to the Larder cafe at Knoll Ridge. To our right, we could see the group with the guides taking what seemed to be the route that I read about online.

It was at this point that I went solo; the girls left in search of a different trail. I decided to keep following the ski lifts instead of heading towards the group of hikers. I popped my headphones in and started making my way up the mountain. My logic was simple, keep walking until I get to the top! On the way up the mountain, I stopped a couple of times to take in the spectacular views. The sun was shining, the tunes were good and the views even better. Easily described in one word as Euphoric!

After making it past the final ski lifts the crater was looking close. I tried to map out a route which looked easiest and kept trekking up. This part of the climb was pretty steep but nothing compared to climbing the loose gravel on Taranaki. It was surprisingly warm and the sun was pretty intense so I stopped to apply sunscreen. It was then I realised that I had the sunscreen for all three of us, a fact which would later get me in trouble… whoops


Excitement built as I edged closer to the top. I caught a glimpse of another solo climber in the distance which put my mind at ease that the route I chose wasn’t a completely terrible choice. A couple of minutes later a helicopter flew overhead to the crater and looped back down not long later. This was a regular occurrence and I figured it was doing scenic flyovers.

I arrived at the summit, I would say somewhere in the middle with the crater lake to my right and the Te Ataahua ridge to my left. My first impressions were WOW. The crater was massive, especially when compared to the relatively small crater on Taranaki. I hadn’t done much research on the crater and didn’t realise that you could pretty much loop all the way around it if you had the time, although it would take quite a bit of time. Quickly looking on MAPS.me I saw location markers for Te Heuheu and Tukino Peak which sat along the Te Ataahua ridge.


I decided to make a quick detour and headed to the left. Walking along the ridge I took in breathing taking views of the crater to my right and Mt. Ngauruhoe which I was now standing directly in front of. The winds at the top were very strong, almost blowing a gale. I walked to the highest point of the Te Ataahua. To get out to the peak I had to navigate my way across a pretty small path that had big drops on either side. So I decided to leave my backpack and nervously walk out to the edge. I took some snaps with my camera and sat back and enjoyed the view for a couple of minutes before heading back to safety.


Heading back over the narrow path I decided to slide across on my bum… I’m too young to die! I got to the other side, grabbed my backpack and noticed that I had left my lens cap out on the peak... Near-death experience take 2!


After retrieving my lens back I backtracked on myself and headed towards the crater lake. But not before video calling my parents in Ireland so they could enjoy a few minutes on the top of the north island with me.

As I was walking around the rim of the crater I noticed the group of hikers from earlier enter the crater itself and start to make their way across the inside of it towards the lake. I couldn’t find a way down to the crater from where I was and had also read some warnings that advised trekkers to stay out of it so decided to follow the rim around, having to navigate my way back down the mountain to come back up.

Walking around the ridges of the rim was a great part of the hike and as I got closer to the lake some of the land became very colourful, New Zealand’s answer to Peru's Rainbow mountain. After maybe 30 to 40 minutes of walking, I made it to the crater lake. The views of the lake made every step up the mountain worthwhile. The water was an unusual grey with hints of blue (the colour changes year-round depending on the temperature of the water and the concentration of particles suspended within it). Paretetaitonga peak, the third highest peak, stands directly behind the lake. I stood in awe enjoying the views.

To my left were two men working in a hole. The helicopter I had seen earlier was making its way over the crater and stopped hovering directly above the two workers. A long sling dropped down from the helicopter which they attached to some concrete foundations in the ground and the helicopter tried (and failed) to yank them from the earth. They detached the sling after a few attempts and the helicopter flew back down the mountain.


I was curious as to what they were doing so sparked up a conversation with the workers. They were removing the historic dome shelter which was originally built as a shelter but since had been restricted to the storage of volcano monitoring equipment after the 1995-96 eruptions.


After spending half an hour or so taking in the views I decided to make my way down the mountain. To follow the route I had taken up would mean traversing back across the rim of the crater, making my way back down and up again to reach the track I had taken up.

I decided to find a route back down the mountain with the same logic I applied going up but it didn’t run as smoothly as the way up. I could see the village and knew the general direction I wanted to travel in. After descending for quite a while I came to an edge that required me to either go back and find an alternative way down or to climb down a pretty step edge. I decided to climb down the edge and fortunately made it down safe but in hindsight one trip or fall could have potentially been very dangerous especially because I was on my own.


I kept heading down the mountain. I came across a massive sheet of ice that had a hollow hole at the bottom of it with a stream going through it. It was pretty cool to see but didn’t look overly safe to walk on. I decided to walk above it to the right but as I was passing I slipped on some loose rock and slid landing on the ice. Again fortunately nothing bad came off it, the ice didn’t crack and I wasn’t hurt. I jumped up relieved that I was still on solid ground and kept descending.


The way down was a little stressful but I eventually made it back in one piece admittedly pretty exhausted. I met the girls who had enjoyed their day hiking but were pretty sunburnt and very unimpressed! We headed back into Ohakune for some well-deserved showers, food and rest.


This hike has been one of my favourite day hikes to date. It offers incredible views of the national park, lake Taupo and Taranaki. The crater and the crater lake were amazing to witness and the challenge of taking on an unmarked hike was a good learning curve for future hiking.