Is this the best place in the world to ski or snowboard in October?
While most of the southern hemisphere resorts have shut or are winding down and the northern hemisphere areas might get a dusting or contemplate their season’s first snowmaking, this place is still cranking. It will stay open until at least October 26.
There’s a three-metre base, you can access a 722m vertical drop (and easily over 1km with some short hikes) and on a good day you’ll still find 16 lifts spinning on a two-sided behemoth that has the best terrain on the one mountain in New Zealand.
So just why is New Zealand’s Mt Ruapehu so criminally underrated? Well …
This is a place not without its complications.
Mt Ruapehu is a 2,797m active stratovolcano that rises like a cranky shark tooth from the Central Plateau of New Zealand’s North Island. Flanked by its buddies Ngauruhoe (2,291m) and Togaririo (1,978m) it otherwise has no mountain range to buffet it from the prevailing weather conditions.
As such Ruapehu is a magnet for all kinds of weather – blistering snowstorms, rolling cloud, sago, brilliant sun … and on my most recent trip there we pretty much got all of it. In one day.
Nature has made it difficult to link the two opposing and imposing sides of Turoa and Whakapapa and you’ll have to hike to do both in a day as well as decide which location you’ll be based – the town of Ohakune for Turoa or the much quieter national park for Whakapapa.
The lifts, while many by New Zealand standards, aren’t the most shiny and new and still having a double chair to distill the masses from the Whakapapa base seems like a curious choice indeed. Even more curious I’m told on a good weekend when Aucklanders and Wellingtonians flock from almost equidistant points to visit the still active massif.
Yet you’d have to be a fool to dismiss the place.
I fondly recall ripping up the Turoa side on a two-metre base in the early 2000s when the sun was shining and the smiles were plastered on like fake tan in the shire.
Two months later I came back to hit up Whakapapa with its jagged peaks and easy entry point to Crater Lake – where a 45 minute hike will provide you with a stunning vista of its emerald green waters and a pinball ride of more than one vertical kilometre back to base.
A dozen years on I returned with my poker chips for a one day gamble at a mountain that is one part jaw-dropping, one part heartbreaking and innumerate parts of everything in between. So perhaps it was fitting to get all of the above.
Despite every kind of weather report to the contrary the day dawned as gorgeous as a new born, the lashes of sun allowing a vista 180km west to Mt Taranaki, the jilted lover of Maori legend that absconded to the coast when Tongariro stole his paramour.
With an unusual low of -6 that morning conditions on trail were
icy firm. We battled through and got some ski and board legs after a few days of riding mountain bikes.
After an early lunch at the outstanding new Knoll Ridge cafe (never mind the food, the views kill it) we decided to tackle the classic lines off the Pinnacles. Initially we’d considered the hike to Crater Lake but there were so many conflicting stories about whether we could in good conscience take pictures or video because it was regarded as ‘tapu’ (a Maori sacred site) we gave it a miss.
Some eerie footage from a snowboarding trip to Crater Lake
My travelling companion Derek Morrison, who spent a couple of years working here in the 90s, handed out the Whakapapa cheat sheet – but it turned out there was local knowledge and there’s that day’s local knowledge. Because of the freeze the predicted upper mountain softening didn’t occur and we were left to do our best with the odd corn turn before hitting steep hardpack. Still, you could almost taste the potential. Tight chutes, rocky outcrops and a selection of hits that would cater to the adventurous advanced rider to experts only.
With the weather socking in we made our way back down the mountain to find the bottom half had now taken on a genuine spring consistency. My trepidation about laying an edge on skis 98mm underfoot was replaced with a smile that only slush can bring. I smashed through it with ease but in the back of my mind cursed that the top hadn’t given way in similar fashion.
So what to make of it all?
It’s a wonderful, complex and frustrating place all at once. An enigma that you probably wouldn’t have any other way, except that sometimes you would.
In case you didn’t know Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) runs as a trust with 4000 shareholders. All the profits go back into the mountain. RAL has recently been given an in-principle agreement to continue running the resort for the next 60 years; it is expected to be ratified next month.
With that is likely to come a raft of improvements, particularly to the Whakapapa side of the mountain. The removal of three existing t-bars, to be replaced with two chairlifts, has been slated, as well as increased snowmaking. The word is that these developments are likely to proceed quickly once RAL’s licence is renewed.
They are the kind of improvements that will bring the punters back – and I intend to be one of them.
THREE RULES OF RUAPEHU
SPRING’S THE THING
Usually the best time of year when the base is big. Airfares to Auckland are well-priced at this time of year from the Aussie east coast so think about hiring a car and making the four hour drive. The September school holidays in Australia (when they don’t cross over with the NZ ones) are a great time to go with the family.
PREPARE TO BE FLEXIBLE and ENJOY THE OTHER OFFERINGS
This part of NZ is up there with Queenstown in terms of things to do – perhaps even moreso. The awesome options within two hours include mountain biking at Taupo and Rotorua, surfing around Raglan, the Waitomo Caves, trout fishing, hot pools, geysers, Huka Falls, doing the Tongariro Crossing. It really is an amazing place …
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Speak to as many people as possible about the on-mountain conditions when you are there. At Mt Ruapehu, perhaps more than most other places, it pays to know what lies ahead to get the most out of your day.