One windy day at Mt Ruapehu
Mt Ruapehu is the ‘King of the North’ and an absolutely wild winter playground. Complete with two commercial ski areas – Whakapapa and Turoa – this ski resort and active volcano provide a diverse variety of terrain to suit everyone from the humble beginner to big-mountain freeskier. Former Ski Club employees Ocean Belcher and Rob Crabtree went to check it out:
Saturday afternoon in transit:
The windscreen’s fogged over and the conditions are treacherous. My wipers are barely going fast enough to remove the piles of fresh settling on my windscreen at high-speed, and the car is getting blown all over the road by the gale-force winds. Perhaps we were feeling a little too ambitious with this adventure and our interpretation of the metservice report might have been a little too optimistic. Nonetheless, you’ve gotta be in it to win it with Mt Ruapehu. The visit is always a gamble, but totally worth the risk. The next 12 hours could go either way…
After a freezing cold night in one of the many un-insulated houses of New Zealand, we roll out of bed – still a little dusty from a previous evening at the bars. The ski report reads: “Mountain ‘on-hold’ due to high winds. Mountain road closed to all 2WD vehicles due to heavy snow.” Great start – My 98 Mazda Familia is just not going to cut it.
Unlike the ski resorts of Europe where you can stay in accommodation directly on the mountains, in New Zealand you have to stay in towns down in the valleys. Many of our ski areas are located in National Parks which limits where accommodation can be built in order to protect the natural landscapes. While overall this is a positive, it means the drive up to the ski resorts each day can be changeable and treacherous due to snow drifts and winter storms.
So now we’re at a loose end. It’s a pow day with 1/2 a metre of fresh, the conditions are amazing, but we can’t actually access the resort. We look at booking a shuttle but the next spaces available aren’t for another hour.
Note to self, pre-book shuttles next time.
As a local Kiwi, the alternative solution was a clear one – just hitchhike!
Not a common activity for a middle-class Englishman, Rob was visibly apprehensive and skeptical of my choices. But eager to embrace the Kiwi spontaneity, out went his thumb and on went the smile. 10, 20, 30 cars drive past with no luck and we were feeling despondent. Standing on the side of the road in a blizzard – not exactly how you’re used to kicking off a day of skiing and shredding.
But lo and behold – over pulls a Mt Ruapehu staff van. A local worker who was delivering the van back up the mountain pulled over and picked up all the stranded locals with their thumbs out. We all pile in the back and set off up the mountain road. And these road conditions were nothing like I’d ever seen in New Zealand before.
Trees heavily laden with snow, sagging and drooping like a scene out of Narnia. People digging out their vehicles, and traffic queued bumper to bumper as they tackled the slippery road. At this point, I was feeling very thankful that I hadn’t braved the drive myself. Cars were slipping and sliding all over the road, and those silly enough to attempt the ascent without a 4WD were visibly screwed. But not us. With chains on all 4 tires and a local worker at the wheel, we were given right of way and drove on the right-hand side past the queues of traffic waiting for the roads to open.
Our optimism and patience had paid off as we burst through the clouds onto resort, miles ahead of all the 4WD owners that had originally driven past us. While they were still stuck in queues, we were quickly tucking into a pie and a Powerade before jumping on the lift. The hospitable locals in New Zealand never fail to help out a few stray tourists and it had certainly been a great morning of Kiwi adventure for Rob.
An afternoon of shredding, mucking about and having hot-laps on the Movenpick Chair
The wind was still gusting 50km and we were freezing our good-bits off – especially Rob who was without goggles. You know the song “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you, but I love it. Yes I love it”? That was our song; our mantra.
However, the snow conditions were some of the best I’ve ever had in NZ and the locals were stoked! It had been such a slow hideous start to the winter that now people were even more enthusiastic than usual. The usually humble and reserved locals were hollering off the lifts, high-fiving, being super chatty with their fellow skiers and generally just loving life. Packed powder on trail, 50cm of fresh off trail. It was bliss.
The upper mountain was still a prisoner to avalanche bombing and the suspense was killing us. The BOOM of the bombs reverberated through our bodies and heightened our anticipation for the new runs to follow. Needless to say, the rest of the day turned out blissfully. We’d skied an active volcano and lived to tell the tale.
An evening in Ohakune
Following a big day on the hill you have one of two options: Eat a classy sit-down meal at the Bearing Point Restaurant, or grab one of the world’s best burgers at The Blind Finch. We opted for the burger option complete with pork crackling and apple sauce, before dancing on the tables at The Powder Keg – it’s a rite of passage.
Other local options for anyone swinging by include visiting the Waiouru National Army Museum, and having a hot swim at the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. The local Maori say this place has Wai Ora – healing waters and I tend to agree. Just what the doctor ordered after a hard day on the slopes!