Round the Mountain - Ruapehu

By Peter Waworis

Party members
Peter (leader), Alex (21C), Marc (First Aider), Helen, Ida, Lee, Kristine, Glen, Dave, Alister, Tracy & Sarah.

Pre-trip planning

Trip billed as easy grade 2 tramp, with no excessive climbs, pace not an issue, suitable for people with a moderate level of fitness. Two long meetings had taken place prior to departure with extensive work carried out on all aspects of planning. Alex was using this tramp as part of his "Mountain Safety Outdoor Leader" training. Risk management, route plan, menu, group & personal gear lists etc had all been fully discussed and catered for. Alex found that by using the MSC guide for route times, his estimates greatly exceeded those of all the route guides. On the night before we leave, Helen encounters a major problem with our food, the dehydrated rations she had ordered from Invercargill haven't arrived on the carrier. An alternative menu was quickly cobbled together and Helen rushed out to purchase these. (Well done Helen)

Day One ....The Chateau to Ohinepango Springs, 15km, est.7hrs (5-6hrs)

The party set off from Auckland in three vehicles at 6am Easter Friday. I arrived to pickup Kristine, only to discover that she had twisted her ankle the previous evening whilst running and was concerned if she should make the journey. It didn't appear too serious so after some reassurance she decided to continue as planned. All went well until just short of Huntly where a truck had rolled over and blocked the road. Our vehicle managed to turn around and make a detour east onto the Matamata road without any fuss, the rest had major problems. We motored thru to Tokoroa to pickup the Mountain Radio and continued on down the west side of lake Taupo. Helen managed to call us at about 9.30am as we were traveling thru Tokaanu, they were still in Te Kuiti. Our plans for Day One were falling apart. We arrived at the Chateau, had brunch and purchased the hut passes, where the remainder of the party joined us at midday.

After allocating the group gear & food, we were on the track at 12.30am, two & half hours behind schedule but hoping to make the Ohinepango Springs before nightfall. Spirits were high as we ambled off, a few quick adjustments to clothing and packs had us at Taranaki Falls in reasonable time. The vegetation varied from mountain beech in the sheltered gullies to tussock and scrub on the predominantly exposed mountain side. After the first decent climb, some members were left wondering what they we doing here. The unfamiliar weight of packs, niggling old war wounds and a passive life style left some of the party struggling for the remainder of the day. Two groups formed as the faster members slowly pulled away, group unity was becoming a problem. At the Tama lakes track forks, most of the first group dropped their packs and checked out the Lower Tama Lake. As the breaks lengthened for the quicker party, coldness and stiff muscles became an issue. By late afternoon a 40 minute gap had opened up between groups and we were still 2 hours from the springs.

Once contact had been re-established with the slower group, I deemed it desirable for the faster group to continue quickly onto the springs, so that the camp could be setup before dark. I hoped this would take the pressure off the rest and they could continue at their own pace knowing that they would at least have a hot drink and shelter when they arrived at the springs. The faster group reached the Springs at 6.30pm, just on dusk. Light showers started falling as we commenced setting up the tents and getting a billy on. We established camped beside the springs in a ideal spot, well drained and partially sheltered by scrub. The remainder of the group arrived at 8pm and it became evident that some of them were finding the conditions pretty tough. Between the passing showers the sky cleared to reveal a vivid, full moon and many more stars than you would see in Auckland. Some of the slower members of the party were pondering whether to continue as they were finding the conditions rather more arduous than anticipated. The campsite was quickly silent as everyone disappeared into their tents to rest their weary muscles for another day's exertion tomorrow.

Day Two... Ohinepango Springs to Rangipo Hut, 12.6km, est. 6.5hrs (4.5hrs)

After a long, wet night the first members of the party were up and had the billy on by 6.15am. Passing showers hampered an orderly breaking of camp, which saw us back on the track by 9am, 30 minutes behind schedule. Everyone had decided to continue and see what eventuated. We steadily gained height and moved back out of the beech and scrub into open tussock . It quickly became evident that Alister had strained a groin muscle and he was unable to continue at anything faster than a hobble. By unburdening him of his pack, he was able to make better time, but several other members of the party were beginning to feel the strain of yesterday's effort and today's exertion. We managed to make it to the footbridge below the Tukino ski field road by 11.30, where it was decided to stop and have a hot meal. We were quickly reaching a critical stage of the journey, by the end of the break, we were 45 minutes behind schedule with no likelihood of picking up the pace. The conditions were deteriorating, and everyone was getting cold, wet and tired. A steady climb had the quicker members up onto the Tukino ski field road by 12.45am, it was a further 45 minutes before the remainder arrived. The wind was gusting over the ridge at 50 odd knots and wind chill factor was now a major concern. A quick group discussion was held and it was decided that eight of the party would prefer to bail out while they were able. Lee, Ida & Kristine were happy to continue onto Rangipo Hut. Once it was established that the eight had a viable evacuation plan & transport back to the scout lodge, I was then prepared to continue on with a party of four. We sheltered behind a building on the ridgeline whilst we had a hot drink and rearranged supplies/equipment before continuing.

At 2.30pm we waved goodbye as the party of eight strode off down the road and we staggered up the road clinging on to each other for support. The wind by this stage was gusting at over 60 knots on the ridgeline and it was extremely difficult to stand upright. Conditions were better once we were off the road and on the track, but each exposed ridgeline we crossed had us bracing ourselves against the buffering wind and horizontal rain. Crossing the swing bridge over the Whangaehu river was exciting as the wind buffered you from side-on. As the name suggests, the Rangipo desert and accompanying mountainside is very bare and desolate. We were extremely glad to see the hut thru the swirling rain at 5pm and even more thankful to find we had the last four, empty bunks. A jam-packed hut and a glowing wood burner soon had us warmed up and smiling, as we contemplated the day over crackers & a glass of Fejoa wine.

The weather forecast that night had me concerned that tomorrow would be worse, not better!!! The wind changing to the south, freezing level dropping to 1500m and thunderstorms the following afternoon had me wondering what we had done to upset the weather gods.

Day 3 ... Rangipo Hut (1600m) to Mangaturuturu Hut(1250m), 24km est. 9-11hrs

As predicted the weather wasn't any better the following morning with strong winds and heavy showers. Our target this morning was to get to Mangaehuehu Hut by lunchtime, and reach Mangaturuturu Hut by 4.30pm. We set off at a steady pace and arrived at the edge of the Waihianoa Gorge within 45 minutes. It was a rather daunting sight with a very steep descent followed by a better-graded climb back up the other side. We tackled this obstacle with a bit of huffing and buffing only to be greeted by an even bigger climb shortly thereafter. By the time we had struggled up to the top of this we decided to have a quick break while the weather was fine. The views down to the desert road and Waiouru were spectacular and thru clear patches in the cloud we could see fresh snow on the slopes above us. Back on the track and soon we were back into the mountain beech which gave us some welcome shelter from the wind. Unfortunately the track was now muddy and we spent another hour slipping and sliding our way to the Hut, which we reached at 11:45.A warm hut had us stripping off our damp gear to dry off while we had a hot lunch. A cell phone call to Helen had us organized to meet them at the road end at 3pm. We were back on the track by 12:45 and the rain just got heavier. The track by this stage resembled a small stream and the party was starting to look a little bit waterlogged!!! Several kilometers of boardwalk had been pulled up in anticipation of replacement. Unfortunately that didn't help us as we continued thru even deeper bogs and by now the rain was like standing under a waterfall. After several stream crossing thru fast flowing torrents we had a very long uphill climb to the roadend, which we reached at 3:15pm.

Helen's smiling face greeted us as sat waiting for us in a very warm van. We quickly threw our packs in the back and got off some of our wet clothing. Helen gave us a weather update as well as condition at the start of the track at the top of the road. It wasn't looking good, zero visibility, winds that threatened to blow the van over and heavy snow warning. After a brief discussion we decided to call it quits while we had transport at hand. We proceeded up the road to the Massey University Alpine Hut just below the main ski field car park where some of the party was sheltering. We arranged to stay the night here and quickly settled down to a hot drink and some snacks. Helen & I retrieved my vehicle from the Chateau car park and picked up some supplies from the local bottle shop before proceeding back up into the mist and wind. By the time we reached the hut it was just starting to snow and it continued periodically for the next 15 hours. We were very thankful for a warm hut and a comfortable mattress that night as the wind howled outside.

Day4...

We were greeted by a snow-covered mountain the following morning and about  100mm of snow on the top of our vehicles. As the snow continued we became concerned about the road conditions, luckily, Chad the President of the Alpine club had a 4 wheel drive which he proceeded to drive up and down the road to clear a track. We managed to drive down the mountain without incident and returned to Auckland via Tokoroa to drop the Mountain Radio off.

Debrief

Little attention had been paid to the party members' fitness levels & likely pace during the planning of the trip. We had discussed splitting the group in two, if we were behind schedule and the need for the faster group to setup camp & get meals prepared at a reasonable time for the slower group. Some members of the party had been over optimistic about their ability to tramp for up to 12 hours a day and this contributed to the large number of niggling injuries the party encountered. In retrospect an overnight hike should have proceeded this trip so fitness levels and equipment suitability could have been determined. Two totally independent groups of six with all the necessary gear would have made much more sense. A valuable lesson was learnt for the future!!!