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Ruapehu Crater Lake

March 22 1994

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Ruapehu Crater Walk

This section has a special "before/after" feature. If you see this Before icon, click it to toggle between the before (1995) and after (1999) image. In 1995 and 1996 Ruapehu had two major eruptions, and the changes are sometimes spectacular. As much as I love Opera, this feature only seems works with MS Internet Explorer and Netscape - it's really nice, so give it a try.

Top o'the Bruce

Top 'o the Bruce Top 'o the Bruce

The first step on a journey is the most difficult one, they say - not in this case. You drive all the way from Whakapapa to the Top o' the Bruce [Road] where you'll find a couple of ski huts, chalets, and shops. Your first steps will take you to the chairlift which takes care of the most gruelsome part of the journey.

You'll have to change seats once, then you arrive at the summit café, which is a great place to relax and talk story after you've been to the top. From here you'll be left to your navigation skills if you didn't come with a guide.

Guided walk up Ruapehu

Should you take one? The NZ$50 are not a bad investment if you're unsure whether you have the skills to do it on your own. Apart from advice you'll get tips and information about the history of the area from your guide.

I personally found you won't need a guide if you

If you know your way, you can do it - keep in mind that even with a guide you still have to walk yourself!

On the other hand I found it pretty difficult on one occasion to find my way back down. Fog was limiting visibility to about 200m, and it felt like "you're in a maze with twisty little passages all alike". What I mean is one gully looks like the other, and without a decent map you might get as lost as the woman they were searching for that day for quite some time. We just crossed the slope until the next lift and followed that down.

The Notch - meet Bob and Donna

Group resting, Ruapehu Group resting, Ruapehu

We head out from the end of the lift, and our guides make sure we're moving quite fast, and that nobody stays behind. At our first stop before The Notch Jürgen and I strike up a conversation with Bob and Donna from Camden, Maine, USA. They are a really nice couple, and Bob cracks one joke after the other (really funny remarks, not crude stories!).

The entrance to the summit plateau is via The Notch which is just that in a chain of higher rocks. This is a good place for a drink & food stop since it's a bit protected here, and the wind can really whip across the summit plateau. When I was up Ruapehu the first time, the wind was blowing ice cold, and I was very glad to have my long underpants and waterproof overtrousers with me.

The Dome

The Dome The Dome Before

Depending on the amount of ice and snow you encounter you might continue along the ridge (no/ little snow) or walk on the right border of the central glacier. Your next destination is the Dome which is directly in front of you, no matter what path you follow. It's a steady climb uphill, but not as steep as the part before you reached the plateau.

Central Glacier Central Glacier Before

I hope you're trying out the before/ after feature? The changes caused by the 1995/99 eruptions are quite dramatic. It's hard to see anything on the "before" picture of the central glacier because everything is white in white.

[Click the icon] But not in 1999! The eruptions deposited substantial amounts of ash on the mountain and its surroundings. While the spectacle was interesting not everyone was happy with that. The ski season was shortened in both years, and the Tongariro water collection scheme for hydroelectric power generation was severely affected.

At the visitor center at Tokaanu (which is closed now, which is a pity) a valve was on display which looked like it had been worked with a plasma torch. But the damage was done by water and the coarse ash particles carried by it. Impressive!

Dome Shelter Dome Shelter Before

Finally you'll reach the Dome with Dome Shelter on it. From here you'll have a great view of the crater lake and the whole summit plateau. But before we come to that let's take a look at the shelter. It was right in the middle of the action, and bears the scars to proove it. In example the roof has been nicely dented on the right side.

Crater Lake - meet Peter Otway

Ruapehu Crater Lake Ruapehu Crater Lake Before

Finally you made it to the top! Provided the clouds behave the view from here is pretty incredible. Depending on the circumstances, a vast crater lake or a gaping hole stretches out right in front of you. I find both views impressive, and both are witness to the power of this volcano.

In some years the crater lake reached temperatures of over 70°C, on other (few) occasions it cooled down so much it froze over. At the moment a visit to the lake can't be recommended since the slopes are extremely unstable and the potential for minor eruptions is still quite high. But even at other times there is always the chance for a phreatic (steam) eruption when magma and water come into contact.

Peter Otway setting up theodolite Peter Otway setting up theodolite

Peter Otway has an interesting story to tell: he was caught in one of this eruptions, and almost got slain by falling rocks. What an incredible coincidence to meet him right here today in person! I almost asked him so sign a book or something like this...

You might feel a bit chilly up here and think about a bath in the lake. Hm, apart from being a wee bit too hot to be comfortable the pH value of about 1 might irritate your skin - this is pure acid. Two skiers actually tried it out when a snow avalanche swept them into the lake while doing a photo shooting. Both survived with minor injuries, but reported "the water stung each of their orifices".

Not recommended; but on the other hand, what a great party story to tell! :-)

Ruapehu Crater Composite 1995/1999 Ruapehu Crater Composite 1995/1999

This picture shows the Crater Lake in 1995 and 1999 in one picture (I overlaid the 1999 image with the half transparent image from 1995). The former lake shore has been marked with a red line.

The changes are quite impressive, aren't they! 50m of lake level is gone, the landscape has changed and is covered with ash. The central glacier has been partly melted and helps to refill the steaming lake.

There are fears the crater lake wall has been weakened by the eruption and might collapse if the lake refills to its old level. In this case something like the Tangiwai desaster could repeat.


Descending through The Notch, Ruapehu Descending through The Notch, Ruapehu

The beautiful weather holds, and as we descend through The Notch we again admire the ice encrusting rocks and surface. We're glad though we did not have to experience the blasting icy wind that must have desposited these layers.

Slopes Slopes Before

Depending on the time of the year it's a long walk or a short slide back to the top of the chair lift. Be carefull when using the snow express: you might hit rock bottom when your bottom hits rock! Other people fell in deep crevasses; so this might be another occasion when the knowledge of a guide comes in handy.

At the Cafeteria

After the first chair lift ride you reach the (meanwhile pretty big and fancy) middle station, and it's time to have a hot chocolate or a coffee on the sun deck. What a day! We stop for a while to chat some more with Donna and Bob, cracking some jokes about them camping at Whakapapa in "lahar valley".

Then we had back to the Ski House, and finish the day with a great meal and a beer sitting in front of a crackling open fire. Perfect!

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