Fancy the idea of racing down an active volcano? Feels more than a little hairy? Well thousands flock to do just that every year on the North Island’s biggest ski area, the grand old dame of hills, Mount Ruapehu. Rising out of the wild and somewhat erie Tongariro National Park, Ruapehu boasts over 1,000 hectares of skiable terrain with slopes for all abilities and ages. And to top off this fiery mountain’s reputation, it sits beside equally fiery, Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom (locally known as Mount Ngauruhoe.)
It’s a long drive - pretty much from any of the North Island main centres - but luckily Ruapehu has two commercial fields Whakapapa on the north-western slopes and Turoa on the south westerly side and a much less busy, but much smaller club field called Tukino on the eastern slopes. So when you get there, there are loads of options for your alpine expedition.
Whakapapa rises up from Whakapapa village and it’s a picturesque, bush lined road that leads to the base of the field. The joy of driving up to Whakapapa is that unlike most of its South Island peers, Whakapapa has a sealed road and there aren’t many stomach lurching drops off the sides. Ohakune is the ski village on the Turoa side and it’s a pumping with apres ski bars and restaurants so you’re guaranteed that the fun doesn’t stop when you come off the mountain at the end of the day. Tukino is well sign posted and is accessed off the Desert Road 22.4km north of Waiouru. And as comes with club fields, the adrenalin often starts before you’ve even pulled your goggles on as its access road is a slightly more challenging gravel road than the two bigger North Island fields. You’ll need to cross a ford in the initial part of the road and you’ll need a 4WD if you want to make it all the way up to the carpark (do not fear if you’re 2WD only as they do have a shuttle that runs from the base).
So do make sure you allow loads of time to explore all of the runs and bowls of this generous mountain.
With 65 trails over 1,050 hectares of skiable terrain, Whakapapa is the big mama of ski fields in New Zealand. If you’re just starting out then head to Happy Valley, specially designed for beginners, so you can cruise the slopes without crazy speed demons coming to bowl you over. 50% of the mountain caters for intermediate skiers, with chairlifts and tee-bars spread across the field, to help you explore the entire field. And for those who are hell bent on breakneck speeds and killer drops, advanced skiers can choose black or black diamond runs over 25% of the field.
And don’t worry about packing a picnic - ‘though you can of course do that - as they have cafes dotted throughout the slopes. For a morning coffee before you brave the snow, pop into Lorenz’s bar and cafe by the ticket office. Happy Valley sports it’s own bistro - so you don’t have to leave in order to line your tummy - and then there’s The Knoll Ridge Cafe at the top of the chair, looking out over Knoll Ridge T. Finally, the Schuss Haus Bar, at the top of the Rangatira Chair is a super place to park yourself at the end of the day. Grab a beer or mulled wine and check out everyone as they ski down towards the car park.
If you’re new to alpine adventures, you can rent all of the necessary gear from up on the mountain and they have workshops for those who have a sticky binding or need their DIN settings adjusted. You name it, the workshop team will be able to help sort it.
Accommodation supporting Whakapapa is pretty comprehensive with options ranging from the grand to more hostel style establishments. If budget isn’t of concern then book yourself into the Chateau Tongariro, an elegant old lady built during the glamorous ‘20’s. You can almost hear the flappers dresses swish as you sip your highball in the Ruapehu Lounge - all velvet curtains, twinkling chandeliers and roaring fireplaces of it. Take up a billiard cue for a spot of billiards before dinner in the elegant Ruapehu Room. Or if you’re running with a more casual theme, grab a post snow swim in their pool before heading to the Pihanga Cafe, for a pizza and a beer. This will set you up nicely for adjourning to their downstairs cinema for a no energy required movie. Just the ticket.
If you’re more budget conscious then look no further than the Skotel, just next door to the Chateau, so you can pop over for a cocktail or a burger if you feel the need. Skotel is a rustic lodge that sits at the base of Mt Ruapehu, on the edge of Whakapapa Village. It operates backpackers dorm style rooms as well as cabins and hotel rooms, and many of the rooms command superb views of the mountains. They have a casual restaurant, a bar with a cracking fireplace and a games room. So even if the weather sets in - which it can very easily do on this fickle mountain - there’s plenty to occupy the team.
With the highest vertical descent of a commercial field in New Zealand - 722 metres - and a south westerly aspect, Turoa can pack some pretty big punches in the ski field game. 12 groomed intermediate runs and a 6 seater, the High Noon Express which opens up their gorgeous powder filled bowls either side of the trail, means if you’ve had some experience skiing/boarding before, then this is perfect field for you. If you’re just starting out their 120 meter carpet lift, situated by the Alpine Meadows Cafe is a great place to base yourself. And for those who laugh in the face of fear, there are 25 black and black diamond runs with a couple of quite magnificent lifts that will carry you to the edge of the backcountry areas and a huge variety of heart stomping terrain, including natural half pipes and chutes. So check out Organ Pipes and Solitude or the generous Triangle and Glacier backcountry, and if you’re a daredevil chasing steep then Hamilton’s Face is for you.
For those with aiming for air, line yourselves up for one of the 4 terrain parks that range from easy boxes to big kickers and rails.
And after exerting all of this snowbound energy, you can move on into one of Turoa’s restaurants and bars - from the Alpine Bar and Alpine Cafe which reside at the base, to the snowflake burgers at the Parklane Chairs’ Snowflake Cafe. Or if you’re in need of a hot meal, (or even quick cabinet food) then sit yourself down at the Giant Cafe - and make sure you pick up a coffee from the espresso bar that’s located within the cafe.
If the madding crowd is more than you can cope with, head along the Desert Road and up the gravel access road to club field, Tukino. Known for having slightly more stable weather conditions than it’s larger neighbours, as it’s sheltered from the prevailing westerly wind, Tukino maintains pretty constant temperatures and consequently trails tend to be spared the extremes of the later part of the season - a hard icy crust in the morning that is transformed to heavy slush after lunch.
Tukino is great if you’re finding your snow feet as it’s uncrowded slopes mean that you can hone your wedge without needing to navigate around groups of similarly minded folk. However, if you’re up for a challenge then some of the Tukino’s territory is pure adrenalin with open faces and natural half pipes, chutes and cornices.
And if you’re super energetic and up for a spot of hiking - with your skis or board on your shoulders - then hike to the crater and shoot down either Turoa or Whakapapa. (Make sure you have someone to meet you on the other side, otherwise you will need to buy a pass on that field in order to get you back up the hill.)
Tukino has a roaring log fire in their cafe, and whilst they don’t hire gear on the mountain, they have a very adept ski patrol, so you can ski safe in the knowledge that if you get in a pickle there are experts on the slopes around you. For gear hire, the kind folk at Tukino recommend you pop into Turangi Ski and Snowboard, as they’ll kit you out with all your gear needs, or if you’re staying in Taupo head into Pointons for everything ski or snowboard.
When the sun goes down at the end of the day, if you’ve chosen on field accomodation, all you need to do is ski in, take your boots off and start swapping tales of your days adventures with the similar minded folk also staying on the mountain. Tukino has three club huts located on the mountain and this is your best bet if you’re planning on skiing here. But mind, you will need to book as it’s a first in first served basis and it would be a shame to miss out.
Tukino Alpine Sports Club is a small club that is committed to a great days skiing, a fun family environment and as small an environmental footprint as they can possibly make. The warm and cosy club is well priced and whilst they operate for members, non members are welcome too. Costs to stay here are minimised as everyone is expected to chip in and help, so whilst you do have to either clean or help cook etc, it’s a classic case of many hands making light work - so none of the jobs are too onerous.
Your other option up the mountain is the Desert Alpine Club. Founded at a similar time to the field itself - in 1962 - this very relaxed little club is also communal in both living and tasks. And at 1684 metres, this gem has glorious views of Waiouru and across to the Kaimanawa Ranges, Taupo and Ngauruhoe.