AS we live on an island that's pretty much one whopping great volcanic field, climbing to the top of the most prominent of the lot seems a good way to take it all in. As a bonus, climbing to the top of Ruapehu is also a good way of taking in a panorama from Mt Edgecumbe in the east to Taranaki in the west, and the waters beyond.
The winter charms of Ruapehu are well known to Aucklanders, but these days plenty of us are taking advantage of the four-season potential the mountain offers. With sturdy walking boots, a warm layer of clothing and sufficient scroggin, pretty much anyone in reasonable health can make the summit. Oh, and you'll also need the weather gods to smile upon you (see below).
In summer, local guides take groups to the top to check out the famously beautiful - and volatile - summit lake. The lake is a thing of tour brochure beauty - a chrome plane nestled amid the mountain's craggy rock. Beneath its surface, a beast lurks.
The day I set out with my guide, Ryan, from Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, they weren't taking commercial trips to the summit, because of the roaring wind gusts blasting around the top of the mountain. But Ryan makes an exception for me and we head off for a crack at the top.
On a regular day, walking groups start from the top of the chairlift at 2020 metres (the lake is at 2670m), starting out with a coffee at the mountain's spectacular new Knoll Ridge cafe. For me and Ryan, the wind has shut down the top chairlift. But Hillary wouldn't have been put off and neither are we so we add a couple of hundred metres to the walk.
As we march upwards over terrain straight out of a Martian movie set, Ryan points out the paths left by lahars down the side of the mountain. When the beast in the lake stirs, a slurry of mudflow and debris courses down the hillside, following channels bored through the mountainside over centuries. Winter buries this lifeless scene under metres of snow, hiding the fingerprints and cross-sections of the mountain's geology.
Ruapehu has roared into life in recent times, reminding North Islanders that the bits of the planet upon which we walk are a thin veneer atop something far from benign. The most spectacular of the recent eruptions came in 1995 and 1996. One eruption in 2007 left a man pinned under a rock near the lake - Ryan tells me admiringly that his boss was part of the heroic rescue effort that night. Lift queues, cafes and other huts have been moved from the path of lahars.
As we huff our way up the slope, Ryan tells me about a five-level volcanic warning system.
The lowest grade is something only people in white coats reading delicate instruments can detect, while the top end of the scale involves the relocation of the central North Island plateau as dust particles spread several hundred kilometres in all directions.
Most Kiwis seem comfortable with the thought of hiking up an active volcano, Ryan says, but the occasional visitor from overseas finds it worrying. More worrying for us today is the wind.
The higher we go, the greater the blasts of wind. We can hear them coming like a jet engine, roaring over the rise ahead and whacking us hard. Forty minutes from the top, Ryan and I are spending more time hunkering down and less time advancing.
So what of our summit attempt? Alas, dear reader, the bastard wind knocked us off. Ryan and are forced back just a couple of hundred metres from the top.
I return to a cold beer and a warm spa bath at the Chateau, where my baby boy and his mum have been taking in the views, breastfeeding and checking out some of the pram-friendly walks. Their day has been a triumph.
Delivering my slightly embellished account of our summit attempt, I realise I'll have to return to finish the job.
But, in the meantime, at the Chateau, we eat well, and relax in splendid glory. Hillary never had it this good at Base Camp.
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