Mt Ngauruhoe sunrise

Climbing Te Heuheu

We’ve had a particular fascination with Mount Ruapehu ever since we arrived in New Zealand eight years ago. It’s where we go to escape the hustle & bustle of daily life and connect with nature, and while we’ve spent a lot of time on its slopes, we haven’t spent much time exploring the summits.

On doing our research, we discovered that there are in fact 12 named summits on this active volcano and that the first officially recorded ascent was in 1877. This was an ascent of Te Heuheu which back then would have a been a long and arduous trek. These days, it’s a relatively short but steep climb to the summit from the Knoll Ridge Chalet on Whakapapa ski field and that’s certainly the more sensible option. But we decided to do things a little differently.

Following in the footsteps of the early explorers who made that first ascent, we decided to approach the summit via Waihohonu Ridge, turning what could have been a day-trip into a 16km, multi-day adventure.

Whakapapa Village to Waihohonu Ridge

We left Whakapapa village at 5pm, heading out on the Tama Lakes track for around 8km before heading offtrack, picking our way carefully through the subalpine tussock. We reached our campsite at around 7.30pm, and made ourselves a bivvy between the rocks and speargrass before firing up the cooker.

In the distance we could hear the black-backed gulls we’d seen along the way. There seem to be several of them that have made a home for themselves around Tama Lakes and they made a hell of a racket until well after sundown. They eventually did settle down, only to start up again at around 2am when the moon came up. Nevertheless, we had a stunning first night beneath the stars.

We woke the next day to a perfectly calm morning with spectacular colour in the sky as we boiled water for a hot cuppa and some oats.

Breakfast on Mt Ruapehu
Mountain sunrise
Mountain morning

Te Heuheu via Waihohonu Ridge

This was always going to be the biggest day on the trip, with a vertical climb of around 1200m. I’d done a recce of some of the route previously so knew what to expect.

Mt Ngauruhoe view

To begin with, the going was relatively easy with firm ground underfoot. We had no idea what to expect higher up so it was a case of ‘ignorance is bliss’ as we made it to the top of the ridge above the previous night’s campsite and took a moment to survey the route ahead.

Mt Ruapehu view

Te Heuheu is the highest point in the photo above, with Waihohonu Ridge forming the skyline to the left of the summit. From this vantage point, it was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to get to the crest of the ridge until at least half way up and that we would have to traverse to the right of the summit itself.

Heading up Waihohonu Ridge

Here we are on Waihohonu Ridge proper, at the base of a band of red volcanic rock. Up until this point, while it was fairly steep, the ground itself was still relatively firm. But once we got above this rock band, the going got tougher thanks to scree which, in places, we would sink into mid-calf. It was case of two steps forward, one step back. Fortunately, we had only a ‘mere’ 270m of elevation to gain to reach the saddle between Te Heuheu and Tukino Peak, and from there is was a relatively quick push up to the summit of Te Heuheu.

Near Te Heuheu summit

This is the view we were eventually rewarded with, looking over Summit Plateau in the foreground with Tahurangi (2797m) the highest point to the left and Paretetaitonga (2751m) the summit on the right. Needless to say, we were both pretty knackered after the climb, so after finding ourselves a bivvy spot for the night, we just chilled for the rest of the afternoon.

Te Heuheu to Whakapapa Village

Camping on Mt Ruapehu

So this was our bivvy spot for our second night on the mountain, just below the saddle between Te Heuheu and Tukino Peak. It was more comfortable than it looks, for one of us at least…

Unbeknownst to us, we (not pointing fingers here) managed to puncture Debs’ sleeping mat in several places while packing up our campsite the morning before. Of course we only discovered this when setting up for our second night. Naturally I offered Debs my mat (on more than one occasion I might add), but Debs refused since it was my birthday (for reals, it actually was) and so she spent the night on the cold, hard ground. She’s one tough chicken!

Unsurprisingly then, only one us was feeling quite refreshed the following morning, so while Debs tried to coax some feeling back into her body, I climbed back up to the saddle to watch the sunrise. This was my view.

Mt Ruapehu plateau view

Returning to our bivvy, I noticed that the cloud in the valley below was starting to lift and since we didn’t want to make our way down an unfamiliar route in the cloud, we skipped our morning coffee and started to make our way back down to Knoll Ridge Chalet via upper Pinnacle Ridge and Skyline Walk, a popular short walk for day visitors who come up via the Sky Waka gondola.

As it turned out, we need not have worried as the cloud lifted quickly to reveal another perfect day on the mountain. As the gondala spat out a seemingly endless stream of people, we enjoyed a hot beverage and a feed at the cafe, feeling mentally recharged and thankful for the previous two days of solitude.

Hiking past The Pinnacles

For those of you who are interested, below is our route. Bear in mind that much of this is offtrack so we wouldn’t consider this to be a beginners route. As always, we were mindful of the environment, particularly through the subalpine tussock, and we always ensure that we leave no trace.

Te Heuheu route map

Best of New Zealand

If you’re looking for ideas and inspiration for your next holiday, you should definitely check out our New Zealand Travel Guide. We’ve got practical advice to help you plan your trip and region guides to help you decide where to go and what to do. We also share some of our favourite experiences from our own travels around the country. Click below to find out more.

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