Art. XLI.—Narrative of an Ascent of Ruapehu.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 24th February, 1886.]
During the progress of a recent geological survey of this district, I had occasion to ascend Mount Ruapehu, and, by permission of the Director, I am now enabled to place before you an account of my trip.
Ruapehu is the highest mountain in this island, attaining a height of almost 9,000 feet above the sea. It is situated at the southern extremity of the great volcanic chain that extends north to Lake Taupo, and occupies a most prominent and central position, being almost equidistant from the sea on three sides. It reaches far above the snow-line of this latitude, and maintains immense snow-fields throughout the year, this being perhaps as much due to its huge massive character as to its height.
It is the source of many large and important rivers, the principal of which are the Waikato, which drains its eastern slopes and falls into the sea some distance south of the Manukau Harbour; the Wangaehu, with its large tributary the Mangawhero, which drains its southern slopes and discharges into Cook Strait; and the Manganui-a-te-ao, which rises on the west side of Parataetaitonga, and joins the Wanganui about 8 miles above Pipiriki.
The first ascent of Ruapehu appears to have been made by Sir George Grey,* but I am unable to ascertain the precise date; however, it must have been previous to 1867.
The present ascent was made on the 8th January of this year, or about two and a half months earlier than any previous ascent, as far as I can learn. I was accompanied by Mr. Dunnage, Mr. A. D. Wilson's cadet, who was sent with me to erect a signal on the summit for triangulation purposes, and also by Dalin, a survey hand.
We left Karioi on the 7th January, and the same evening pitched our camp at the foot of Ruapehu, at about 4,000 feet above the sea. Our intention was to have pushed on to the top
[Footnote] * “Hochstetter's N.Z.,” 1867, p. 378.
edge of the bush; but, as this was the highest point at which we could find water and grass for the horses, we were unable to proceed further, and made up our minds to make up the lost distance by an earlier start next day.
On the morning of the 8th we were astir at daylight, and before the sun had risen were far up the mountain's side. A sharp walk of two hours brought us to the first patch of snow, at a height of 5,500 feet. The distance travelled was about 3 miles, over low ascending rocky ridges.
The ascent so far was not steep, and only rendered difficult by the numerous deep rocky water-courses that had to be crossed. These were generally dry, but in early spring they must be roaring torrents, judging from the great size of the rock masses strewn in their channels and piled high on their sides.
At 6,500 feet we encountered permanent snow-fields. The ascent now became steeper and more difficult, and but for the sun's rays softening the surface snow we could not have proceeded. Each member of the party was equipped with a properly-shod alpenstock and heavy nailed boots, and by means of these we were able to ascend places that otherwise were impossible to us.
Our intention was to have worked our way round the south side of the mountain to the great snow-field lying between the south-east peak, facing Karioi, and the south peak, the highest part of Ruapehu, known by the native name, Parataetaitonga, and then followed up this to the summit. However, we were unable to do this, for on reaching this field we found the snow frozen so hard that we were unable to dig our alpenstocks into it, or to make steps that could be considered safe, taking into account the steepness of the ascent. In order not to lose time we proceeded straight up the south-east peak. The ascent was exceedingly steep, and very slow, as great care had to be exercised in making steps and securing a firm hold with our alpenstocks. Several narrow rocky ridges cropped out on our route, but they had to be carefully avoided, as the slightest touch was often sufficient to send a shower of loose rocks flying across the snow, to the imminent danger of the whole party.
After a slow and trying ascent of three hours, the summit of the peak was reached, and it was not without some anxiety that we hastily examined the saddle between us and the highest peak, for it was quite evident to all that it would be next to impossible to return by the way we had come, on account of the steepness of the snow.
The saddle, or more properly “côl,” lay about 450 feet below us, and how to reach it was difficult to determine. The northern side of the peak we were on presented a perfectly perpendicular wall of bare rock, being too steep to carry snow, while on its southern side the snow was frozen too hard to
obtain a foothold, and, choosing the least of two dangers, we spent an hour vainly trying to descend the rocky wall on the northern side, by zigzaging from ledge to ledge. In this fashion we succeeded in reaching within 50 feet of the foot of the precipice, but here our further progress was barred by a mass of smooth, polished pitchstone porphyry that had withstood frost and snow, and offered no ledges or projections by which to descend. Again ascending to the summit of the peak, we sat down to deliberate, and soon afterwards we found that the sun had softened the snow on the south side, so that with extra caution we were able to descend to the saddle. Once on the saddle, we made rapid progress, but a sharp lookout had to be kept for the numerous crevasses and fissures which, in places, cut the ice into an intricate network, more especially where the snow-fields were moderately flat. The saddle, being narrow, was corniced on the north side, which was the steepest, and care had to be taken not to walk too close to the edge. Having passed the saddle, we began the ascent of the main peak.
Being now able to ascend from the south side, from the great snow-field previously mentioned, we made up for lost time; but it was not all “plain sailing.” When not more than 250 feet from the summit we encountered a wall of ice about 20 feet high, which we failed to surmount, although repeated attempts were made.
Without wasting much time here we turned to the northeast aspect of the mountain, and continued the ascent from that direction. The sun had left that side some time, and the snow, that an hour before was dripping under the sun's strong rays, had now commenced to freeze—not into a solid cohesive mass, but into loose icy particles. In crossing this snow-field the greatest care had to be taken not to start this layer of dry snow, which continually showed signs of sliding on the smooth surface of the hard ice below.
Proceeding rapidly, but as lightly as possible, so as not to start a snow-slip, we made for a high boss of volcanic agglomerate, near which we knew the snow would still be moist enough to adhere to the ice.
All went well till within a few yards of the rocks, when, in some way or other, Dunnage lost his footing and began to slide down the snow-field at a terrific rate. His destruction seemed inevitable, for he was rapidly approaching an immense crevasse that traversed the whole field, and had particularly attracted our attention a short time before. It was the dangerous description of crevasse well known to alpine tourists, which has one side higher than the other. In this case the drop was on the low side, and was about 20 feet. The width of the crevasse at the top was about 15 feet, and both sides were corniced, and from its concave
roof and sides hung innumerable long blue icicles and sharp projections of ice. Its depth appeared to be many hundreds of feet, extending probably to the bottom of the valley. To this crevasse Dunnage was rapidly sliding, and there seemed but small chance of his recovering himself. He was sliding with his back to the snow, and his weight started the dry snow, which accelerated his speed; but he had fortunately stuck to his alpenstock, which, getting in front of him, ploughed into the ice, so that eventually he was able to swing himself clear of the sliding snow; but none too soon, for with a few feet more he would have dashed into the icy chasm below. The distance he slid was about 200 feet.
After a brief rest, the ascent was continued, but with greater care; and without further mishap we reached the summit of Parataetaitonga, which was covered with snow to a great depth, giving a fine rounded outline to the peak.
The outlook from Ruapehu on a clear day must be very extended; but, unfortunately, the whole country round was filled with black smoke from the numerous large bush fires which were then raging on the south side of the forest belt. The smoke did not rise higher than 6,500 feet, and, above this, all was sunshine and brightness, the only object standing out of the dark sea being the white shining peak of Mount Egmont, 80 miles to the westward.
Immediately below us lay the great crater of Ruapehu, encircled by high peaks from 500 to 800 feet high. The crater proper, or what was probably the former vent, is situated not in the centre of the basin, but appears to be nearer to Parataetaitonga than the northern or western peaks. The vent, as far as could be judged from our high position, is probably ten chains across. At this time it was occupied by a great sheet of ice, of a bluish colour, and there was no appearance of steam or water.
On its south-east side the great crater-basin, which is perhaps a mile across, is partially broken down, and connects with an immense snow-field, at the foot of which, at 6,000 feet, the Wangaehu as a considerable stream is first seen. The waters of this river, when they emerge from their ice-bound source, have a yellowish milky colour, and emit a strong sulphurous smell.
As there was little to be gained by a prolonged stay on the top, we hastily erected a trig, signal, which consisted of a stout birch sapling, driven into the snow several feet, and a ball of black calico. Our names, with the date of ascent, were placed in a sealed bottle, and left in a cairn of stones, on a rock-ledge about a chain to the north of the summit, and about 15 feet lower.
We now began the descent. By this time the sun's rays had left the south-east slopes, and a hard crust of frozen snow
had formed; but by stamping with our heels this was easily broken through. After reaching the saddle, or “côl,” we descended by the great snow-field between the south-east peak facing Karioi and the main peak, which we were unable to ascend in the morning on account of its frozen surface. This field reaches down to 6,000 feet, and is traversed by numerous crevasses; but these were successively avoided, and in little more than half an hour we reached the lowest limits of the snow. In descending the field “glissading” was resorted to, as on account of the steepness this rapid mode of progression was found to be the easiest and safest.
A rough, difficult walk of two hours, over a tumbled and confused mass of rocks brought us back to our camp.
For several days afterwards Mr. Dunnage and Dalin suffered severely from snow-blindness, the fierce glare of the sun on the glistening snow having induced acute inflammation of the eyes.