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The King Country; or, Explorations in New Zealand. A Narrative of 600 Miles of Travel through Maoriland.

Chapter XVII. — Ascent of Ruapehu — (First Day.)

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Chapter XVII.
Ascent of Ruapehu
(First Day.)

Approaching the mountain—A field for research.—Physical and geological features—Plan of attack—Curious icicles—A lava barrier—Natives in the distance—Horse camp—Scoria hills and lava ridges—The start for the snow-line—Up the great spur—Head of the spur—Our camp—-A wind-storm—-Ruapehu by night—A picture of the past—Waiting for sunrise—Sunrise.

When we were clear of the rugged gorges of Tongariro, we rode leisurely across the beautiful open plain which separates the tapued mountain from its colossal neighbour, Ruapehu. The calm, blue heavens were unflecked by a single cloud, the sun rose bright and clear, and we heartily welcomed its genial warmth after the terrific cold we had experienced during the previous night. Nothing could exceed the grand and unique scenery as we rode on our way. On our right rose Tongariro, its great steam-cloud radiant with tints of gold beneath the morning light, the dark reddish hue of its scoria-strewn sides mingling with the bright green of the vegetation, and producing the most charming effects of light and shade. The plain over which we rode sparkled with glittering icicles; the Mangatoetoe, a broad, rapid, boulder-strewn stream, page 200wound rapidly down its centre, like a silver snake, on its course to join the Waikato; while right in front the long scoria slopes of Ruapehu, rising gradually from the plains around, swept upward, and upward, and upward, until they joined the ice-bound pinnacles above, and mingled with, the broad expanse of frozen snow which clothed the summit of the stupendous mountain, and stretched far down its rock-bound sides. The level plain separating Tongariro from Ruapehu was not more than five miles across between the wide spreading bases of the two mountains, and, as we gradually approached towards the latter, its gigantic proportions became every moment more distinctly visible. The low scoria slopes which stretched far and wide around its enormous base, and swept for miles out into the adjacent plains, merged, as we approached nearer, into high, undulating hills, which changed, as they rose higher and higher, into rocky spurs. The winding valleys were transformed, as they mounted up the mountain, into enormous, lava-bound ravines. Above these, again, steep precipitous slopes rose one above the other. Jagged rocks, which marked the site of ancient craters, stood out against the sky, until colossal peaks, shooting high above all, stretched themselves across the towering summit of the mountain. The whole aspect of Ruapehu, as it rose in all its grandeur above the surrounding table-land, beautiful in ice, snow, and sunshine, was so stupendous and romantically beautiful that we felt as if we had been suddenly transported among the Alps of Switzerland.

In describing the physical and geological features of Ruapehu, I will only treat these subjects briefly at this y page break
mount ruapehu. [Page 200.

mount ruapehu.
[Page 200.

page 201stage, and only with a view of affording a general idea of the great mountain, the description of which will be more fully dealt with when describing the ascent of its northern peak and the exploration of the sources of the Wangaehu and Waikato Rivers on its eastern side. As during these two ascents we accomplished considerably over 10,000 feet of actual climbing over its surface, we had a good opportunity of examining this colossal monument of plutonic fires, and judging from the magnitude of the results of igneous action we then beheld, both in wonder and admiration, there can be no doubt that there is no better or more interesting field for geological research than that afforded by this marvellous centre of extinct volcanic forces.

Ruapehu is situated immediately in the centre of the great table-land, which forms the most elevated portion of the North Island, and in the very heart, as it were, of the extensive system of extinct volcanic cones, which constitutes one of the most remarkable and interesting features of this division of the country. The mountain, which takes rank among the largest extinct volcanoes in the world, assumes the form of an enormous truncated cone, with a far-reaching base of oblong form, and which gradually narrows towards the summit, at which point the mountain is nearly a mile in length from its northern to its southern peak. Its base, if calculated from where it springs from the level plains, may be estimated at about sixty miles in circumference. At each end of the mountain are two colossal coneshaped peaks, and between them the minor peaks rise up in fantastic shapes, which change in outline and assume varying proportions with almost magical effect, page 202as the mountain is beheld from different points of view. In fact, it is the succession of magnificent scenery thus produced which forms one of the grandest features of this marvellous monument of volcanic forces. For the greater part, the country surrounding Ruapehu is entirely open, and consequently the grand mountain is seen to wonderful advantage as it towers majestically to the skies. Immediately to the north are the Tongariro and Waimarino Plains, to the east is the Rangipo Table-land, in the centre of which, and stretching down the sides of the huge mountain, is the. Onetapu Desert—a vast expanse of scoria, covering some fifty square miles—while to the south are the Murimotu Plains. On its lower northern and eastern slopes the mountain gives life to a vegetation in all respects similar to that found on Tongariro, but on its southern and western sides a primeval forest, in which the trees are of colossal growth, creeps almost up to the edge of the snow-line. To really realize the magnitude of this mountain king of the North Island, one must stand on its summit and look down upon its scoria-strewn base, covering millions of acres, explore its deep, rugged gorges, and examine the stupendous deposits of trachytic lava which lie in a strata of enormous thickness upon its sides, or roll down like crystallized rivers of rock from the extinct craters of the mountain, now spreading over the plains, now rising above the surface of the ground in the form of enormous, crenated ridges, which look like the walls of embattled strongholds. There can be no doubt whatever that at some remote period Ruapehu must have formed the principal centre of volcanic action in the page 203North Island It is of course impossible to define at what period the enormous mountain began, or even terminated, its eruptive state; but I am of opinion, as suggested in a previous chapter, that it rose into being after the extinction and subsequent subsidence of the great crater-basin now occupied by Lake Taupo. Ruapehu, unlike Tongariro, is not a true scoria cone in the sense in which the latter mountain may be classed, but a gigantic crater of elevation, which during its volcanic outbursts sent forth showers of ashes and rivers of lava which spread themselves for miles around the base of the mountain, while the surrounding region over a vast area was upheaved by the elevatory force of the stupendous fires as they burst forth from the great volcanic vent now crowned with glaciers and perpetual snow.

Whilst we were resting to give our half-starved horses a feed of tussock grass, I went out into the plains to sketch the great mountain, as from the position where we were it presented one of its most beautiful aspects. From this point it bore exactly ten degrees east of south, the altitude of the Mangatoetoe stream at the foot of the mountain where we were being 3450 feet above the level of the sea. We had selected this position from which to make the ascent as it was the best place to reach the great northern peak, which forms the highest point of Ruapehu. This grandly beautiful pinnacle, with its glittering mantle of snow sweeping down its sides, towered far up to the skies, its summit being crowned with what appeared to be an oblong mass of rock, which assumed, from the aspect from which we viewed it, a singular resemblance page 204to what is known in heraldic science as the "cap of maintenance." This grand crown, placed dexterously by the hand of nature upon the very topmost summit of the great peak, was a remarkable and conspicuous object, and as its ice-bound sides glittered beneath the sun, it appeared as if set with gems. Right from the very top of this portion of the mountain, its precipitous sides and long, rolling slopes stretched down to the
summit of ruapehu.

summit of ruapehu.

very foot of the plains, and it did not take us long to see that it would be impossible to make the ascent and descent from where we were in a single day. We therefore determined to ride our horses as far up the low spurs as we could, tether our animals in a convenient spot, carry our tent and other necessary equipage up to the snow-line, camp there for the night, and make the final ascent on the following day.
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There was a small clump of forest growing a considerable distance up the scoria ridges, and as this was the only belt of vegetation of the kind on our track, we determined to direct our course to it, in the hope of finding water and a suitable camping-place for our horses. Our route now lay over low scoria ridges, which were intersected in every direction by winding, boulder-strewn gullies, which evidently during the wet season and the melting of the snows formed, with the deep creeks, the principal channels of the watershed of the mountain, as it distributed itself from the heights above over the low country. Upon the sides of these gullies, and clustering about the vast deposits of scoria, grew a luxuriant vegetation of dwarfed alpine shrubs, while wherever the sides of the gullies were obscured, from the sun the thick white frost, which had wrapped the country in its icy mantle on the previous night, rose up from the ground in the form of thick icicles, from two to three inches in length. These icicles, like those which covered the Waihohonu Valley, were the most curious I had ever seen. They rose from the small, disintegrated scoria, which everywhere covered the ground, almost in the shape of a plant with a straight stem and a fringed top; and, while some stood alone, others were clustered together, forming a thick mass of ice. It seemed, indeed, as if the moisture which had literally saturated the ground during the heavy rains we had experienced had been drawn up to the surface by the frost by a kind of capillary attraction, which had produced these miniature plants of ice.

When we arrived at the small picturesque bush of page 206 towai-trees we found that there was but little or no feed in its vicinity, so we only halted here for a short time to explore the surrounding country. On our right were the level plains and sinuous ridges over which we had ridden, while at some distance to our left an enormous lava ridge, like a ruined wall, cut off all further view to the south. We cut a couple of alpenstocks and a flagstaff, and next determined to take our horses still further up the mountain, to a point where we could see the last sign of the dwarf vegetation, some of the plants of which we found our animals would eat, in default of anything better.

As we made a fresh start, we saw a party of mounted natives riding along the track below, and whilst we hid our horses in a gully, we crawled to the top of a ridge and watched carefully, to see whether they would pick up our tracks. Fortunately, however, they passed on, riding hard along the track which passes through the Tongariro Plains into the heart of the King Country.

At an elevation of 4450 feet, and at the very edge of the last patch of dwarfed plants that grew upon the desert-like expanse, we found a small oasis between two scoria hills, bounded on the left by the rugged lava ridge which formed the backbone, as it were, of the long, sweeping spur up which we had come. Here a few stunted shrubs and clumps of tussock grass struggled for life amidst masses of lava and scoria sand. We knew that we would have to leave our horses tethered here for something like thirty-six hours without water, whilst we did the rest of the mountain, and we calculated that, with the aid page 207of the few straggling shrubs and bunches of tussock, there would be just sufficient food to keep the animals from starvation during that time, although we had a kind of secret conviction that the chances were immensely in favour of the latter result.

After we had secured our horses in the small oasis, we went out to explore the country ahead. In every position along the steep incline up which we had to make our way we saw nothing but enormous scoria hills, stretching far and wide on every side, and which rose in long, steep ascents to the snow-line of the mountain. In every direction stupendous ridges of black trachytic lava cropped up above the surface, broken, rugged, and sharp, as if they had boiled up during some terrific volcanic convulsion, and then suddenly congealed into the most curious and fantastic shapes. Some of the enormous lava ridges, of a black metallic lustre, flowed down, as it were, from the very summit of the mountain, and stretched for miles in length over the desert below.

At an altitude of 5500 feet we came to an enormous deposit of lava raising up the surface of the spur in the form of a large cluster of rocks, and on one side of which there was a sheer descent into a lava-bound ravine of 200 feet. This was a good mile and a half away from where we had left our horses, but as the ascent was gradual we determined to pack the animals with the tent and blankets up to this point, and, after taking them back to the oasis, carry the camp equipage on our own shoulders up to the snow-line, where we had resolved to camp for the night, in order to be able to begin the final ascent to the summit of the page 208great peak at daylight on the morrow. It was late in the day when we had finally carried out this arrangement, and, after packing ourselves with the tent, blankets, and all other necessaries to the extent of about twenty-five pounds each, we set off to climb the long, dreary spur, which mounted steeply upward until it lost itself in the region of eternal snow.

Heavily laden and unused as we were to the burdens of professional pack-horses, we found the climbing both trying and monotonous. The long, dismal expanse which formed the spur up which our course lay was devoid of all vegetation. Our feet sank deeply into the shifting scoria, which, fractured into small pieces, covered the sides of the mountain for miles around in a dark-grey deposit, which looked intensely dreary as the sun sank to rest and a cold, cutting wind swept down from the snow-crowned glaciers above us.

At 5800 feet enormous stones lay strewn about the ground, and we crossed the lower part of a deep lava ravine which wound high up into the side of the great peak above, and ended in a precipitous bluff, where we saw what at first sight appeared to be enormous caves, with a frozen waterfall sticking out of them. It occurred to us that if they were really rocky caves, as they seemed to be, we might find shelter in them for the night from the freezing blast, so we toiled onward with our heavy burdens to an altitude of 6200 feet, when the caves turned out to be nothing more than two enormous holes in the rocky side of the mountain, and to reach which it would have required the skill of a well-trained monkey, as they had been placed by the fickle hand of nature high up at the end of a tremen-page 209dous ravine, which fell with a sheer descent of hundreds of feet beneath the precipice on which we stood, and whose steep, rugged sides, built of horizontal layers of lava rock, appeared to have been twisted and distorted by some terrific volcanic convulsion.

At this elevation the whole canopy of snow which covered the summit of the mountain came down almost to our feet, while enormous masses of ice and long, ponderous icicles hung in shining festoons over the frowning precipices above. We were now nearly at the head of the great spur along which we had come, and beyond which the tall peaks of the mountain still shot up to a height of nearly 4000 feet above us. The spur at this point was bounded by the great ravine before alluded to, while on the other it fell with a steep descent into a deep, winding valley, beyond which the scoria hills rolled in endless confusion down to the wide plain below. At this point the mountain was strewn in every direction with dark boulders of trachytic rock, many of which were of stupendous size, and as they were scattered about pell-mell in the most fantastic way, we seemed to have entered a weird graveyard sacred to the memory of mountain giants. The scoria ridges around us were absolutely bare, and their dark outline had a desolate look, as if some fiery wind had swept over them and blasted every sign of life. The shades of evening now closed around us, and although the wind blew in strong blasts from the south, which chilled our blood, we hailed its icy breath with as much cheerfulness as we had done the genial warmth of the sun during the day, as we knew that whilst it remained in that quarter we should have fine page 210weather, and would be able to make the long-wished for ascent to the summit on the morrow; but if, on the other hand, it should happen to shift into its old quarter, the storm-clouds would sweep down upon us, and put us in an unpleasant and even dangerous predicament.

We determined to make this dreary locality our camping-place for the night, and by the aid of the alpenstocks and the flagstaff we had brought up with us we managed to partially erect our tent under the lee of a big boulder. But before doing so, in order to prepare a space in which to lie down, we had to clear away the snow and thick coating of frost-like icicles that covered the ground, and then, in order to keep ourselves in position, as the ground was so steep, we formed a square of large stones just big enough to hold us, and in this we laid our blankets. The alpenstocks were arranged in the form of a triangle at the outside end, the flagstaff was placed at the apex, and then jammed down in a sloping way under the boulder, and over this the tent was thrown, its sides being secured by a border of heavy stones. In this way there was just room enough for us to crawl inside. I mention these particulars because thereby hangs a tale. We had carried up just sufficient wood to make a small fire to boil the tea, and which we accomplished, after great difficulty, behind the lee of a boulder. In fact, nothing could be done unless under the shelter of one of these enormous stones; to go to the windward side was simply to have the chilling blasts pass through one like a knife, and to be half blinded with scoria sand.

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If I were to live for a thousand years, no waning of the intellectual powers could cause me to entirely forget the night we passed on Ruapehu. It is true we felt more secure than when camped in the wild regions of Tongariro, for we knew that the natives would not molest us at that altitude, as they have a tradition that when a man goes up Ruapehu he never comes down again; but, so far as comfort was concerned, the weird lava-bound Waihohonu Valley, with its legends of taniwhas and evil demons, was a perfect paradise and "happy hunting-ground" in comparison with the wild, snowy region, where we were now camped. Our bed was, of course, very rough, and two big particles of trachytic rock formed our pillows; but all this would have passed muster, and calm, refreshing sleep would have come to us, if it had not been for the fact that the loose scoria would keep slipping and sliding from under us as we lay on our steep incline. Although the moon shone as bright as day, the wind still continued to blow in heavy gusts, which seemed to increase in violence after every lull, and as it had already shifted a point or two still further southward, it was colder than ever, while what was at one time the lee of the boulder now became almost its windward side. Our tent at this stage swayed and flapped about in an incessant way, the icy blasts blew round about and underneath us, and in such a way that it was impossible to keep warm. At midnight the terrible climax came; with a noise like the howling of a thousand fiends, a terrific gale of wind swept over the mountain. In an instant our tent was carried away from over us, the flag-pole struck Turner a frightful blow on the page 212head, and our blankets went flying right and left. So great was the force of the wind that it was impossible to stand against it. Blinding showers of sand and scoria filled the air almost to suffocation as each successive blast swept onward with terrific force, and everything was covered with a fine scoria dust, which got into the hair, filled the eyes, caused a choking sensation about the throat, and permeated every article of clothing. It was useless to endeavour to erect our tent again, so we squatted down, Maori fashion, in our blankets behind another enormous boulder, which served to break the force of the wind. The thermometer now stood at 27°, and the gale continued to blow throughout the night with terrific fury, sweeping over the ice-bound summit of the mountain, and then down into the valleys below, carrying along in its course its dark clouds of scoria and showers of gritty sand.

It was only a few minutes past midnight when our tent blew away, and we therefore had to pass six hours under the boulder before sunrise. The thermometer now indicated six degrees of frost, which was just six degrees less than we had experienced on the previous night, but then we had no wind, and we were now 2200 feet higher than then. Unpleasant as our situation was, it had its attractions. Looking down upon the surrounding country from the great height upon which we were placed (6200 feet above the sea), a weird and curious picture presented itself to the gaze. Immediately below us, and far and wide around, in front and to the right and to the left, rolled an apparently endless expanse of boulder-strewn scoria page 213ridges, tossed about like the wild, chaotic waves of a frozen sea, and covered with a complete network of dark hues, which marked the winding course of gullies and ravines. Still further in front, and stretching in a broad expanse far below us, was a flat, white surface, like a snowy sheet of ice. This was the Rangipo Table-land, covered with a thick coating of frost. Beyond, again, rose a dark, frowning barrier, whose rugged
waiting for sunrise.

waiting for sunrise.

outline lost itself in the distance as it stretched away to the north and to the south. These were the Kaimanawa Mountains, mantled in a cloud of mist. From the broad, white plain deep down to the left rose the dark, majestic form of Tongariro, around the summit of which its white steam-cloud coiled in a feathery circle, looking like a silvery diadem beneath the light of the moon, which shone with a glittering lustre upon page 214the snows of Ruapehu, whose lofty summit seemed to touch the star-lit canopy above, while a magnificent aurora australis, the most brilliant I had ever beheld, shot across the heavens from the southward, and lit up the sky with its tongue of silvery fire. It was worth all the hardships we had undergone to gaze on this grand sight alone and to commune, as it were, with the colossal wonders of nature, wrapped in the stillness and beauty of night.

The whole scene, and the peculiar circumstances under which we viewed it, was one never to be forgotten, while it brought, as all grand and impressive sights will, the most vivid associations before the mind. I pictured to myself the many and extraordinary changes this wild region had gone through to arrive at the condition under which we beheld it. What singular and stupendous results had been brought about by forces and agencies now almost extinct! Time was when the colossal mountain on whose fire-scorched sides we were crouching, was made desolate by tremendous volcanic eruptions, which sent forth clouds of smoke and sulphurous gases, showers of rocks and ashes, and streams and rivers of lava. Then lurid flames lit up the hills for miles around, and darkening clouds of fiery sand swept far and wide over the surrounding country. Then a line of volcanic vents, like beacon-fires, illuminated the rocky headlands of the great mountains around, and every towering fastness rose hot and quaking with subterranean heat. Then a change came about—one of those mysterious convulsions of which we only dream —the volcanic fires ceased, and the yawning craters page 215were filled with snow and. the peaks crowned with ice, and, as the earth gradually cooled down, a glorious vegetation, moulded in the most beautiful and varied forms of the creation, spread itself far and wide over the country, and nature smiled in all her radiance upon this magnificent and romantic land.

At five o'clock in the morning the thermometer indicated seven degrees of frost, and the wind still blew in fitful gusts, which covered us with sand. The cold now was intense, and, as the moon had set, the wide scope of country around us looked unpleasantly dismal beneath its pall of darkness. Our outlook was towards the east, and as the time for daylight approached we watched anxiously for the first streak of dawn.

Just before six the thermometer went down half a degree, and a damp, chilly feeling pervaded the air. Darker, colder, and more dismal it grew, until suddenly, as if by enchantment, the black clouds opened in the east, and a fiery streak shot upward, bathing with its golden hues the darkened sky. At first everything around—the sky, the mountains, and the plains, the valleys, the rivers, and the lakes, the shining glaciers and the frozen snows—appeared one uniform creation of brilliant light, so brightly dazzling that the eye could scarcely bear the splendour, but as the clouds of night rolled swiftly away the glow became still more vivid, and as the blue mists rose in the valleys the tops of the distant mountains looked like islands rising from a vapoury ocean—an archipelago in a sea of gold. By degrees the bright lustre of the sun was softened with tints, first of red, and then light transparent crimson, page 216changing through different hues, until the sky assumed a deep pure blue, which merged towards the east into glowing violet. The towering summit of Ruapehu took the colour from these changes, and every portion on which the varied tints fell appeared more beautiful than it had ever appeared before. The whole aspect of this sudden transformation from night into day was indescribably grand, and as the glowing sun warmed our nearly frozen limbs we seemed to gain fresh life and energy from the fact that another glorious day had dawned upon the earth.