The Surprise was the difficulty

I had originally wanted to do this on my birthday or Halloween, but I was working for one and the weather was dreadful for the other. So I started the hike to Lake Surprise on a somewhat cloudy day a few days into November with hopes that the hike would prove to be a good one. It had been talked up quite a bit by my bosses, who really enjoyed the hike last summer. I think summer might have been key.

This was the view from my start point, near the Turoa ski area on Mt. Ruapehu. I was just below the snow line, at least what remains of it at this time. This was going to be a different hike, being on a volcanic mountainside and completely open to everything.

Because the ground here is mostly rock, a typical path is hard to spot at times. Compound this with numerous runoff streams that run all over the place, and it can go from ‘where is the path’ to ‘which of these 6 paths is for people?’. Thankfully, this hike was along a poled route. The Department of Conservation hammered in large metal poles to follow, which you can make out in the above picture. They are usually spaced 20-50 meters apart, depending on the area and ease of figuring out where to go. It ensures you can’t get lost, something that would be easy to do otherwise. After about 30 minutes of hiking I got to my first serious challenge – getting down this cliff.

First I had to cross the river, which wasn’t too bad (careful rock hopping/waterproof shoes at work). Then, the descent, which was quite tricky in spots. After a good 5 minutes or so, I had made it to the base.

From the bottom of the rocks, I wasn’t looking forward to having to climb back up on the return hike. But for now, onwards! After a bit more hiking I reached a hut.

This is one of the hundreds of overnight huts here in NZ. There is a 4-5 day hike that you can follow around Mt. Ruapehu, and this hut can be one of your stopping places for the night. It provides you with a roof, river-water nearby, a fireplace and firewood and bunkbeds with mattresses. So you bring your own sleeping bag, food and cooking implements and you can have a pretty cozy stay here. It’s not free ($15/night upwards), but it certainly looked pretty nice for a spot to crash after an 8 hour hiking day or something. I’ll be seeing the huts more often once I start doing Great Walks. I however wasn’t here for the hut, I was here for the lake, about 40 minutes away. But first, I had my biggest challenge yet – crossing this:

It doesn’t LOOK that big, but trust me, standing at the shore it looked plenty large. I’d estimate it was 3-4 meters wide in the slower moving spots, and knee deep. I say knee deep since that was how I crossed, by fording the river sans socks, shoes and having converted my pants to shorts. The water being mountain snow runoff was FRIGID. I made it across, quickly got most of the water off my legs, got my socks and shoes back on and got back to hiking to warm the legs back up. Since the next part was all uphill, it didn’t take long to get a good sweat going and the cold water was a distant thought.

After just under 2 hours of hiking, I had made it to my destination. Lake Surprise!

By now, the weather had deteriorated quite a bit, with the wind picking up quite a bit, clouds lowering down the mountain obscuring it, and rain starting to get heavier. In other words, miserable, and the spectacular view I had been told about, while still good, wasn’t quite as good as it could have been!

Now the hiking back. At this point the weather was poor, something warned about when hiking in an alpine environment. I forded back across the large river.

Looking back at the cliffs that contain Lake Surprise up top.

And finally back at my last major obstacle, the rock waterfall climb.

I took one final break after getting to the top, ate a banana and finished off my water. At this point I could just open my mouth if I needed more water, it was raining quite a bit.

After 4 hours, exhausted, I had made it back to my car. This was far and away the most difficult hike I’ve managed to do so far, and much more technical than any others. I’m surprised there were no warning signs around – climbing up and down the rocky waterfall area and fording the river were very challenging, especially once the rain picked up, making the rocks slick. But I survived to tell the tale, so it couldn’t have been that hard! 🙂

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