Lessons I learned Climbing an ACTIVE VOLCANO in New Zealand...and nearly losing some of my camera gear!

By Christopher Chase, September 29, 2021

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There is a reason people choose to stay away from mountains...especially ACTIVE VOLCANOES.

But what does Chris do? He goes towards them with a wicked smile, a sense of eagerness not found in many.. and his camera on his shoulder at the ready!

Ever since I first stepped onto Mount Ruapehu, I was completely enamoured and felt incredibly small standing on active volcano that for some reason people in New Zealand decided to build a ski industry around!

Growing up in the New York City area, I wouldn't have a clue about anything related to living with and around volcanoes, so when I pulled up to Whakapapa Ski Resort for the first time, I couldn't understand why ANYBODY would CHOOSE to make a ski resort here. It wasn't until I strapped on my board and jumped on the trails that I understood. The energy of Mount Ruapehu is intoxicating. You are instantly pulled into such a wild a place and realise that somehow people figured out a way to co exist with this pinnacle of Mother Nature.

Having lived in New Zealand over three years now, I have had ample opportunity to come back to this mountain season after season, and it never gets old. I snowboarded all the trails, kept finding new spots and have grown to love my first international experience in proper alpine snowboarding. One thing always remained in my mind though as I would board around the resorts.

What would it be like to climb to the summit?

It didn't seem that far out of reach when you looked at it...but when I would break for lunch in the cafes and see the people kitted out with ice axes, crampons, helmets and ropes...I always thought they were crazy and man did that look really hard.

Something in the back of my mind though thought...you could do that!

I kept that thought at bay for 2 seasons while I learned my way around the mountain on a snowboard first and grew comfortable managing the feeling of impending doom while snowboarding down an ACTIVE VOLCANO.

Then an opportunity came up with Got To Get Out, a social adventure group I joined and began working with in 2018. I had been leading their Snow Club for 2 seasons at this point and felt comfortable helping others get excited to come to the snow with me. So when they presented the idea that I could 'host' a trip and climb to the summit this year with adventure group Adrift Tongariro, I couldn't say no!

I immediately messaged several friends and roped them into coming so I wouldn't have to suffer alone...and off we went!

We were guided by Stew Barclay, a master climber of Mt. Ruapehu and the ONLY person allowed by the local iwi and Department of Conservation to commercially lead trips to the summit for business.

He said that he climbs to the summit two, sometimes three, times per week.

Man what did I sign up for? I thought I was in good shape...but that good a shape? We were about to find out!

Our whole group (about 11 of us) got kitted out with climbing helmets, ice axes and crampons in the parking lot and we were all so excited. It was a novel experience. Some of us wearing 'Summit Series North Face looking like they've done this before....and others wearing snow pants (that was me!) or puffer jackets or any other casual gear that would immediately give you away as a newbie to more experienced climbers. I didn't care, I was ready to claim the beast!

We were told it would take about 4.5 hours to climb to the summit and about 2.5 hours to come down. To me, that sounded like most hikes I have done before, usually longer on the up and faster on the down. So we got started on the beautiful blue sky day and quickly had to delayer because the sun was so hot this early in the season.

After about an hour and ten minutes, we were already ahead of schedule and arrived at the Waka Cafe on the ski resort. We took a break, took photos and were all smiles. We were also around snowboarders and skiers who were zooming down past us as we climbed up. It felt really cool because I was finally feeling a bit like I was now one of the climbers that I saw in earlier seasons with ropes around their packs and all of the ice gear hanging off their sides.

I took my camera off my shoulder and snapped photos amongst all of the smiles and excitement. It felt great to be able to be the one capturing these moments. It felt so natural and right to have the camera hanging off my shoulder to tell the story of this climb.

I was feeling like I could finally say I joined that category of ice climber...and then we put on the crampons!

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Stew circled us up, taught us how to put them on and said from here on out the next two and a half to 3 hour zone is going to be mandatory crampon use.

Everyone in the group casually looked around at each other and collectively felt the gulp in their throat.  The climb wasn't just a walk up the snow anymore. It was getting more serious and technical.

Keep in mind, Stew takes groups up here a couple times if not several times a week, so the hike is entirely doable by even a mildly fit person. It just looks incredibly daunting because of the sheer size of the mountain and the clunkiness of the gear you put on.
But we didn't know that.

That growing anxiety we felt was real...and oddly exhilarating at the same time.
Stew and his other guide, Z, showed us how to self arrest (or stop yourself) if you fell on the ice using the ice axes, and had us practise before we headed up past the cafe, crampons on and axes in hand.

We slowly climbed away from the safety of the ski resort and things were getting more serious.

We zig zagged our way up past the Knoll Ridge and out to the area called 'far west.' Up there, you had incredible views of the surrounding Tongariro National Park and just felt like you were on an alien planet. Everywhere you looked was white and the massive pillars jutting out of the ground felt like rock amphitheatres.

Everything at that height just blew my mind because we were so alone on such a dangerous volcano...and willingly climbing towards the top.

Something kicked in in me about midway where I felt normal in the crampons and felt comfortable moving around. After all, I had spent the past 3 years at this point exploring this place.

I started moving more freely, smiling more and of course capturing photos along the way with my SONY a7r4 and 24-70 G Master lens, along with a 100-400G Master lens.

My goal was to help get the customers of this trip the most epic photos of themselves because more often that not this might be the only time some of these people get to experience this. I felt empowered by this special duty and kept a look out for those moments.

At some point though, I grew too comfortable and made a mistake.

Taking photos of a small spine we had to downclimb, I took out the massive 100-400 zoom lens I had and had it hanging off my chest using my Peak Design Capture Clip. Those things are FOOLPROOF.  The camera LOCKS ON and WON'T come off unless you click the release button.

I trusted that thing...but I shouldn't have trusted myself.

I told Stew I was confident in downclimbing (and I was), so I wanted to climb down past the group and take shots looking up while they climbed down. Stew casually said out loud just take your time...and I thought yep of course...off I went.

I moved just a fraction too fast and the camera lens bounced against my chest, knocking the lens hood loose. I hadn't even moved past the line of people downclimbing yet when the lens hood (a small circular piece of plastic protecting the lens from sun glare) detached from the lens, bounced on the snow and rolled away down the mountain.

You could just hear the collective "oh noooooooooo" in the group as we watched it sail away down the gulley.

It managed to roll a good three to four hundred meters away (maybe fifty-seventy five meters in elevation). The crazy thing was there was not a whisper of wind that day. It had stopped rolling and we could see it.

I said to Stew, "I HAVE TO GET IT. IT IS A RENTAL!"

He gave me one of those looks like a frustrated parent that realised their kid was going to do something whether they liked it or not.

He had to manage the rest of the group in helping them climb carefully, and had to make a choice not to worry about me and to trust that I would be ok. I told him I could get it...and I RAN down that mountain. It was in my sights the whole time, and I felt like an olympic sprinter, galavanting gracefully in those crampons and smiling knowing that I'd be able to get it and all would be great.

I reached it...with the whole group watching...and I gave the celebratory wave with my poles over my head in an X formation and signalled that I was coming back up.

If you have climbed in alpine environments before, you know that climbing down is easy. It's a picnic...compared to going up. The thing was I had to cover ALL of that distance I just ran, AND continue walking with the group higher to the summit.

I trudged up to them and made it but I was exhausted.

In the back of my mind the only thing I was really happy about was that I wouldn't have to explain that I lost a piece of the rental camera when I returned it to the AIPA, who so kindly sponsors me and allows me to get free SONY rentals!

So off we went and carried on higher, taking photos the rest of the way. The last maybe hour was some of the hardest climbing I have ever done in my life. Not because it was dangerous or technically difficult..we were almost to the top. But in part because of the altitude and the sheer fact that you are just BURNING through calories...I barely had energy to take steps without cramping.I crushed so much of my energy reserves climbing back up after losing my lens hood before!

So I was faced with this interesting dilemma of needing to finish the climb and being so close, and wanting to capture photos of the whole experience...but being too physically exhausted to do so.

It became a battle of internal wits and I pushed so hard, stopping every ten steps or so to agonise over the cramps.

The great thing was, I wasn't the only one suffering. I had my buddy Will beside me who was also managing his own cramps. Good, we could suffer together, I thought.

We pushed on, slamming through our snacks just to get energy and made it to the summit.

After about four hours and some minutes, we made it! All of the Youtube videos I watched about people climbing to the summit crater and all the research and planning...I had finally done it. I couldn't believe it.

We sat for lunch, shared stories and took our classic summit photos with the crater in the background...before coming back down.

Before we left though I took a moment to look around and take it in. I looked around by myself while everyone else was getting ready and I couldn't help but get overcome with emotion. I started crying.

I realised in that moment just what a privilege it was to get to be standing there.

It was a privilege for many reasons.

The fact that I was physically able and capable to attempt such a feat, where not everybody would be.

The fact that I now get to do this for a job. I get to go adventures to some of the most amazing places on the planet and get paid to take photos of people doing it with me and experiencing it with me. Everything I dreamed of doing as a kid and all of the documentaries I watched about adventurers, I realised at that point that I am now one of those people that young me looked up to. I felt such a duty to be the one to capture these special moments for these people on this trip. They don't care about the photos, they care about being there. So I was thankful I was able to provide this unique service for them.

Lastly, I was emotional about the fact that I wanted to climb to the summit so bad and be a 'part of the club.'

After I summited though, I realised that we don't belong in places like this. There is a reason  Maori consider mountains to be sacred and they stay away. This mountain, like all others, hold so much power and if you're not respectful of it and careful, things can go really wrong.

As exciting as the whole experience was for me, I realised the deep emotional impact it had on me to be up there and I didn't want to take advantage of it.

I felt that respect that Maori have. It went deep into my soul and left an indelible mark on me that I feel like it is now my duty to share. Once was enough and if we're to ever get to go again, I have to remember this privilege and respect it as Maori always have.

The photos of the experience will last a lifetime and so will that feeling. I had never been so touched by an experience and I do recommend it, but only the once. It is an incredible landscape, but also one to be revered.

The clouds changed on us as soon as we walked back down and before you knew it we were in a whiteout and couldn't see where we were going. It was almost like the mountain responded to us being there and sent the clouds to get us off. It gave us a little window to get up safely to the summit and then sent the clouds to tell us it was time to go and not hang around. The climb down was much easier and took only about two and a half hours. We all felt this immense sense of accomplishment and respect for what we just did and were happy to get down safely, hi-fiving and smiling the whole way.

The experience with Got To Get Out and Adrift Tongariro was truly once in a lifetime and something I will always remember. I have come away with many new skills and a new comfort level in alpine environments...but will never forget the emotional impact climbing it had on me and I am thankful to have been open enough to let my emotions flow and let them out.

Let the photos speak for themselves and let my story inspire you to have this experience as well.

I hope to go on more adventure like this soon and can't wait to get back to Mount Ruapehu and snowboard again.

Until next time, you beautiful, dangerous, active, bubbling and scary beast!

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