Around the bend, National Park unfurls in a spread of auburn tussock, dark burbling streams and increasing patches of snow, with the hulking foothills of the mountain dominating the periphery.
My old friend Ruapehu winks at me in the sunshine – a white mantle of fluffy cloud draped around her shoulders.
The true scale of the landscape is revealed as I spot the Chateau. Its grandness is dwarfed by the mountain behind, looking like a singular tricolour Lego brick.
The golf course is covered with a thick crust of white, and legions of lopsided snowmen. Day-tripping children launch themselves into fresh drifts and happily fling fistfuls at each other while their parents take photos.
As the sun begins its fiery descent across the plateau, a handful of visitors stomp and flail and laugh in the snow, painted icy blue by the gloaming.
I sit inside, under a bejewelled chandelier in the opulence of the Chateau’s lounge. Behind me, the resident bowtie wearing pianist conjures an era of grace and finery on the baby grand.
The next morning, Ruapehu has swapped her stole for a jaunty cap of white cloud – curved over the summit by high winds. Droves of snowboarders clomp up the Bruce Road, and skiers swagger alongside like robotic cowboys in their unforgiving boots, juggling awkward bundles of metal.
The wind flicks sprays of snow across the crowd and sinks sharp teeth into patches of exposed flesh. Despite the winter sun, the wind wins out this morning. Cloud and tall eddies of snow whistle around the top of the mountain, and the upper chairlifts hang empty, rocking on their cables.
The queue for the first chairlift is a colourful congregation of skiers and snowboarders, with all distinguishing features obscured by goggles, helmets and scarves. Once I have been scooped up, I bury my face in the collar of my jacket as we go over a ridge and into the full brunt of the mountain’s icy breath.
On the run down, the wind throws a layer of icy gauze over the slope – buffeting boarders and skiers, chasing and cajoling the crowds back to the queue to do it all over again. With a red-tipped nose and watering eyes, I concede defeat and drive back through National Park to Ohakune, watching the mountain recede in my rear-view mirror.
The unpredictable nature of weather is even more evident as I pass through squally snow showers – fat flakes tumbling against my windscreen from charcoal clouds – and back into sunshine at Ohakune’s giant carrot.
There is a lot more snow on this side of the mountain – coagulated in clumps on front lawns. Outside one house, a full-size snow couch sits next to the letterbox.
The town seems quiet on a drizzly afternoon – until I swing open the door to the Powderkeg at Ohakune Junction. I am greeted by a waft of warm air laden with wood smoke, the heady smell of mulled wine, and the convivial hum of flushed, tousled skiers dissecting their day on the mountain.
On Sunday, Ruapehu stands with her shoulders flung proudly back, naked and resplendent against a periwinkle-blue sky – a sight that sends a surge of anticipation through me. But when I arrive back at Whakapapa Village a sign reads: “Road Closed. Car parks full”. My heart sinks at a prospect of a day spent jostling in lift queues.
Clutching my skis with resignation, I clamber aboard a shuttle bus for the ride to the Top of the Bruce, and slot into the line for the first chairlift.
Despite the gridlock on the lower mountain, the day unfolds into a memorable one for the record books. With the whole mountain open for business, the crowds are thin and queues are minimal.
I get goosebumps of delight on my first run, as I turn through the dry, packed powder snow in the wide open terrain at the west of the mountain – whooping and grinning until my cheeks hurt.
On each trundling ride back up the mountain, every lift companion marvels in rapture at just how spectacular the day is. Ruapehu has smiled on us, enveloping everyone in her benevolent, snowy bosom.
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue