Climber hit by rock during Ruapehu eruption loses leg
Skifields are expected to re-open on Mt Ruapehu tomorrow but skiers have been warned not to venture onto the upper part of the volcano, described by one scientist today as "unpredictable".Ruapehu erupted without warning for 10 minutes at 8.20 last night, spawning small lahars (mud-debris flows) that spilled out of the crater into the top of the Whakapapa skifield and down the Whangaehu Valley.The mountain triggered seismic tremors and clouds of ash and steam hissed into the air.The explosive blast also tossed giant blocks of basalt up to 2000 metres into the night sky.One rock crashed through the roof of Dome Hut, an emergency shelter at 2670m on Dome Ridge, less than 100m below the summit.One of the four men in the hut was hit by the rock, crushing his legs.William Pike, a 22-year-old Auckland primary school teacher and experienced climber, who was flown to Waikato Hospital last night, lost his right leg in surgery today.Photographs today showed wide craters in the snow in the summit area where rocks had landed.A group of GNS Science and Department of Conservation scientists flew over the mountain at first light to take a look."Impact craters" 1-2 metres wide were seen about 1.5km from the crater edge," said GNS volcanologist Brad Scott.Scientists called the eruption "small to moderate" but it was not as big as the blasts of 1995 and 1996.Department of Conservation volcanologist Harry Keys told NZPA there had been no more volcanic tremors today and he and his GNS colleagues were "getting more relaxed" as the day wore on.But he described Ruapehu as an "extremely unpredictable" volcano and said it was still possible that further eruptions could happen over the next two or three days.The risk was high to extreme in the crater area."The only ways we can manage that risk is by saying to people `don't go up to the crater for a few days'." If people are in the summit area when the mountain erupts they would be very lucky to escape with their lives," Dr Keys said.Ruapehu Alpine Lifts said this afternoon it expected to re-open both the Whakapapa and Turoa fields tomorrow.Marketing manager Mike Smith said there was no damage to lift facilities or the snow cover.The company was working closely with authorities and a final decision whether to open would be made at 6am."Authorities believe that the seismic activity was a one-off, and providing there is no further activity tonight, we should be fine to open tomorrow."The fields were closed today after last night's eruption but skiers will hope the closure is not long-lasting -- spring snow conditions are described by Mr Smith as "exceptional" and it is the middle of the school holidays, a period when the fields are crowded.Associate Conservation Minister Mahara Okeroa urged visitors to Ruapehu to exercise caution and stay away from the upper mountain.He said they should keep below the upper boundaries of both Whakapapa and Turoa.GNS Science volcanology section manager Gill Jolly said in a statement this afternoon said the observation flight over Ruapehu early today showed the summit area was covered by ash and mud, most of it lying to the north and reaching about 2km from the Crater Lake.The summit area was "peppered" by craters caused by large blocks, over 1m across, ejected from the bottom of the lake.She said the lake was now about 2-3m below the overflow level."Our current understanding of the activity is that this is most likely an isolated `blue sky' eruption similar to events in 1969, 1975, 1988 and 2006," she added."However, there is still a possibility that there may be further eruptions over the next few days and weeks."