Mount Cook (aka Aoraki) may not be the deadliest peak in New Zealand, but it is the tallest and has claimed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of climbers. Tucked at the tip of Lake Pukaki, this 12,218-foot giant stands at the physical and metaphorical epicenter of New Zealand’s mountaineering culture. In this small town, the DOC Visitor Center and the Hermitage Hotel’s museum offer fabulous exhibits on the people, events, and legends that have touched this mountainous region of the world.
Everyone knows Sir Edmond Hillary as the first white man to summit Everest. He was also a Kiwi, a local hero in NZ, and Mt Cook was his vertical, icy play-field where he came to practice.
One historical figure you might not know is Freda Du Faur. She was the first woman to summit Mt Cook in 1910, thirty-eight years before Hillary. A bold Feminist of her day, Faur paved the way for women trampers everywhere, but especially in New Zealand. In an era when women were meant to be housewives instead of mountain climbers, Faur made it her mission to never marry and to always climb in a dress–an act that I fully endorse and encourage. (In fact, there are many good practical reasons for hiking in a dress, which I will discuss in another post).
At the time when these early mountaineers were trailblazing across Mt Cook’s icy ridge, the glaciers in the valley could be easily approached from the township. Today, massive lakes separate us from the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers that guard Mt Cook. The ice has melted. And is melting every day. We are lucky to live at a time when you can still see the glacial remnants from the lake’s end. So K and I walked the hour and a half though the Hooker Valley to stand at the edge of the Hooker Glacier’s puddle. We sat gazing at the glacier’s toe, discussing the imminence of its complete disappearance. A small iceberg floated ashore and vanished before our eyes.
We spent four nights and five days in the Mt Cook region. Most nights we were camped in the White Horse Hill campground beneath Mount Sefton. From there, our feet took us all over: down the Hooker Valley, over to the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier, then up to the Red Tarns where we could look down upon the entire Mt Cook village. (Mt Cook “town” consists of a dozen hostels, the DOC office, one mediocre bar with bad service, a really fancy hotel filled with septuagenarians, and a tiny school for the wait staff’s children).
The star of this stunning glacial valley, and our ultimate motive for visiting, is the Mueller Hut. The Mueller Hut sits at nearly 6,000 feet on an exposed rocky saddle surrounded by the alpine peaks of the Sealy Range. It’s the most accessible high alpine hut, from which you can enjoy the sporadic thundering (or views if you’re quick) of calving ice sheets amidst the taunting cries of the Kea–the world’s cheekiest alpine parrot, capable of tearing your tent to shreds or bursting your bike tire in a matter of minutes.
The hike up to Mueller Hut is intimidating. Once you’ve climbed the steep staircase of 2,200 steps up to the Sealy Tarns, the easy part is over. You then follow a loosely marked path for another hour or two straight up, stumbling over loose rocks, hoisting yourself over large boulders, until finally reaching the ridge. And then you’re almost there.
The weather was good for our ascent to Mueller Hut, which was lucky because it was grueling enough without the added worry of wind, fog, or rain. It only took us three long and arduous hours to reach the hut from the trailhead. But, I’d do it again in an instant.
From our alpine abode, a picture-perfect day granted us unobstructed views in all directions. After claiming bunks in the hut, we scrambled up a bit further above the hut for an even better view. The sun was blazing. For a long while I stared at the mammoth ice sheets that clung from Mount Sefton. First I saw it fall, then heard it roar.
Everything had changed the next day. Thick clouds had nestled on top of us. Gale winds were shaking the hut violently. The rain was flying in sideways. We had to go back down. I immediately thought of the story about another alpine hut in the area that had been ripped off the mountain in gale winds, killing all four people inside it.
Confession: Although I do a lot of backpacking and I love it, I am not fearless. To the contrary, actually, I have become quite a timid tramper (which I blame on getting older). Especially when it comes to wind. Wind scares me the most… And single layers of loose gravel on a steep slope. That freaks me out too.
So I have to give great kudos to K who patiently held my hand the whole way down from the Mueller Hut. No exaggeration, he literally took my hand every time my wobbling legs, shaking with fear, stepped down. It took us nearly as long to get down that mountain as it had to get up it. In the end, we made it down injury-free and with legs like rubber, thankful we had experienced everything we could at Mount Cook.