I just got off the phone last night with my oldest daughter in New Zealand and was reminded that this time last year we were touring around the South Island of beautiful New Zealand. While my area of Canada was experiencing a typical December of cold temperatures and getting hammered with snow, it was a summer like climate in New Zealand.
It was an amazing tour. Travelling from Christchurch we “hair pinned” our way through Author’s Pass on the way to Greymouth. Then driving down through the isolated, wild west coast we ended up spending three nights at Fox Glacier. The rain there was everything I had read about, and then some. In a span of a 30 hour period while we were there, Fox Glacier received 300 millimeters of rain. That is around a foot of rain, but it is typical for this area, while I found really amazing. The people who choose to live there are incredibly hardy. From there it was a day’s travel to Wanaka, capped off with an invigorating hike up Roy’s Peak. Then before we returned to Christchurch to attend my daughter Naomi’s teacher college graduation was the finale. It was an overnight climb to Mueller Hut on Mt. Ollivier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
The last time I had been to this park was 28 years earlier. I was with my wife on our honeymoon and we were on a tour bus to view Mount Cook. There was a dense fog and it was raining so hard you could not even see a few feet ahead of the bus. We did not even get off the bus. But somehow I knew I would one day be back. I have a love for mountains and if there is one place in New Zealand I would want to return to, it would be this park. This 700-square-kilometer (270-square-mile) rugged land of rock and ice was designated a National Park in 1953. It includes 19 peaks over 3,000 metres (9,842 feet). Glaciers cover 40% of the park.
In New Zealand, the Department of Conservation (DOC) manages a staggering 950 back country huts. I have only been to a handful of them, and that was 28 years ago when I was backpacking on my honeymoon. But what I had read, the location at Mueller Hut was said to be one of the most spectacular. Researching as much information as I could, I discovered from the Department of Conservation rated the route up to Mueller Hut as “Advanced Tramping Track”. It is classed from their website: “People with moderate to high level backcountry (remote areas) skills and experience, navigation and survival skills required.” Even though it was not a technical climb, the DOC website now has an alert which is much like which had been posted a year ago that in spring, winter conditions may still exist, and reads as follows: “27 November 2017: Mueller Hut Route – winter conditions
Winter conditions may exist. The route may require mountaineering experience, including walking on ice and snow with ice axe and crampons. Call the Aoraki/Mount Cook Visitor Centre (+64 3 435 1186) for advice on conditions”
On arrival at Mount Cook Village, my daughter Naomi and I checked in at the youth hostel, had a bite to eat and then set out on the Hooker Valley Track. It is a 10 kilometer return, and has a mere 124 meters of elevation gain/loss. It is rated as “Easy”. The suggested return time was 3 hours. On the DOC website for the Hooker Valley Track it has this listed as hazards: “The Aoraki/Mount Cook region experiences very fast changes in weather. In this alpine environment it’s common to experience strong wind, high rainfall, heavy snowfall and rapid changes in temperature at any time of the year”.
When we set out on our hike it was overcast, but still quite a pleasant day. So I was really taken off guard by how quickly the weather actually changed. The temperature quickly plummeted accompanied by a driving bone chilling rain. A couple of degrees colder and this would be coming down as snow. As we slogged on, I had regretted leaving my cold weather gear back at the hostel. Wearing no gloves, my hands had lost all feeling. Finally with less than a kilometer to go to the turnaround, and my body fighting a losing battle trying to keep warm I told Naomi we needed to turn around now and head back to the hostel to dry off and warm up. Dressing no warmer than myself, Naomi did not dispute my call. The valley would have been beautiful but visibility was limited, we could not see much. I had totally underestimated that warning about how abruptly the weather can change here, and this hike rated “easy” had indeed humbled me.
At the break of dawn the next morning I pulled back the picture window curtain of the hostel lounge and my heart jumped for joy. The rain had stopped and the clouds had all lifted. And right before my eyes was a panorama of mountains that were breathtaking. Naomi was in a female dorm room and in a few minutes she was also out. Breakfast, checking once again our gear and then the mandatory stop at the DOC office for overnight trampers for checking in. It was at this time the park ranger briefed us on conditions. There was still a lot of snow in the high elevations. Avalanche risk was listed at moderate.
At 1800 metres on the Sealey range, Mueller Hut provides a 360-degree panorama encompassing glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks. To get there, it is only 5.2 kilometers in length from the trailhead. Don’t let that deceive you. It is pretty much all climbing and is a major grunt. We parked at the carpark at White Horse Hill Campground and set out. It was clear, not a cloud in the sky. You could not have asked for a better day.
The hike can be divided into 2 distinct parts. The 1st part is from the White Horse Hill car park to Sealey Tarns, where there is found an alpine lake. This section is very well maintained by the DOC and consists of stairs. I did not count how many but Wikipedia mentions there are 2200 of them, all built of large timber and anchored into the ground. The day was so beautiful. As we continued the climb, the views over Hooker Valley, Mueller Lake and Mount Cook got exceedingly more breathtaking.
There were a couple of picnic tables at Sealey Tarns, which is often a turnaround point for a lot of day hikers. A great opportunity to take off the packs and take a break and shoot a few photos. The remainder part of the climb was not a maintained track, but an alpine route. At 1st it zigzagged through alpine scrub and tussocks and then through a boulder field. Because it was still early December (New Zealand spring) the last half of the climb from Sealey Tarns was in snow. We really had to keep an eye out for the orange markers which were placed every 200 meters or so.
After climbing one last steep snow saddle we came to the west ridge where there was jaw dropping views of Mount Selfton and Mueller Glacier as it swept down the valley. It is hard to put into words how spectacular this was. The pictures that I took turned out great, but it is one of those times where the words “The photo does not do you justice” has impact. To get to our hut from here, we turn left and it was a 20 minute hike along the ridge. There was a gradual incline through a lot of snow cover. By summers end this snow would all be melted.
At the hut we were met by Tony, the volunteer hut warden. After spending a week there he was preparing to head back down. He mentioned it had been very quiet up at the hut. The day before with the rain we had, only 2 people bravely made the climb. The day before that the winds at the hut were hitting 170 kilometers per hour, and no one was able to make it up to the hut.
But today was different and people started to trickle in. There was a couple of guys from Israel named Joseph and Dor. There was a husband and wife from Montana, a husband and wife from Poland and a single lady that came from Australia. There was a couple completely geared out for mountaineering. They had been climbing on peaks past the exposed ridge further out and would return to the hut at night. The last to come in were a group of 4. Three were from Quebec in Canada, and one from Belgium. To top it all off our new volunteer hut warden named Mitchey was from the Czech Republic.
No longer having to expend all that energy climbing, it was quite actually cold on top. We donned our winter gear and socialized on the deck with some of the most amazing views to be found anywhere. Every few minutes there would be heard a loud, sharp crack. We all stopped talking and watch as a piece of a hanging glacier would break off on a peak across the valley. The echo it gave would follow, giving me goosebumps up and down my spine.
As the temperature continued to drop we all moved indoors and had a very entertaining evening in the candlelight swapping stories of life in our various counties which went on until 11 pm. In between there was a break while the warden radioed down for weather updates. He listed the names of every one who had arrived. Everyone had arrived safely. No one was still on the mountain.
Mount Ollivier has a pretty distinct significance. Back in 1939 it was the 1st mountain that New Zealand adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary ever climbed. Hillary climbed Mount Cook in January, 1948. And it was 5 years later on May 29, 1953 that Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Shortly after Hillary’s climb of Everest in 1953, this Mount Cook region of New Zealand was named a National Park. On May 5th, 2003 the current Mueller Hut (which sits on Mount Ollivier) was officially opened and dedicated in person by Sir Edmund Hillary. A plaque is on the wall commemorating that occasion.
The weather forecast for the next morning from the radio transmission was that snow was moving in at the higher elevation and rain in the lower elevations. With reduced visibility expected the ranger warned us all to be very careful to stay on the route going down. He used an example of a couple two years earlier of how important this was. They missed the turn that would head down that 1st snow saddle. Unknowingly they kept going along a very exposed precarious ridge until it dropped off. Their bodies were never recovered.
The Polish lady was extremely anxious about the descent and asked me a few times regarding when I was leaving the following morning, as she wanted her and her husband to join us. In the end the 2 young men from Israel also joined us on the descent. We made sure we found that extremely crucial turn that took us off the ridge and down the mountain. The six of us carefully picked our way down through the snow saddles, being eyes for each other until we got below the clouds and snowline. Then it was a light rain until we arrived safe and sound back at the car park. One last stop at the DOC office to let the rangers know we had returned down safely. Then it was straight back to Christchurch to get ready for Naomi’s graduation.
This all took place a year ago. Looking back at the pictures, and going through my journal which has helped me write this blog post, it almost seems surreal. I was so proud of my daughter. She really trained hard for this, and it showed by how strong she was on this climb. Even though my time to visit in New Zealand was relatively short, the time bonding with my daughter on that climb up to Mueller Hut was amazing. Though we are once again continents apart, talking on the phone and reliving our memories about that climb, it brought us together once again.