Thursday came with the rain. Until now the rain has been annoying but it's generally been pretty warm, but here in the mountains it's cold, and when things get wet they don't dry out. The drive to Mt Cook village was pleasant enough, but when I arrived the clouds had gathered en masse, spilling over the mountains and dribbling constant rain on the village. I'd been planning to pop up a couple of the mountains and staying in some of the DOC huts, but the weather rained on that idea, so I did a quick walk up to the Red Tarns (a tarn being a mountain lake) and then hit the public shelter.
Public shelters are great in the wet, because everyone who isn't living in an expensive hotel hangs out there for shelter. For some reason the shelter was full of Australians, most of whom were staying at the campsite and had taken refuge from their leaky tents in the cold but dry shelter. There were three mad men from Melbourne who were planning an assault on the Copland Pass, one of the toughest walks in the area; Ben and Mira, a lovely couple from Perth who were cycling round New Zealand; Grenville, a mountaineer from another planet who seemed to want to die before he got old; and a Swede who'd decided to join the Copland Pass team, despite his lack of gear and training. It was all good entertainment as the rain drove down; by all accounts the weather in New Zealand is particularly miserable this year, with spring arriving very late (if at all). If I hear the word 'unseasonable' once more, I'll probably break down.
So I spent a couple of days just hanging round the shelters, sticking it out and sleeping in an increasingly condensed car, and enjoying the camaraderie of huddling together with others while the elements did their worst. The snow poured down on the mountains while the rain poured down on us, and the NZ$1.60 pies we got from the pub tasted like heaven after all those camping rice dishes.
And then there were the keas. Keas are New Zealand's mountain parrots, and they're a highly intelligent and endangered species. It's easy to understand why they're so endangered, because they're the ornithological equivalent of juvenile delinquents. Leave any food around, and the keas will steal it; leave the seats on your bicycle overnight, and the keas will have torn them to shreds by the morning; stay in the public shelter overnight, and the keas will wake you up in the middle of the night by dropping stones on the tin roof and letting them clatter down the corrugations. There are even stories of keas locking trampers in their huts, having watched how humans push the bolts shut. One wonders if the kea is endangered because no matter how much you like birds, you end up wanting to kill the little buggers every time they fly in for a squawk. Still, they're pretty good fun, as long as it's not your kit that's being ravaged.
The Hooker Glacier
Saturday morning started in exactly the same way as the previous two days, with despondent skies and constant rain, but by lunchtime there were signs that the sky might be clearing, so Ben, Mira and I decided to hedge our bets and go off on a short walk up the Hooker Glacier, the one that leads to the foot of Mt Cook. How to describe the views? When the clouds finally cleared, there in front of us was this beast of a mountain, reaching up to an almost-perfect pyramid peak, snow-capped and icing-sugar white. The tranquillity, only broken by the huge glacial river that you cross on two swing bridges, simply has to be experienced; these mountains have been here a lot longer than any of us, and they're quite content just to sit there, minding their own business, like old men on a park bench staring at the world passing by.
It's worth introducing the mountains, even though it's hard to really understand these peaks without seeing them firsthand. Mt Cook is the biggest, of course. It sits at the northern end of the Hooker Glacier, with three main peaks; the one you can see from Mt Cook village is a lovely pyramid shape, but the highest peak is just behind it, which you can only see by viewing the mountain from a different angle. On the western side of the glacier (that's the left as you look at Mt Cook) is Mt Sefton, with the Footstool just to the right of it; Mt Sefton is very snowy and icy, and there are regular booms as the snow avalanches off the slopes. Of course, avalanches happen all the time throughout these mountains, but Mt Cook is much further away than Sefton, so you only really get to hear Sefton's grumbling. Further to the left of Sefton are the Sealy Ranges, with peaks including Mt Ollivier and Mt Kitchener, and the Mt Cook campsite sits at the base of this range. To the east of the glacier (the right) is Mt Wakefield, the first peak in a range that stretches all along the glacier's east side, right up to Mt Cook, and further east still is the Tasman Glacier.
Back to the Hooker Glacier, though. Glaciers are huge 'rivers' of ice that slowly move downhill, carving out valleys and leaving behind rock debris known as the moraine. The Hooker Glacier is a beast indeed, and walking up to it involves following the valley that it has carved over the years – mainly in the Ice Age when it stretched a lot further than it now does – until you reach the terminal lake, which is formed by the melt-waters of the glacier. Cold isn't the word; terminal lakes aren't exactly swimming pools, which is made pretty obvious by the icebergs that float past. In the spirit of adventure, Ben and I scooted up along the moraine shores of the lake, almost to the strangely blue glacial wall, but it was pretty hairy scrambling along slopes that could collapse at any moment, so after a short exploration we headed back to camp to watch the sun set over the mountains.
The sunset was another to add to my ever-growing list of memorable twilights. The orange glow of an iridescent snow peak with clouds swirling round the ranges, moving at breakneck speeds in the savage crosswinds at that altitude, is as unique as any sight you'll see. Mt Cook is 3754m (12,315 ft) high, some 2992m (9815 ft) above the town, which is big in anyone's book. The view from the hills around the campsite was just perfect, and we spent the night celebrating the break in the weather with the Copland Pass group, who were planning to head off in the morning; inspired by all this activity, Ben and I started to concoct our own little plan.
The Mueller Hut
Sunday arrived to clear skies and savage winds. The heavy snowfalls on the mountains were most noticeable on Sefton and the Sealys, but Ben and I were determined; we were going to climb the 1006m (3300 ft) from the campsite to the Mueller Hut, right on top of the Sealy ridge. We packed our backpacks – well, I did, as Ben wanted to travel light, and only took a daypack of clothes and a bit of food – and we set off on the track to the Sealy Tarns, a pleasant set of lakes about halfway up the mountainside and well below the snowline.
Meanwhile we had a serious climb to tackle. The snow had long since obliterated all signs of a track, and we had to make up our route, not so easy as the hut is just over the top of the range and is therefore invisible until you're almost on top of it. The route we chose was straight up to where we believed the hut was, skirting a precarious-looking snow slide and avoiding most of the drifts. The wind was strong, the snow was freezing, and I was glad of the ski pants and gloves I'd borrowed as I climbed a near-vertical snowy moraine on all fours, a full pack on my back. In retrospect we must have been slightly mad; one false step or one slip, both of which were very possible on the loose stones and rocks we were clambering up, and it would be a fall down a few hundred feet into goodness only knows what. To be honest we were both more than a little spooked by the whole thing, but the sight of the dunny roof after hours of sweaty climbing made it all worthwhile, and it wasn't long before we'd made it to the hut.
One of the wonderful things about tramping in New Zealand – or, indeed, mountaineering, which is more what the trip to the Mueller Hut turned out to be, the way we'd gone – is the large selection of huts dotted around the National Parks. Australia doesn't have such a proliferation of huts, which enable you to do long walks without worrying about where to stay, and it's one of the reasons New Zealand is such a walker's paradise. The Mueller Hut, one of the more popular huts in the Mt Cook area, is a cosy little building, sleeping 12 people and containing a kitchen with fuel and water supplies.
It also has what has been described as the best alpine view in the world, looking over the whole Hooker Glacier on one side – with stunning views of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton – and the Mueller Glacier on the other. It's difficult to describe the sheer power of being up in the middle of a serious mountain range; it's a bit like trying to explain to a teetotaller what it feels like to be drunk. In some ways the sight was just as moving as that of Uluru, because these mountains aren't just lumps of rock and ice, they're awesome enough to be almost religiously powerful. It's small wonder that the Maoris regard Mt Cook – which they call Aoraki, or 'Cloud Piercer' – as a sacred place; I spent a lot of the early evening up at Mueller sitting in the freezing wind and just soaking up the whole environment (after having made a snowman, of course).
The whole Mueller experience was pure excellence. The other people in the hut were great company, and we played cards after dark as the wind howled and shook the hut, making it feel like the inside of a combustion engine. The wind has to be felt to be believed; it's constantly gusting and at times blows so hard that you simply can't walk into it, and have to dig your feet into the snow to avoid being blown over. It didn't let up for one minute and blew throughout the night. Still, the bunks were cosy enough, if you could ignore the frosting breath and shaking walls, and soon enough we all woke up, on top of the world, to a crisp but still blustery Monday morning.
Imagine waking up to such a view; this isn't a pleasant little alpine village ski resort-type view, it's savage, elemental stuff, and it's pretty invigorating. Wanting to extend our stay for as long as possible, Ben and I climbed up nearby Mt Ollivier, the peak of which is at 6288 ft; all the way we battled against evil winds from hell and sleet being blown in our faces. Luckily the snow had melted quite a lot since our ascent the day before, so we made the summit without incident, and the astounding views of the Mueller Glacier were well worth the frozen hands and feet. Unfortunately, by the time we got back to the hut and made a cup of tea, it was time to head back down to the campsite.
Climbing a mountain is one thing, but getting down is quite another. The whole point of climbing safely is not to fall down, but when you're trying to walk down a slope that's steeper than 45° and it's covered in a good foot of snow (and often more) it's challenging just keeping your balance. After skirting the ridge to avoid the rocks we'd originally followed up, we started to make our descent down a huge snow channel... and that's when we really discovered how to have fun on a mountain. It all began with Ben slipping over and sliding down the slope on his butt, only managing to stop at the bottom by digging in his heels. I tried the same thing, but seeing as I was carrying a big pack with all our possessions in it, I just sank into the snow and didn't manage a slide. Instead I just ran straight down the mountainside, taking huge moon steps through the snow, trying to stay ahead of the mini-avalanche that Ben's slide had started. Before you could say 'sheeeit!' we were halfway down to the snow line, covering the same distance that had taken us a good hour to climb in about 30 seconds.
Still, the best buzz came when I found a huge snow slide that was still hard enough for me to go down with a pack on, and I slid down on my behind, discovering as I went that I could steer by clenching the relevant buttock; flying by the seat of your pants, I suppose you could call it. Sledging down a snowy hill might be fun, but throwing yourself down a mountain with a heavy pack for added momentum gets my vote every time. It certainly cut our descent time down, and we were down in the campsite after about two-and-a-half hours of sliding and tramping, compared to a day's walk to get up.
Not surprisingly we spent the afternoon cleaning up; it was my first shower in five days, which made it practically orgasmic. We then popped into the Hermitage, the rather posh hotel in Mt Cook (at over NZ$200 a night) and soaked up the atmosphere, the firelight and the piano playing1 while our washing dried, and then it was back to the camp for some well-earned rest. It was also pleasant to note that the weather had turned sour again, so we'd made it through the whole experience in the nick of time; my car felt particularly nice and warm that night.
1 The piano man, all suited up and playing the sort of seamless popular-tune piano medleys that you tend to hear in hotels – guaranteed to offend no one and to bring a smile to the lips of any ancient and loaded widows in the room, in other words – had just one book from which he played his pretty little ditties. The name of the book? 101 Great Songs for Buskers...