I would never call myself a Mountain climber. More of a Mountain admirer.
As kids, we always climbed ‘Slemish Mountain’ (more like a big hill) in Northern Ireland, before school started in September, and thought we were doing well.
Since living in New Zealand over the past 2 years, I’ve become much more of an outdoor lover. I’ve always loved the outdoors, but the vast and scenic areas of New Zealand, have made me fall in love with being out and about even more.
About one week ago, I moved from the category of Mountain Admirer to Mountain Climber and conqueror, as I tackled the Mueller Hut track at Mount Cook.
I had previously tackled the Tongariro Crossing, which was a fair wee walk, and had been talking to a friend that I had walked it with. We spoke about things I wanted to do, before leaving New Zealand, and I mentioned that I’d like to see, Mount Cook. Go to the Village and chill out by Lake Pukaki.
He then told me that there was a cool walking track, to the Mueller Hut, it was 5.2km he said, it’ll be fun, he said. You’ll see glaciers and get to camp in a hut.
I was sold on it, and packed my stuff the day before we were due to go (with some help from a colleague at work, who let me borrow some really good outdoor gear).
It was 5.2km, fun and I saw amazing things, but it was the most difficult walk I’ve ever done. Equally, it is probably one of the things I’ll recommend most to those with a little bit of fitness to do in New Zealand.
Mount Cook Village is about a 4 hour drive South of Christchurch. Mount Cook itself is visible from many areas of the South Island, being the highest Mountain in New Zealand. I had previously seen it from near Benmore (McKenzie District, Canterbury) and from South Westland region (from across Lake Matheson), and thought it looked amazing. Never did I think I’d be halfway up it.
Our journey started, after work on a Friday night. I went with an Irish couple (one of whom I had walked Tongariro with). Fuelled with coffee and a good healthy roast dinner at a stop in Geraldine, we arrived at a rather chilly Mount Cook Village, just before midnight.
Even in the dark, I could see the outline of the mountains, with a good dusting of snow on top. I was excited.
We stayed in the YHA hostel, at $35 per night for an 8 bed dorm. The room was comfortable, very warm and very quiet (perhaps this area attracts a different kind of Traveller?)
In the morning, we filled up on a healthy breakfast and set off to the visitors centre to book our space at the hut. We were very lucky, as we got the last three beds. We were given some information about the hut and track and paid $35 for the privilege of staying there, a little steep I thought, seeing as there was no heating, and it was pretty basic.
The warden at the centre told us, its a gorgeous walk, lots of steps but you’ll enjoy it.
So we set off.
Now as it was pretty chilly, I thought it would be a great idea to wear my ski pants on the walk. This idea was scrapped 10 minutes into the walk, as I started to become very hot, and resulted in a quick strip down on the side of the Mountain, into my leggings.
In reality, shorts would have been ok. It is only when you reach the hut and it turns dark and cold, do you need extra padding (live and learn).
The walk can be broken up into 3 or 4 manageable sections, or so it looked like that on paper.
The first 10 minutes of walking was fairly easy (despite me being very warm in my ski pants). There were a few mini hills, but all in all. No dramas.
Then came the steps (the steps of death, as I later called them), all 2000 or so of them. I slipped down 5 of them, on the way back, and they left me with a whopper of a bruise, so we weren’t the best of friends.
The steps of death lead you to the first major point of Sealy Trans (a small Mountain Lake). This point was supposed to take 1.5 hours to get to. It took us almost 2.5, mainly due to me. I’m way more unfit than I first thought, but the steps were practically vertical and endless.
After the steps, we sat down to lunch and had a think … we were worried that with our timings that we might not make it to the hut by nightfall, and my hiking companions thought we may need to turn around. At that point I thought, ‘I better up my game. This Mountain isn’t going to beat me.’
So we plodded on, though some incredibly rough ground. Then came the rocks and the snow. At which point my friends walking pole came in very handy. It was proper mountaineering at this stage. Ice crampons weren’t necessary, but may have been helpful.
We met a few people on the way down, and with every step, we said ‘how far to the top?’
Then, we finally made it to a ridge at the top. At that point, I finally appreciated where I was, and how far I climbed. It was then at the point, I witnessed my first avalanche, with the sound of a truck passing quickly through town, the snow ran down on the other side of the Mountain. It was beautiful.
The hut from this point was a further 30 minutes walk, which was a real tough ending. Mainly because although we were at the top, we still had a trek. It was like .. ‘so close, but yet so far.’
Then we saw it, a big long red hut, perched on the hill. Victory! At that point all I wanted to do was jump into a hot spa pool and go to sleep.
After meeting our DOC (*Department of Conservation) warden Bridget (who was completely voluntary, for a week, what a legend!) at the top, and giving in our slip of paper that allowed us to say, it was then that I realised how basic this wee hut was.
The bunk room, of which there were two, was basically like two large bunk beds, with back mattresses, where you chucked your sleeping bags in, and essentially cuddled up to a stranger.
The kitchen was large, and had various gas stoves (a $2 donation could have been given), some washing up liquid and various eating utensils, which I was extremely grateful for, as I was a tad disorganised and didn’t pack any. This resulted in having to drink tea out of a bowl.
One of the first things I did, after getting my bearings of our basic lodgings, was put a bottle of cider, out to chill; my victory drink. It never tasted so good
After a time of exploring outside, where I sat and watched the most incredible sunset, disappear over the endless mountains, I retreated inside to the (i’d like to say warmth), equally as cold hut. Donned my ski pants, jacket and fleece hat, and ate my packet pasta and beans.
At that point I felt so exhausted, I could have slept standing up, but I pushed on toward staying up until the grand old time of 9pm. a few visits to the smelly long drop, in the cold snow woke me up.
I took my new camera for a test drive and got some cool shots!
Getting ready for bed was easy, I slept in what I was wearing. stood in the cold cleaning my teeth, looking up at the crisp white snow layered on the mountains, illuminated bright moon, was just incredible.
I thought I’d sleep well, being so fatigued from the walk, and I perhaps did for a few hours, until I was (and the rest of my bunk room) was woken up by the loud party of 5, who were very drunk in the kitchen, playing drinking games and bashing on the walls. at one point the hut shook, they were being very loud.
A member of our bunk room, got up, opened the door and said sssh, but this only made them eager to make more noise.
Being an incredible light sleeper, I got up and gave a bit if a nana speech, with words to the effect of “you’re all being very rude, and very disrespectful, there are 20 other people in this hut, shut up and go to bed.” (I got thanked in the morning by a few people for that).
Tip: when in shared facilities, use you common decency and resect others!
As the bunk room had no curtains on the window, I woke around 7am, to see the sky slightly pink and getting lighter. I jumped out of bed, half expecting my legs to be sore (but no, that came later!) ran to the long drop, grabbed my camera and my pastries I had bought for breakfast, climbed to the side of the Mountain and sat on a rock.
Honestly. It was the most spectacular thing I’ve witnessed. There was hardly another soul up. The sun slowly rose over Aoraki, and appeared to just paint the mountains with its golden glow. I could never tire of that view. Truly incredible.
Our hike down the mountain, was slightly easier .. completed in 3 hours, not 5! On the way down, we counted the steps .. roughly 2000 of them, of which the first 5 caused me a great deal of pain, as I slid down them and landed on my ass. I’ve now got a whooper of a bruise.
The hike down was a little nicer too, as I could appreciate the view I didn’t enjoy so much on the way up.
It took a week, or more for my legs to stop aching, but it was an ache caused by an incredible achievement, so well worth it.
If you are in the South Island, I’d definitely try and get this factored in. It was much better than zorbing in Rotorua, or Bungy Jumping in Auckland.
I am now worried that I’ve set the bar quite high, from the natural beauty I’ve witnessed. New Zealand, you are beautiful.