Mueller Hut & Mt Cook – a High point in our New Zealand

The south island of New Zealand is perhaps best known for its spectacular geography & scenery  – snow capped mountains, glaciers, rugged fjords etc.  As Yvonne mentioned in the last entry, we tried to access this part of the island experience from the west coast, but got rained out … either directly or because the risk of mud and rock slides was too great.  So we made a point of trying again from the other side of the coast range – this time in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.  I’d had my eye on a hike to a high alpine club (Mueller) hut for several weeks, and we had just enough time left in the country to pull it off.
Mt Cook is NZ’s highest point, at 3700m.  It towers over everything else.  The approach to the mountain/park along lake Pukaki is breathtaking … especially since in our case it was the first time the clouds lifted in about 3 days.

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The park has many beautiful hikes, but we wanted to get up high, so the Mueller hut route seemed perfect … at least for getting up high.  The downside was that it was essentially straight up for 1 vertical km.  The park has a long history of mountaineering, and there are about a dozen alpine huts tucked into various nooks and crannies below the towering peaks.  They are built as approach bases from where very early morning departure ascents can be attempted on the most difficult routes.  Many people climb here, and it is dangerous climbing.  On average,  4 climbers die each year just on Mt Cook.  We were quite happy to think of Mueller Hut as a destination – not as a starting point!

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Each plaque on this monument commemorates a climber or climbing party's death. They are on all sides of the monument.
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our route in yellow

We were cold that night in the tent, but awoke to a clear sky and warmed during our breakfast on the picnic table outside the visitors center.  A late morning start had us feeling relaxed and excited about climbing into what we’d heard was some significant amount of fresh snow up near the hut.

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The first 90 minutes were 90% straight up stairs. But beautiful stairs they were, representing hours and hours of hard work of park staff.

I hadn’t been getting as much exercise as I like to, so actually quite enjoyed slugging the pack up.  Really!

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The views opened up beautifully as we gained altitude. That's Mt Cook rising in the background.
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Here are two ponds within a glacial lake. The different shades of green colour owe to the different size of glacier flour that is suspended in the water. The more the water has had time to calm, the more flour sinks out, and the deeper the green colour becomes. You can see these ponds in the previous photo.
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The parking lot where we started is small now ... in the bottom left corner of photo.
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Lunch at the "Sealy tarns" (tarn is a small mountain lake) was a welcome break after gaining 500m of vertical.
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Mostly boulder hopping here, then started into the snow. We're headed to the saddle in the middle of the ridge at the top.
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There were regular small avalanches on the mountain faces all around. You'd first hear them thunder, then look to find them.
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The view from the "saddle". Ahhhh! Now just a gentle climb along the ridge to Mueller Hut.
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The last 20 minutes was in the fresh snow from the night before. Gotta say, it was actually good to be in snow again. Easy for us to say as it was only up to our ankles ... I understand that Ontario has a bit more than that now! And 2m fell on Kitimat BC yesterday!
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Almost there, now (hut is in distance on right). This photo taken just after a lovely little snowball fight.
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About half the folks who make it to the hut are day hikers - up and back down in one day. Almost all of the overnighters were hikers like us - only two groups were attempting serious climbing.
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This renowned Kiwi climber has since passed away, but apparently the smallish mountain that rises up behind the hut (we hiked it the following morning) was Hillary's first climb ... quite a few years ago! This hut that he opened is actually the 5th rendition. The first was back in the 1920s I believe. The second one was carried away in an avalanche.
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It's about a 50m walk to the outhouse. Solid human waste needs to be helicoptered out, so they coach you with instructions on the wall how to "pee forward" so it goes into a separate pipe (released into the environment) - all in the interest of minimizing helicopter servicing!
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Mt Cook looms large even from our very far away vantage point. It even creates its own weather.
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There were a few "Kea"s about - they are the only high altitude parrot. They are very friendly and cheeky - so much so that there are signs everywhere asking you to avoid feeding them.
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Mountains have a way of making you feel small. Here I am on Jake's shoulder whispering congratulations for a good climb.
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Ever since I worked out in the Canadian Rocky mountains in university, high up in the mountains has been one of my favourite places to be.
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I can't recall ever having such an inspired setting for a game of onze!
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These huts are very well set up with bunks/mattresses and great cooking facilities.
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We watched Mr Cook fade into the twilight from our perch.

We were about 20 folks at the hut that night – many Europeans, some Kiwis and us.  Kaia and Jake were the only kids.  I thought there might have been some local kids, as they hadn’t gone back to school after their Christmas holidays yet.  We slept well and after breakfast retraced Hillary’s steps up the mount behind the hut.  I guess that means we’ve taken our first steps towards our Everest attempt when we’re in Nepal this April 😉

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On our way back down to the hut. Thick clouds had literally "rolled" in, so couldn't see too far.
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This is the Mueller glacier. It continues for much longer that it appears, as the bottom part is covered in gravel.

We packed up and started down the mountain through the clouds.  We passed many people puffing and sweating coming up … and were glad to have that behind us.

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Jake setting up an ambush on Kaia

About half way down the mountain we finally broke out of the clouds to a perfect day and snapped a family photo.

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I had been looking at another trail across the valley that goes 5k into Hooker Lake.  It was pretty flat and followed a gushing river and over 3 suspension bridges.  So I went ahead for the 2nd half of the descent and then ran into Hooker Lake.  It was pretty hot down at that elevation so a dip in the glacier lake was refreshing.  What a perfect trail to run on. 

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I love the light weight and wide angle of the GoPro camera but the wide angle does create some interesting distortions.
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End of the trail at Hooker Lake. And of course ... Mt Cook in the background.

I met up with the rest of the family for lunch back at visitors center.  This had been our last outing in NZ, and it really felt like we were going out on a high.

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3 days later …. the fast descent with a full pack and then quickish 10k run, after not doing much for weeks, meant I could barely walk for about 3 days.  Yvonne did not fare much better.  Must be getting older or something …

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