In New Zealand when you enter the backcountry their version of rangers emphasize filling out a book for the authorities which includes your intentions on what exactly you intend to do. This lets them know if they should come looking for you, which seems to be not so uncommon.
The weather was poor. It was raining again. I was getting a bit frustrated with New Zealand. Several things we have planned long in advance were being hampered by poor weather.
We checked with the Visitor’s Centre to determine if they had any additional info. We learned we should have “significant alpine experience required” and “crampons and ice axes required in winter conditions.” Hmmm. Taking my kids and family up to the hut…wise idea?
Alison suggested this trek long ago. When researching I was swayed by a post I read during our planning. Mueller Hut-New Zealand’s Sexiest Hike
Plus, another concern…we had no other place to lay our head. If we bailed on Mueller Hut, where would we sleep? We had no options and New Zealand does not have much near Mt. Cook. The car was the most likely outcome.
We waited until the afternoon as the weather was forecast to be slightly more favorable.
Once again we left the car in the rain. The track was easy at first and then the stairs began. They were quite ridiculous and never-ending. 1800 stairs I later found out are on this trail to the amazing view at Sealy Tarns. A tarn is a small mountain lake or pond. This vantage point is approximately halfway.
When you are anxious, physical pain is actually secondary to the issues most worrying you. We pressed on in pain because we knew we had to make a decision. We would go as far as we felt safe and if we felt we should turn back for safety we would do it.
Our goal was Mueller hut, a backcountry hut in Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park. The current hut is actually the 5th hut built in the general location. The hut sits at 1800 m and offers panoramic views of Mt. Cook and the surrounding mountains and glaciers. Originally the huts were used primarily by skiers wanting to ski down the nearby Mueller glacier. Previous huts were destroyed by avalanche or simply rebuilt and modernized. The present hut was built in 2003 and opened by Sir Edmund Hillary, the famous mountaineer. The hut is bright red in color and sleeps about 20.
After leaving Sealy Tarns, the trail changed dramatically. Gone were the perfectly crafted stairs. Now posts in the ground simply led straight up the side of the mountain along loose and broken rock. Gradually small piles of snow along the trail turned into larger piles of snow. The wind was unreal. Gusts would cause you to fall to all fours to keep from being seemingly blown off the side of the mountain. Rain was falling but this soon turned to freezing rain and then snow as we climbed. We geared up with our clothing brought for this exact purpose.
There were people coming down the mountain and I probed each of them for information about what lay ahead. Their beta was not all that encouraging.
“It’s is really cold up there. My hands went numb. And I had gloves on.”
“You’re going to find about 18″ of snow up there and that’s when you’ll have to decide if you really want to put your nose down and keep going or turn back.”
We kept taking steps forward and we checked on everyone at many stages. Everyone seemed to be doing fine.
Soon we did reach the deep snow and at this point, we really just came to the conclusion that we were pot committed. Better to trudge through it and get to the hut rather than walk all the way back and still have no place to stay for the night. Everyone was on board with this plan.
We were warned about a boulder field. Here there was a section with large boulders hidden by snow which were basically extremely uneven terrain. We were told to test each step before committing otherwise your foot may slip through for 3-4 feet and you could fall over or worse get injured. This was nerve wracking, but we thankfully had some other tracks to follow. You could occasionally see a huge boot print leading deep into the snow and knew someone else had this experience.
Next was a scree slope. We were getting close to a ridge and we were told after the ridge that the trail got easier. The scree slope covered in snow though looked like if you slipped you might slide a considerable distance before stopping. We dug our toes in briskly to build a mini staircase up the slope and this worked well.
The scariest part for me was crossing the ridge. The wind was gusting so hard over the ridge and there was a huge slope. I imagined that one slip here would lead to a long slide down the mountain and I wasn’t sure how you would stop yourself. I went up first and made it fairly easily, but I wanted to be close to the rest of my family to help if needed. They all made it over the top without incident and I felt a strong sense of relief.
The final stage was not nearly as steep but by this point the wind and snow was howling and visibility was minimal. There are posts in the ground that you follow that are like blazes on trails at home. We followed each post one at a time. The walking was easier, but the weather was actually worse. We had no idea if we were close or not.
Then Walden said “that looks like a building ahead!” The hut emerged from the clouds.
We were so excited and staring celebrating. We pushed on with renewed energy. When we arrived the door was like that of a safe–heavy and secure. There was snow pushed up against the entry point. We managed to open it and took off our drenched boots and rain gear.
Upon entering there were several people already there. They all joked about the hike up and our amazing views. There were none.
There were two friendly Danes who were sleeping in the back of their rental car while traveling New Zealand. There was the eccentric Dutch girl who was just happy that making it to the hut was a proper adventure. There was an Indian fellow and a quiet Asian girl.
We went to make hot chocolate, but realized we forgot our pot. No problem, the Danes had us covered. The hot cocoa warmed our insides and we settle into the experience.
The hut was cold, but much better than outside. Relief from the wind made the hut our refuge.
Soon a large group of older Czechs showed up. They plopped down in the room we chose. Gradually more showed up and we experienced immediate camaraderie as we all knew what we had just done to get here.
The night was spent cooking, eating, sharing experiences and star gazing. Amazingly the snowstorm stopped and the skies cleared revealing a most amazing display of stars. New Zealand’s South Island is dedicated to science and nature. They have designated this region a sky park, meaning light pollution is kept to extremely low levels. This is one of the last remaining places on Earth to see an unaltered night sky. This night did not disappoint. The Milky Way and countless stars were visible. Mt. Cook began to peak in and out of clouds. I went numb going outside, but we couldn’t resist. This was all too special. We all realized it.
We slept in until around 8 or so and the sun was blazing through the windows of the hut. I looked out and saw blue skies and white snow. It was still cold and windy but the weather had changed dramatically. We made coffee and started making plans. We decided to hike up Mt. Ollivierr. This is a short scramble up an unmarked nearby mountain. Interestingly, this is the first mountain that Sir Edmund Hillary ever summited. He would later conquer Mt. Cook and ultimately Mt. Everest.
Ella has emerged as a true adventurer. She was determined that she would summit a real mountain. The skies were clear and the winds were still raging. This was not a trail but a rock scramble through snowy and now icy boulders with cliffs down one side. At one point the rocks required significant maneuvers and Walden and Alison were content to turn back. The view from here was still incredible. Ella was determined to press on and so we made it onwards and eventually summited. Of course there are no kids on top and the view was extremely rewarding. The sense of confidence and accomplishment she felt was immense. We took some photos and savored the moment and then made it back safely to the hut.
The rocky start, the adversity we overcame to make it to the hut and the ultimate magical alpine experience all collided to lift us as a family. I would venture to say this was our “peak” experience on this RTW trip.