An aerial grand traverse of Mount Cook offers a new high peak perspective, writes Paul Rush.
Like many Kiwis, I have always nurtured a personal desire to climb our highest mountain. From my first glimpse of the Cook Range, I have been in awe of its iconic status, its triple-peak symmetry and its massive snow-packed flanks that seem to beckon lovers of the outdoors.
Realistically I know that a summit ascent is too great a physical challenge for me - a mission impossible. However, all is not lost for those, like myself, who aspire to reach for the monarch of the alps. At Fox and Franz Josef glacier townships there are a number of fixed-wing and helicopter operators who can whisk you up to view the rock and ice buttresses of our highest peak.
The West Coast hills are alive to the sound of music — the rhythmic thwacking of helicopter rotor blades reverberating in the crisp mountain air. And with good reason as flight-seeing is a great way to experience the alpine grandeur of the Southern Alps mountain peaks and glaciers.
At Franz Joseph Airport I step inside the perspex bubble of a sightseeing helicopter and rise like a phoenix into the bright shafts of morning sunlight.
The visibility on this still, clear day is unbelievable. Vast ice fields glisten in the sun; pristine, pure and frozen in time.
The vertical take-off is so quick and efficient, it's almost imperceptible.
In one swift heli-lift we are transported from sea level to 2600 metres, following the line of the Fox Glacier icefall. For a moment we hover above the vast catchment area of the glacier, known as the nevé and then we gently alight on the surface in a flurry of snowflakes.
When I step out and sink into the soft, smooth of this high alpine snow field, I realise what a still, silent, desolate world it is — magnificent in blazing sunlight but how desperately unforgiving it must be in a raging storm.
We wander about in a lightheaded way absorbing the atmosphere. The young couple with me are in a playful mood, falling backwards into the soft embrace of the snow with their arms stretched out wide. The silence of the nevé is profound. It's such a novel feeling to enjoy the sheer exhilaration of being so high in the mountains.
Reluctantly we clamber aboard the helicopter and take-off, skimming over the surface in a swirling mist of fine, white powder.
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are living remnants of the ice ages. They have carved out a spectacular landscape on their inexorable advance down the valley to the remarkably low altitude of 300 metres above sea level.
They are the progeny of the "Roaring Forties", a band of winds that consistently bring weather fronts onto the West Coast. Rainclouds are forced to rise over the Southern Alps, thereby cooling and precipitating most of their moisture as rain and snow. Up to 30 metres of snow falls on the nevé every year.
This compacted snow forms blue ice that is funnelled down the valley under its own weight and momentum. Basal sliding over the bottom layer of water speeds up the process and this milky water spills out under the glacier's terminal face on its short, wild journey to the sea.
From the Franz Joseph nevé we soar upwards to 3500 metres and swing around the main divide towards Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. We are on the Grand Traverse, the granddaddy of all scenic flights, flying at eye-level past the sheer west face of Mt Cook.
I'm entranced by the glorious close-up view of the Caroline Face — so close it seems that I could reach out and touch the shining snows of our highest peak. The view of the summit ridge is especially dramatic, with every feature of the mountain so clear; crevasses, crevices, gorges, ice fields. The steep rock and ice faces are so precipitous you wonder how a mountaineer could gain a foothold on them.
The shimmering white-on-white scene has a remarkable polar clarity and I can see inside ice sheets, which are suffused with electric blue colour due to the pressure the ice is subjected to. Puffs of fluffy cloud seem suspended on the summit ridge as if hung up on some jagged crag under a flawless blue sky.
We glide around the upper flanks of Mt Tasman, where black rock buttresses glisten with moisture in the harsh sunlight and then we dive headlong down the line of the Franz Joseph glacier following its descending contours towards the coast.
The glacier's surface is a jumble of pinnacles, crevasses and caves, caused by the uneven underlying bedrock that breaks up the ice flow. Some mounds of smooth snow look like scoops of pure ice cream and others appear as soft as pavlova. It's a truly beautiful scene.
All too soon we are back on the tarmac, but the photographs and memories will remain. To see every detail of New Zealand's highest landscape with an eagle's-eye view is a matchless experience, the perfect complement to a visit to the West Coast.
A number of helicopter and fixed-wing scenic flight companies operate from Fox and Franz Joseph townships. They offer a range of flights from a ten minute short hop over the nearest glacier to a fifty minute traverse of Aoraki/Mt Cook.