Mt Cook: Tramping in the foothills of NZ's 'cloud piercer'

By Paul Rush

A view of Aoraki/Mt Cook from the Hermitage. Photo / Paul Rush
A view of Aoraki/Mt Cook from the Hermitage. Photo / Paul Rush

For many people the lofty snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps are places of mystery and awe.

The world of the late Sir Edmund Hillary seems a remote and unattainable realm. Sir Ed honed his considerable mountaineering skills on the precipitous slopes of Mt Cook and nearby Mt Olivier was the very first peak he conquered.

I was distinctly out of tune with the high country above the snowline, until I took a summer holiday at Mt Cook.

My first tentative steps into this alpine world involved setting up a tent camp at White Horse Hill, near Mt Cook Village.

For ten days I set out each morning to climb a high ridge, tramp to a glacial lake or cross an alpine pass. Every evening I rewarded myself with a pint of Speights beer in The Hermitage lounge and watched the sunset infuse Mt Cook's jagged summit with a pale pink glow.

These daily sojourns in high places opened my eyes to a whole new alpine world. I discovered with delight, that any reasonably fit person can reach moderate heights and take in breathtaking views.

Testing myself physically and mentally with each day's challenge was a pure, wholesome, exhilarating experience. The daily reward of a cold beer was a great motivator.

At the foot of our highest mountain is a world carved by ice age glaciers that families and individuals can explore and enjoy in relative safety. The grand view from the valley floor and leading spurs is just as emotive of feelings of awe, respect and humility, as the vista from the summit. The monarch of the peaks is also the monarch of the glen.

This special place has magnetic attraction for all who love the outdoors. It is not only the exclusive domain of climbers. Trampers, photographers, sightseers and family groups can also take pleasure in the foothills and valleys of the Southern Alps.

Mt Cook is nature's grandest scheme in New Zealand and one of our greatest icons. Geologist and explorer, Julius Von Haast described the mountain as 'majestic in its sheeted splendour of ice, and awe-inspiring in its tremendous height.'

Samuel Butler, the sheep farmer and author, was 'struck almost breathless by the wonderful mountain that bursts upon my sight'.

My starting point for the Mt Cook tramps was Kea Point lookout. This superb location has ever-changing views. In soft evening light, Mt Cook's permanent ice fields appear to be melting, but in fact they are locked in frozen splendour.

By contrast Mt Sefton's whipped cream-like fields, directly above Kea Point, are alive - rumbling and cracking in a constant state of avalanche.

Local bush walks are also a delight. Glencoe Walk behind the Hermitage, Governor's Bush and Bowen Bush, near the pubic shelter building and the Blue Lakes and Tasman Moraine Lake, are on easy, graded paths and offer great views.

The Mueller Hut trip consists of a steep staircase climb, taking one-and-a-half hours to the Sealy Tarns terrace and a similar time from there to the hut. The views are astounding and it is worth staying overnight to view the sunrise.

The Hooker Moraine Walk is an absolute must and leads almost to the base of Mt Cook. It also brings you face to face with the process of glaciation. Rocks are everywhere - glacial moraine walls, giant scree slopes, black rock ramparts, and jumbled rocks on the path itself. Curiously shaped icebergs float serenely on the satin-smooth terminal moraine lake - a scene frozen in time.

Mount Sebastopol is an ideal first climb. The Red Tarns are reached after one hour. These small alpine pools reflect the snow-capped peaks and are named for their copper-coloured pondweed. As you approach the summit, the Hooker and Tasman Valleys open up, revealing an unforgettable panorama.

The Ball Pass Crossing links the Tasman and Hooker Valleys as a guided trip. It is a transition from tramping to climbing, and involves a technical change from Leki pokes to ice axe and crampons.

Our group stayed overnight on the Ball Ridge, beneath the avalanche-prone Caroline Face. It is hard to imagine a more in-your-face mountain vista.

A tramping holiday at Mt Cook offers a complete change of scene. The challenges are quite physical but the personal awards go much deeper.

Everyone can take their pleasure in the foothills and valleys of Mt Cook.

Who knows what life-changing experiences may come from a holiday at the feet of 'The Cloud Piercer'.

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