Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Aoraki Mount Cook area

Aoraki Mount Cook

The decision we made a couple of weeks ago not to go to the Aoraki Mount Cook area because of rain turned out to be the right one, as our return this time was absolutely perfect summer weather with clear blue skies and a light breeze, but a little too warm, up in the low to mid thirties degrees C! Additionally, it seems to have really settled in, with no sign of the high pressure system centred over us going away, much to the surprise of people here. Normally good weather in this area lasts for only a couple of days they tell us, so we are blessed with continuing good weather.

Aoraki Mount Cook and the Hooker Glacier & Lake
We’ve had three days and two nights in the DoC (Department of Conservation) basic campsite in an ideal position at the foot of the Hooker glacier, lake and river coming directly off Aoraki Mount Cook. We couldn’t stop any longer as our campervan has only enough battery reserve to power the fridge and lights for this period of time without external power (our indicator showed ‘poor’ battery level this morning, so it was time to move somewhere where electricity was available. We’re now 40 minutes drive away on a site still with great views of Aoraki Mount Cook).

An iceberg on the Hooker Lake
Aoraki Mount Cook (Jackie thinks it looks like a 'grumpy old man'
We used our three days well (we think), taking a three hour walk (which took us 2.5hours) to the foot of the Hooker glacier on our first afternoon, which is as near to Aoraki Mount Cook as we could get without climbing. It’s a well used track that crosses the rivers over two dramatic swing bridges and finishes in a delightful setting by the Hooker lake with excellent views of the glacier and Aoraki Mount Cook (equally dramatic was to see how far the glacier has retreated, it was like looking at a teacup full of ice in a litre glass!). On our first evening it was very satisfying to eat our sausage casserole followed by apple crumble and custard (and a chilled bottle of white wine) previously prepared at our last camp! What a great end to the day.
The DoC campsite

Close up - our van top middle. Can you see Jackie sitting outside (dark pink top) looking at her emails?
Sunrise in the campsite
For the next day I really wanted to trek up to the Mueller Hut and on to Mount Ollivier, mainly as it’s a great (but very strenuous) walk, but also because Mount Ollivier was the first mountain climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary in about 1939 and he officially opened the new (fifth) Mueller Hut in 2003. To my relief Jackie agreed and to my astonishment she also agreed to my suggested 7:00am start (she admitted later that she expected me to propose an even earlier start, hence her quick agreement)!

Having a rest halfway
The track actually starts from the campsite along a prepared gravel path, relatively flat for the first 15 minutes and then straight up! The first half is a very well prepared track with wooden steps for most of the way up to ‘Sealy Tarns’, a flat area with two small lakes (tarns) and superb views over the Mueller lake (formerly the glacier!), Aoraki Mount Cook and the Hooker glacier, lake and river, right out to Lake Pukaki. Jackie saw a note on the first step which read ‘Only 1810 steps to go’. So glad we started before sunup, but we were in direct sun from about 8:00am, although not too hot at that time of day. 

On the ridge finally
From Sealy Tarns to Mueller Hut (another 3 hours the book said) the path becomes an uneven path, of the type we’re more used to, weaving up over scree and snow fields, marked by orange posts every 25m or so. It was relentlessly up in ever strengthening sun and we were so glad to reach the ridge and have the path level out a bit (although still 20minutes to the hut). We were also rewarded with new views down to the Mueller glacier (which looked like a solid river of gravel!).

Final approach to the hut
Just to prove it!

Yours truly on Mount Ollivier with Aoraki Mount Cook in the background
We arrived at the hut just after 9:30am, so it took us just over 2.5hours (4.5hours book time) and had time for a drink and something to eat in the huts kitchen and enjoy the quite superb views, before ascending Mount Ollivier, another 30minute scramble (sometimes quite exposed) from directly behind the hut. It was worth it as we could see 360 degrees all around, including the campsite with our little van a long way below. It was nice to follow in the footsteps of Sir Ed and think that perhaps I was grasping the same rocks he had all those years ago.
View from the hut - Aoraki Mount Cook in the centre
Tikapu/Mt Cook lilly
It seems that most people who go up stop a night in the hut, most only to walk back down the following morning, others to do a bit of climbing nearby (although there seems precious little of it and not worth the bother), but we headed straight back down, being back at our van by about 1:00pm, having passed many people on their way up, most looking none too good in the high heat of the day (what were they thinking starting at that time of day?). The remainder of our day was spent reading and relaxing!

A black mountain ringlet butterfly on (possibly) South Island Edelweiss

Or this might be South Island Edelweiss (I'm not sure)
Wingless alpine grasshopper

Jackie about to start up pitch 3
This morning we went climbing at Sebastopol  Bluffs, a mountain crag 2km from the campsite (and in amongst spectacular scenery). There we did a bolted route called ‘Red Arete’ which is potentially a 6 pitch climb of easy grade 14/15. Pitch 6 isn’t bolted, so we just did the 5 pitches, of which Jackie did the first 2 together making it 4 pitches in all. It’s a three star climb and, although quite easy for us, was exposed and dramatic, finishing high up on the cliff with great views all around, but in full view of a midday sun! We considered other slightly harder climbs alongside, but thought better of it as it was so incredibly hot and we worried about sunstroke, so we headed off to Glentanner campsite, mentioned at the start of this entry. 
At the top

A very rare Rock Wren we saw in the DoC campsite
Another one photographed today

An inquisitive pheasant, while I type!
Unfortunately we are being bitten by sandflies and can’t go into the van as its too hot in there! But there’s also Rock Wrens (very rare apparently) and pheasants about so we’re quite happy! Tomorrow we’ll either head off, or return to Sebastopol Bluffs early on for another climb, we haven’t decided yet. Nearly time for an evening beer I think!

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