Weekend Wanderings: Aoraki/Mount Cook

This weekend we went on our first little adventure away from Wanaka in a couple of months.

Our last outing was to Brewster Hut back in March. The intervening weeks were spent showcasing the best of the South Island to my visiting parents and enjoying short walks along the Clutha River and day hikes down the East Matukituki Valley.

With winter closing in, we wanted to get a final weekend of hiking in before the snow arrives.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the Central Otago area recently and we were suffering from a bit of local beauty fatigue (tough life isn’t it?), so we took the trip to Mount Cook for a change of scene.

Last time we were at Aoraki/Mount Cook we were travelling to Christchurch to return our rental van. It was a quick, cloudy visit then and we’d always intended to make another trip to have a proper explore.

The sun was shining on a glorious, crisp winter morning as we set off on the two and a half hour drive from Wanaka.

Travelling through the modest mountains surrounding the Lindis Pass, towards the fluorescent blue Lake Pukaki, the 3,724m Aoraki/Mount Cook manages to remain hidden among the high peaks of the Southern Alps, only revealing itself as we near the top of the lake.

The tallest peak in New Zealand, it really is an impressive sight. Dominating the valley, Aoraki demands attention and respect. It’s a beautiful and imposing mountain, where the great Sir Edmund Hillary honed his alpine skills prior to his successful summit of Everest.

We wouldn’t be attempting anything quite as demanding as Hillary’s expeditions, but we’d be getting as close to the mountain as the paths would allow us.

We had planned two short hikes, both around three hour returns. Firstly, we wanted to walk the complete Hooker Valley Track. We’d walked a short portion of it on our last visit and were keen to complete the trail this time.

A fresh chill in the air, we set off along the gently meandering path that follows winding Hooker River, the frozen Mueller Lake on our left, separating us from the snow covered Mount Sefton.

As small avalanches were audible from Sefton’s slopes, our feet crunched through the snow and ice patches on the path. The low winter sun failing to reach some parts of the valley floor meant that there were some dicey patches of ground with frost in place from dawn to dusk. The frost forming delicate flower like structures on the rocks and plants around us added to the feeling that we were walking in a winter wonderland.

Mount Sefton stands tall and snow capped at Aoraki/Mount Cook
Mount Sefton

As we crossed the three bridges that zigzag the river, we turned a corner and there in front of us in all its majesty was Aoraki/Mount Cook with the largely frozen Hooker Lake at its base, dotted with icebergs.

A bridge over the Hooker River, with Mount Sefton in the background
A bridge over the Hooker River, with Mount Sefton in the background
Cairns on the shore of Hooker Lake
Cairns on the shore of Hooker Lake
Aoraki/Mount Cook
Aoraki/Mount Cook
Reaching the end point of the path, we sat and ate our lunch, watching the sunlight reflect off the south face of the mountain and skimming stones along the ice covered lake, the swirling rocks and ice chips creating alien whistles that echoed around the valley.

With the sun dipping below Mount Sefton not much later than 2pm, we headed back to the village to check in to our hostel before heading to the pub. Here we bumped into some fellow travellers we met the previous Saturday evening in a Wanaka bar and shared a few drinks again.

The sun sets at Mount Cook Village
The sun sets at Mount Cook Village

The next day we were up early in -6 degrees centigrade temperatures to wend our way up the 2200 steps of the Sealy Tarns Track.

The Sealy Tarns Track makes up half of the route to the Mueller Hut, somewhere that has been on our list for a while and where we will be staying in the Spring or Summer to come.

Expecting something as arduous as our Brewster Hut trek, the Sealy Tarns steps were a pleasantly simple surprise, providing ever improving views back towards Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Reaching the Sealy Tarns plateau, we had the hills to ourselves for about half an hour, joyously basking in the peace and stillness around us.

We’re extremely lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world and we’ll miss being able to hike during the winter. The snow will make the majority of tracks impassable.

However, with the snow comes the opportunity to enjoy the mountains in another way.

Soon we will begin learning to snowboard at Cardrona. We’ll be pioneering a new style of snowboarding where the participant spends the majority of their time falling on their arse. We’ll let you know how we get on.

And if that wasn’t enough excitement for one winter, we’ve got the small matter of a British Lions tour to enjoy. 

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