Walk 22 - Mueller's Hut


It was a curious morning as we headed out from Tekapo across the broad treeless Mackenzie Country toward Mt Cook; whisps of fog hung over the still surface of Lake Pukaki and, at its far end, we could barely make out the faint shape of Aoraki/Mt Cook*, the snow-capped peaks merging into the background of pale high clouds. We were heading in to do a day trip up to Mueller's Hut, perched high on ridge overlooking the Mueller Glacier and facing the massive walls of 3151m Mt Sefton, just up from 3754m Aoraki itself. This is probably as close as you can get to New Zealand's highest peak without specialised gear and training. Originally, we had planned an overnight trip to the hut, but the weather forecast was not promising from the end of the day on, so we decided on a day-trip instead. A 1000m climb and descent in a day would test how fit all this tramping had made us.

* The peak, like many of New Zealand's geographic features now officially has a bilingual Maori/English duonym (I will abbreviate this to Aoraki - nothing political, it just sounds better)

Looking up the Tasman Valley toward Mt Haidinger (3066m)
and The Minarets (3040m)

From the White Horse Campground, we joined the well-worn track across the scrubby flat to Kea Point, destination of hundreds of tourists each day to get a view over the terminus of the Mueller Glacier and Aoraki/Mt Cook. However, shortly before the actual point, a fork in the track signalled the route to Mueller's Hut. We looked up, took in the sight of spur towering over us, and began the climb.

Ridge up to Mueller's Hut on the left

Lake full of icebergs at the base of Mueller's glacier

View over the glacial plain
The first part of the track was the steepest, climbing up through a low rocky shrubland, assisted by several series of wooden steps, often with the soil washed out from in between. Below, we could see the river flowing out of an ice cave beneath the gravel covered terminus of Mueller Glacier, to flow into an iceberg-filled lake, behind which lay the Hooker Glacier and Aoraki. With each few metres of height gained, the view changed, gradually exposing the dull green-grey waters of Hooker Lake at the base of the glacier above and showing different aspects of Aoraki itself. The flat mountain-lined glacial plain heading out to Lake Pukaki and the meandering braids of the Hooker River took on a broader form as we climbed.

Mountain daisy
After an hour, we reached the Sealy Tarns, the nearest thing to a bit lf level terrain on the climb and a great place to rest and admire the views, especially that of the Mt Sefton glacers reflected in the still waters of a tarn. From here the climb became a little less steep, but a lot more uneven and rocky as the way up changed officially from a track to a route across a steep slope of tussock grass and herb fields. A flock of keas circled us as we climbed this section before landing on nearby rocky ledges, their plaintiff calls and curious cackles the sole sounds to break the enormous silence of this mountain landscape.

Reflections of Frind Glacier in Sealy Tarn

The kea - king of the mountains

View from the rock jumble over the plain

Crossing the scree slope
We pressed on upward, across a large jumble of boulders and over a steep slope of loose scree, before finally cresting the ridge and coming face-to-face with the imposing glacier-clad eastern face of Mt Sefton. A loud rumble from across the valley signalled another avalanche of ice and snow from one of the glaciers into the valley far below. To the south we could see the smooth dark gravel covered shape of Mueller Glacier, flowing down between steep peaks on either side, while to the north, the sun glinted on the cols of Aoraki.

Panorama from Mt Sefton and its glaciers to Aoraki

Aoraki and the the Hooker Glacier flowing into
Hooker Lake

Some alpine flora and fauna

Turning south, we followed a line of cairns through a tan-coloured rocky landscape along the gently rising ridge, a few gentians and cushion plants in the gaps providing a splash of colour, until the shape of Mueller's Hut perched at 1805m appeared below the rock jumble of Mt Ollivier.

The incredible alpine setting of Mueller's Hut

Frind Glacier

Mueller's Hut

Several more glaciers on the face
of Mt Sefton

From the deck of the hut, the views were awesome in all directions as we sat, listening to, and occasionally seeing, the avalanches crashing off the steep walls across the valley of the glacier. It is impossible to describe the impact that such a powerful landscape has; we simply sat there and let it infuse our spirits.

Cloud billowing over the Southern Alps

The face of Ngakanohi Glacier

Panorama of the Mt Cook and Liebig Ranges

Close-up of the peak of Aoraki (3754m)

Malte Brun Range

But all good things are finite and the clouds starting to spill over the tops of the divide warned us that it was time to leave. We still had a 1000m descent before the day was out. By the time we reached the Sealy Tarns again the top of Aoraki was slowly being enveloped in a soft band of cloud and a gentle drizzle had begun to fall - our time in this superb environment was over.

The route down seemed quicker than the climb up, but took almost as long as our knees started to complain about the continued jarring. Still, all great experiences should be earned and tomorrow we could rest our bodies as we relived our day in the alps in our minds.

Farewell to Aoraki