Mueller Hut has been on our ‘must do’ list for quite a while now. Located at 1800m on the Sealy Range in Mount Cook National Park, it provides 360 degree views of glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks. With our newly acquired mountaineering skills, we felt it would be a great challenge to tackle it in winter and adventure test the new Kathmandu.
As New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,724m, Aoraki/Mount Cook draws a lot of ambitious climbers who attempt a summit. Although a bit out of our league for now, it is definitely on our ‘dream list’ that we hope to achieve one day.
During our travels we’ve been to Mount Cook village on a few occasions, but every time it was shrouded in clouds and were never able to clearly see the iconic peak. Our desire grew even more after seeing our friend Liz’s photos of her incredible weekend at Mueller Hut last May. We finally planned a quick weekend adventure to explore the mountains around Mueller Hut, hoping for good weather…and boy did it deliver!
After a Friday night flight to Christchurch after work we drove to Mount Cook village for the night. Up early eager to start our adventure, we took a drive out to White Horse Hill car park to snap a few photos while we waited for the DOC office to open. In the winter while there are no bookings required, you do need to stop into the DOC office to pay for your hut fees (unfortunately they don’t take pre-bookings over the phone) and sign the intentions book. We were initially a bit disappointed in the delay in getting on the track, but it ended up working out even better as we got to relax and take in the colorful sunrise and allow the track to become more lit as the sun came over the mountains.
It was incredible finally seeing Mount Cook in all its glory. I can see why this mountain hypnotises many climbers as there’s something about it that draws you in. In the distance the crashing sound of avalanches echoed through the Hooker Valley as massive chucks of glacier ice crumbled down Mount Sealy. I was glad we had rented Avalanche Beacons as nothing is predictable when you’re dealing with the raw elements of mother nature.
Once we were signed in and had our last look at the forecast, we parked the car and headed up the Kea Point Track through the valley. Turning off towards Sealy Tarns the track started off quite gentle through the frosted shrubs until we hit the bottom of Mueller Range. From here we began our steep ascent up the 1,800 steps towards Sealy Tarns.
With each set of stairs it brought an even more beautiful view of the Hooker Valley and its colorful lakes below. It was really tough not stopping every few minutes to just take it all in – I literally had to pinch myself – is this real??
We slogged on up through the stairs, getting into a rhythm with each step. As we climber higher towards Sealy Tarns the snow level began to show and the stairs got a lot icier! It was tempting to want to throw on our crampons to get a better grip, but with little snow in between stairs, it was best to just carefully step with our boots. Looking back we could now see all the way to the Mueller Glacier, Hooker Glacier and the glacier valley that feeds Lake Pukaki.
After nearly 2 hours the stairs finally ended and we took a quick break at the picnic table at Sealy Tarns. The mountain ponds were frozen over so I was tempted to test the ice, but seeing a few puncture holes I didn’t venture too far.
From here the real climb began. The first section was a rock scramble through icy patches and tussock. At this point the weight on our packs was beginning to settle in but we pushed up through the track towards the true snow line. The next section before we hit the saddle was normally a large boulder field followed by a scree slope, but with a blanket of snow it was just a steep stomp upwards, unknowing what was beneath us. We heard later on from some friends we met in the hut that it was much easier to navigate through now than in the summer months!
We nearly put on our crampons at this point, but knew once we reached the skyline ridgeline we weren’t far from the hut. Although it would have made the climb a bit easier, we pushed through the toughest part of the track, punching through the snow at a few surprising rock holes along the way. Once we hit the top an incredible glacier valley below Mount Sefton surrounded us. Can you see the pure bliss that was written all over Jordan’s face?
Walking along the basin, we headed left through a gentle climb towards the hut. As we neared the corner the beautiful bright red hut came into view, perched on the plateau and elevated above the ground for protection against the snow fall. I immediately thought – “Could this be the most beautiful hut in New Zealand?” – YES I think so!
We raced up to the hut the final few hundred meters and were happy to unload the weight in our packs. The snow had already built up quite a bit on the large deck surrounding the hut, but luckily the door was clear requiring no shoveling to get inside. We grabbed one of the 28 bunk beds in the hut and headed back outside to explore the area.
It’s pretty hard to put into words just how beautiful it was. We couldn’t have had a more perfect day and as we frolicked through the snow it was like we were kids again back in Canada. Gosh I miss snow. Something about it just brings me back to my childhood, building snow forts and sledding down hills. I love it! I truly feel at home being surrounded by snow and when the sun is shining too – I can’t think of a more perfect day.
As we walked along the ridgeline, taking in the view of Mount Sefton and its incredible ice-shelf, several avalanches echoed through the valley, stopping us in our tracks every time. The sound draws out a slight fascination to watch the shelf of snow barrel down the rock face, but it also sends a small shiver down your spine as you think about what you would do if you were faced with a wall of snow coming at you.
On the backside of the plateau you can see part of the 13 kilometer Mueller Glacier sweeping down the valley. Similar to Fox Glacier on the West Coast, years of melting have resulted in it beginning to retreat and gravel covers the top of the glacier. In the distance, Mount Sealy was a tempting target for tomorrow’s adventure, but with a bit of a storm forecast for the morning, it was unlikely we would be able to venture that far. Also, with some glacier crossings required along the route we figured it was best to wait till we’re done more training with the NZ Alpine Club this winter.
With the sun already behind the mountain at 4pm, we headed back to the hut to start dinner and enjoy the sunset. The sun had warmed the water tank enough that it wasn’t frozen over so we were able to easily grab water to boil our dehydrated meals.
One luxury we normally have is a stove, but since the hut is located in a true alpine environment, managing firewood or coal just isn’t an option. With the temperature expected to drop to -14C overnight we could already feel we were going to have to #EmbraceTheCold! Luckily we had lots of Kathmandu gear to keep us warm so I ‘doubled down’ and put on my down jacket and then crawled in my down sleeping bag as I enjoyed the room with a view!
Throughout the night you could hear the wind howling as it shook the hut. In no hurry to get up in the morning, we enjoyed a bit of a sleep in as we waited for the weather to clear up. Not a bad view to wake up to in the morning, seeing a fresh blanket on snow on the ground outside!
When we finally ventured from the comfort of our sleeping bags, we were surprised to find the water tank had frozen overnight. Note to self: ALWAYS fill up your water bottles before bed. Lesson learned 🙂
We literally didn’t have a drop left, but it wasn’t a concern as there was heaps of snow to melt and plenty of gas in the hut. Jordan was the snow runner while I tended to the pots, putting just enough in to melt and slowly raise to boiling temperature. It’s about a 10 to 1 ratio of snow to water that is required to get enough to boil for food, so Jordan had to make several trips outside for me 🙂
Just after 10am the weather began to clear so we took off on an adventure heading up to Mount Ollivier with our crampons and ice axe. A short 100m climb we made it to the top in no time and were already rewarded with some pretty incredible views. Although the west was still covered in quite a bit of cloud, the Hooker Valley and out to Lake Pukaki were crystal clear. Looking back at the hut you could really see the plateau it was perched on as the sun tried to push its way through the clouds.
A popular side trip from the hut, many people only make it to the ‘false’ summit as the true summit is quite a scramble further to the Mount Ollivier marker. Although it does provide some fantastic views, with lots of time on our hands we wanted to explore further.
Carrying along the Sealy Range, we navigated our way through the snow, stopping every few minutes to snap a photo and take in the view! I mean with this surrounding us how could we not!
A word of caution though to those wanting to explore Mueller Hut in the winter. It really is best to have experience with crampons and an ice axe because venturing much further than the top of the hill behind Mueller Hut will provide exposure that I wouldn’t take a chance on with just boots. We’ve had some training with the NZ Alpine Club and have gone on a few club trips, but are just at a point where we feel comfortable doing some exploring on our own. As the first trip of the season by ourselves, we were cautious and careful with every step as we continued on to the pile of rocks marking the true Mount Ollivier summit. With the weather continuing to improve, Mount Cook became clear again in the distance above the Hooker Valley.
From here the real adventure began. Reading the description of how to reach Mount Kitchener, it suggested following the ridgeline, but with steep exposures and boulders still protruding from the snow, we decided to take a chance on a lower route.
Faced with a few sketchy sections, it definitely got my heart racing. Despite my nerves, I overcame the fear and just concentrated on my foot steps as I cut my crampons into the steep mountain. One section even required a reverse front point to make it down – the first time I needed to do that since we summited Te Ao Whekere in the Kaikouras last season.
Navigating our way up and over a few ridgelines, we finally made it into the valley for our final ascent through a recent avalanche shoot. It wasn’t ideal, but with our avalanche beacons on (and shovel and probe strapped to our packs just incase) we began our climb up while keeping our eyes on the conditions.
Zig-zagging our way towards the top, the wind began to pick up. With a last traverse along a narrow ridge we finally made it to what we thought was Mount Kitchener, but it ended up being another false summit as the true summit appeared in the distance. With time running out in the day, we weren’t able to go further instead deciding to leave that for another day.
With the wind blowing pretty hard at the top, I was stoked to have my new XT Alopex Goretex Jacket. My first purchase in New Zealand was a Kathmandu rain jacket, but when they didn’t have my size in the Gore-Tex one I settled for an everyday rain jacket. Although it has served me well over the last 2 years, I had no idea what I was missing! Waterproof, windproof and lightweight, it helped keep the weather out while regulating my temperature with its front and armpit zips for ventilation. I also LOVED the color. Not only is red my favorite color, it really ‘popped’ in our photos against the snow and definitely stood out against the amazing scenery. With Jordan’s matching blue jacket we make for a pretty good-looking pair now!
We wished we could have stayed longer, but reluctantly turned around and began to retrace our footsteps back down the ridge and through the shoot. The way back though was much faster and way more fun! Still requiring some concentration, we at least could run down the hill ‘cowboy style’ making great time. Once we reached the valley, instead of heading back up the exposed areas, we decided to traverse along the lower edge of the ridge and pop up on the other side just behind the hut.
This route proved to be much faster and easier than our adventure over the top. We would definitely take this expedited route next time if we were trying to push further to another summit. With blue skies now back in the entire valley, the hut glistened in the sunlight.
Cooking up a quick meal before we packed up for the day, we enjoyed our last bit of time enjoying the views as the sun tucked itself behind the mountains again. Leaving just after 4pm we knew we were in a race against the light in hopes of getting back to our car before dark. This time we left our crampons on for most of the way down, which made the steep descent much faster than the slog on the way up.
We hit Sealy Tarns in less than 45 minutes and just in time to enjoy one last sunset. Taking off our crampons for the next bit, we raced down the stairs in record time. We reached our car just before 6pm and with just enough light to not need our headlamps.
This was by far the best weekend we’ve had in New Zealand. Beautiful scenery, epic weather, all in one of New Zealand’s most incredible alpine environments. The experience has already filled us with an urge to come back and explore more of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park!