For a long time, I thought Mount Cook was a big deal. Like, huge… it must be like 25,000 feet, right? I mean, it’s the tallest mountain in a country of mountains, the tallest in Australasia, in fact, a region that I thought had plenty of big volcanos (though to be honest I’m a bit fuzzy on what exactly qualifies as “Australasian”).
Fueling my image of the mountain, it has such an iconic place in mountaineering, spoken of with a reverence otherwise heard only about the Himalayan monsters. It was where Hillary (Sir Ed, not Clinton) trained before tackling Everest. It’s claimed a lot of lives and limbs, including the two legs of the mountaineer Mark Inglis (who lost them to frostbite but went on to summit Everest as the first double amputee, which is pretty amazing when you think of how most of us couldn’t get halfway up the mountain on two good legs)…
Well, it’s not that big.
Standing at 3754 meters (that works out to about 12,300 feet or so), Mt. Cook is actually shorter than Byers Peak, a mountain I’ve climbed, fer crissakes. On a day hike. No crampons (or cramps) involved. (And yes, Byers Peak is the mountain by which I measure all others. I became quite smitten with it when I lived in Colorado. For the record Byers is 12,800 feet high, give or take.)
So what’s all the hullabaloo about?
Well, for starters, Mt. Cook’s Maori name, Aoraki, is pretty cool… it means “cloud piercer,” which is a much cooler name than, well, Mt. Cook (apologies to the good Captain but come on, does he have to have everything named after him?). And when you see it in person, it is a beautiful, commanding mountain, with a tangible presence that many taller mountains don’t have.
And, standing within a few kilometers of its base, looking up and following the lines of the rock, the thick stretches of rumpled blue-white ice, the improbable prickly angles of its ridges, the ice cornices and sheer drops, even someone with virtually no mountaineering experience (like me) would come to the conclusion: damn, that would be a bitch to climb.
So mad props to all the brave souls who have climbed it. Me, I stayed on the ground, starting my visit with an early morning hike up Hooker Valley to the lake of the same name, the end point for, yep, Hooker Glacier. The views across the lake to Aoraki were stunning, though. Next I did a short hike to Kea Point to gawk at the Huddleston, Stocking and Mueller glaciers. The Mueller is an ugly, dirty, spent-looking glacier but the Huddleston and Stocking were picturesquely draped around the shoulders of Mt. Sefton and The Footstool in blinding blue-white. In a few spots, you could see long horizontal creases and cracks that suggested an impending avalanche, though none transpired. Dang it.
My next destination was the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre which I have to say was the only disappointment of the day. Even with my YHA discount it cost me NZ$21 for a couple rooms with some questionable exhibits, including one on uniforms at the hotel that hosts the centre. There was also a 3D movie about Mt. Cook that might have been cool but had the worst music and weird pacing and, quite frankly, cheesy effects.
There wasn’t much on Hillary himself, aside from an interesting documentary on the Everest ascent and a lifesize model you could “measure up to.” There were bits and pieces on other Cook climbers (that’s where I learned about Inglis), some of them very curiously done. The poster about Freda du Faur, for example, the first woman to have summited Mt. Cook, noted that she ignored conventions of the day and camped at night with men while climbing the mountain. Okay. Interesting note. But then the next paragraph was inexplicably in bold and said she had no interest in men at all and later had a long-term relationship with another woman. Uhm, ok… I wasn’t sure whether they included that tidbit, in bold print no less, as “see! we’re progressive! we can talk about lesbians openly!” or, conversely, “see? we knew something just wasn’t right about her all along… freaky chick mountain climber…”
There was also a poster on Duncan Darroch, an “eccentric” lover and painter of the mountains who lived alone in a hut for decades with only his dog for company. The tone of that particular display was “talented painter, but a bit of a nutter… and what a loser never to have married!” Though I say, good on you, Duncan. You rock. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I also liked his paintings quite a bit, as well as the fact that he refused to sell any to people who smoked!
From the disappointing Centre it was a quick stop at The Old Mountaineers’ Cafe for a tasty pumpkin ginger soup which had a deliciously generous amount of ginger in it and a tasty, peppery cheese scone, not to mention a spectacular view of Mt. Cook. Tip: if you’re visiting, stop there for lunch and instead of blowing bucks on the Hillary Centre, spend time at the Department of Conservation Visitor Center. Gobs of good information and displays and totally free. If only I’d gone there first…
I drove out to the Tasman Glacier carpark and spent some time on the trail there. It’s New Zealand’s longest and biggest glacier but the bit you can see at the terminus looks more like Mordor than the scrumptious blue-white whipped cream of Huddleston and Stocking (I always think glaciers like that would taste delicious… like minty Italian meringue or something… mmmmmm…).