There is something grand and elevating about the high mountains of this planet. Himalaya, Andes, Alps – people visit these places to experience the surrealness, the cold otherworldly beauty of steep ice and rock peaks and massive glaciers. You do not have to be a climber or a mountaineer to appreciate it – tall rock, snow and ice walls have an enchanting power on anyone. However, if you are a mountain spirit, whether a hiker, climber, skier or runner, you will know exactly, what I’m talking about.
Mount Cook National Park is the crown jewel of New Zealand, with its highest peak – Mount Cook standing tall at 3,724 m. For anyone thinking that it is not that high, the Mount Cook village rests at 750 m altitude, which means that Mount Cook peak rises almost 3,000 m directly up. Although New Zealand Mountains might not seem impressive in their absolute elevation, their relative heights are. Whether it is Mount Aspiring National Park, Mount Cook National Park or any of the North Island volcanoes, such as Mount Ruapehu or Taranaki, the peaks rise steep and high from their surrounding valleys. Mount Cook National Park hosts tens of other impressive peaks, such as Mount Tasman and Malte Brun.
Mount Cook National Park is a land of rugged rock and ice, with steep mountains framing two impressive large glaciers – Tasman glacier in the East from Mount Cook peak, Hooker glacier in the west and the Mueller glacier in the south west. Visit all of these glaciers, do some hiking and exploring – there are enough choices to suit everyone’s preferences.
Here is a list of things you can do on your visit to Mt Cook National Park
· Visit the Department of Conservation office to check the weather, track conditions and visit the exciting exhibition, featuring local mountaineering history, geology, fauna and flora.
· Visit the Tasman glacier. It’s a short drive from Mt Cook village to the Blue Lakes car park and a short walk from there to the massive Tasman glacier. It’s a highly recommended sight suitable for everyone due to its convenient access. You can also do a glacier lake boat ride there to see the massive ice wall from up-close.
· Glacier lake boat ride. Tasman and Mueller glaciers have lakes formed at the base of them. You can either have a walk along them, or try one a boat ride for a different perspective. Do not forget to take warm clothes and your camera! Visit the Department of Conservation office if you need more information.
· For a 1-2 day challenge – hike up the Mueller hut. The steep 5km trail rises over 1 km to the alpine Mueller hut. The views from there are just simply breathtaking. The hut is located on a narrow rock ridge directly in front of steep ice walls with an incredible view of the Mt Cook and other prominent peaks. You can the stay the night (or a few) there, but it is advisable to make a booking with the Department of Conservation in advance. Believe me; few things are better than the sunrise view of the Mount Cook and the valley below (or the sunset for that matter) from the Mueller hut.
· For experienced alpine parties only – Ball pass. It’s a 2-3 day incredibly scenic alpine pass, suitable for those with alpine experience and appropriate equipment. The route links up the Hooker and Tasman glaciers traversing between Mt Cook and Mt Rosa. It can be done from either side, but most people choose to start at East Hooker and descend into the Tasman Valley. You will need a tent and snow equipment – crampons and an ice axe. It’s advisable to camp at the East Hooker valley camping site that is 3-4 h walking distance from the Mt Cook village and start climbing up and over the pass early in the morning.
You want to start early, as the snow softens, increasing the risk of falling. The route traverses several scree, rock and snow fields until it reaches the Ball pass and then descends onto the Ball Glacier before gaining the Ball Ridge.1-2 hours after the Ball pass, you will see the Caroline Hut. After that the route descends the ridge crest and picks up a narrow trail through the alpine scrub. Most people then pitch their tent at the bottom of the trail - the Ball Flat. Another option is to hike for another 2-3 hours and reach the Blues Lakes’ car-park.
Ball pass is a highly recommended route, but make sure to check the weather as some sections would be difficult to navigate in poor conditions and high exposure of the route can pose high risks during a storm.
· For experienced alpine parties only – Copland pass. This is a truly unique and exceptional route – a treat for experienced hikers and climbers. The route is a 2-4 day crossing from Mueller Glacier to the Welcome Flats on the West Coast. It does not require a tent, as there huts and shelters all the way through, but snow gear – crampons and an ice axe, as well as a helmet are very important. The first section of the trail follows the West side of the Mueller glacier.
After 2-3 hours of hiking through poorly defined, loose rock trail on the true right side of the Mueller glacier, the route starts climbing up a steep moraine wall. Leave some distance between the members of your party, as there is a large risk of rock fall. Aim towards the right side of the moraine, as there is a fixed line that will make the top out on a grassy ledge – safer and easier.
The route then continues up an easy rock ridge all the way up to the Copland shelter – a very cute barrel-shaped alpine shelter fixed onto a steep rocky spine. Stay the night there and enjoy the incredible sunset scenery and, if the sky is clear, an intense star gazing experience. The Copland pass is at 1,960 meters and the Copland shelter is just below it, which means you will get some amazing views of the Mt Cook.
After the Copland shelter there is a short climb up a snow field up the pass itself. From there, the trail descends in the luscious jungle of the West Coast passing the Welcome flats and its famous Natural Hot Pools you can have a soak in.
Copland pass route is very unique, as within several days you are able to traverse from the land of rock and ice, through dense fern jungle all the way to wild West Coast beach! A rare treat! Have your transport organized, as it will be 5 hours to drive back to MT Cook village.
· Rock climbing at Sebastapol Bluffs – I am, personally, a big fan of this climbing area. It is located just off the road behind the New Zealand Alpine Club Unwin Lodge, but has the full feel of alpine rock due to the surrounding views (and slightly loose rock and rubble on ledges). There is a range of multi-pitch, sport, traditional and mixed climbing. Just put on your helmet and enjoy.
· Alpine climbing. Needless to say, the options for mountaineering in the area are vast. If you need more information check out online forums and climbing databases, such as climbnz or contact the New Zealand Alpine Club. There is a wonderful friendly and very climbing community throughout the country that is always keen to help out with any questions or issues. If you stay at the Unwin lodge, you will be able to meet many of those people in person. There are also several good climbing guidebooks available.
· Road cycling in Mt Cook. The Road to Mount Cook might be one of the most scenic drives in the entire country. If you are a road cycling enthusiast, this will not disappoint you. Do not forget to check out some of the sport events in the area, such as the Mt Cook road race.
Mount Cook is one of the most impressive and inspiring areas of New Zealand. It has a lot to offer to those seeking mountain adventures, as well as those looking for scenic views and new experiences. The opportunities are endless for all levels of skill and interests.