2/28 – 3/3/2017
Our drive toward Mount Cook in New Zealand was lined with excellent lake views. We took it in while listening to podcasts. There was a free campsite located a little ways outside of the park so we took advantage of the area crammed between a bright blue canal and a murky pond. It turned out to be teeming with last minute campervans driving back and forth most of the night. Our neighbors decided not to do their dishes and had a noisy hedgehog clanking the dishwear for hours to show for their lack of effort. It was one of those rare nights where McKayla slept well and I didn’t.
The only goals for Wednesday (March 1) were to get a campsite at White Horse Campground (it was close to the our trailhead for Friday and near the Mount Cook Visitor Center and we read that it can fill up fast) and take a walk to see some glaciers. The glaciers came sooner rather than later. Within 2 miles of getting to the dead end road leading to Mount Cook Village, we were hit with an amazing view of the biggest glacier I’d ever seen. It was so nice McKayla insisted on getting a picture of me and the glacier regardless of my disgusting pj attire.
As expected, the campground was a zoo. At 11:30 am, most that were going to leave already had but there were still at least a hundred campers. The sign in system was a little wonky, added to the fact that the park’s most popular trailhead parking lot was right next to the campground. However, after a little help from a German couple, I got us signed in while McKayla staked our spot, literally.
Mount Cook National Park really only has a handful of trails. After that, you’d better be ready for some serious mountaineering – ropes, crampons, etc. I’m not certain but I think this is the most popular park in NZ and it’s easy to see why – seriously awesome views with little to no effort. Having such great views at the end of a dead end road with only about 4 hiking trails tends to make for crowded paths. After setting up camp, we left the car and tent and headed up to Hooker Lake to get a view of Hooker Glacier. Great walks, lots of glaciers, grey water, incredible views, tons of people. Hooker Lake was nice, I’m guessing all the grey water is the result of excess sediment from glacial melt or a wet summer. There were a few icebergs bobbing out in the lake and I thought I’d better swim out to one. While McKayla iced her legs in the freezing water, I set a personal record for fastest I’ve ever swum, got out to the iceberg, stood up and swam back pronto. One brief pause was enough to know I couldn’t slow down again. Of the hundreds of people on that trail, McKayla and I were the only ones getting near that water. I was so cold that I actually had a pretty good high most of the way down; nothing like a good jolt to the system to get you smiling while passing teams of Asian tourists.
This night was McKayla’s turn to hear all the slamming doors and loud campers, I was too tired to be bothered. The next morning we were woken up by a small flock of very talkative Kea. It’s hard to describe the noises they make. Sometimes it sounds like a cat, other times like I Love Lucy, never like a bird. She woke up pretty fast on Thursday, March 2nd, with nice warm weather, a hut stay she’d been looking forward to and about 4,500 ft of elevation gain over the next 4 miles. The Mueller hut hike was half stairs, half exposed rock you had to treat like stairs. I was carrrying more food than I usually would but I didn’t want either of us to go hungry on McKayla’s birthday. McKayla was determined to carry up a bottle of cinnamon whiskey that she could share with our hut mates for her birthday. I’m sure halfway up those stairs, she was regretting her generosity but she wouldn’t let me carry her birthday beverage. The walk was very steep but relatively short and by 1 or 2 pm, we were looking out off the hut porch at a massive stretch of glaciers.
One really cool thing about being near massive glaciers is that you get the occasional thundering of snow breaking free. Sometimes you can see it cascading down from the glacial face but most times you’ll just hear the cannon-like crack. It’s impressively loud and often fooled me for nearby thunder. I hate to say it but I was actually hoping for some big slides. I never want glaciers to recede but it’s so crazy to watch it take place in front of you. From our hut, we got a nice far off view of Mount Cook, along with a fairly solid wall of glaciers stretching at least 5 miles. After stretching, dropping our packs and claiming our bunks, we set off up Mount Olivia. The short rocky summit climb gave us few added glaciers and a great view of the incredibly flat valley leading up to the tallest set of peaks in New Zealand.
There was a family of about 6 Kea that seemed to claim this high mountain hut as their own. They took turns swooping in close, cackaling and trying to chew off the antenna on top of the hut. They’re mischevioius little bastards, known to peck the rubber from out between your car door and window, steal food and generally destroy whatever they can. We were told that a few years back, they had to replace all nails and screws on the outside of all huts the kea frequent. Most had used lead nails and kea were dying of lead poisoning from chewing on said nails. As long as you’re not in a tent for their early morning squawks, their calls are hard not to laugh at. They’re such ridiculous sounding birds. A British girl described it best when she said, “they’re such cheeky little buggers.”
It wasn’t hard to make friends that night. After dinner, McKayla broke out the cinnamon whiskey and proceeded to go around and make sure anyone who wanted some just present their cup. We ended up striking up conversation with a Dutch couple, an English/French couple, a strange Austrian girl and 3 poor bastards who’d be spending the night out in their tent (cold, windy, all rocks). Yep, McKayla was certainly the life of the party. By the time I got to her the next morning (March 3) to wish her a happy birthday, she said I was only the 4th person to do so. And by the time we were leaving to hike down, nearly all of the 24 guests had also wished her a happy birthday.
The original plan was to summit Mount Olivia on the 3rd so McKayla could climb a mountain on her birthday, however, the weather report looked a little harsh so that’s why we did it on the second. This time, the weather report was right on, if not a little early. We’d woken up with the sunrise but the weather had already begun, mostly in the form of howling winds. “Strong gale force winds” they called them and they were enough to shake the whole hut. The rain started blowing in sideways and it was supposed to only get worse from there. I almost couldn’t believe it but in the morning nastiness, the rain quit long enough and the clouds parted just so to give McKayla and incredible full rainbow for her birthday. The birthday girl took a quick photo then it was gone and the nastiness rolled back in.
We got going about as early as we get going. We were quickly blasted with hurricane winds and a light rain turned into pins and needles. We laughed at the harshness of the wind, it could easily make you choose a different rock to step on mid-stride. We were all smiles, enjoying what was, to us, a freak wind in a gorgeous spot. The people we passed were not all smiles, walking slowly and tactfully. By the end, these whiskey toting Montanans passed every one of the 6 or so groups that had set out before us. Besides, we had places to be and a cabin to enjoy.
The closest place I could find for us was in the town of Twizel, about an hour south of Mt. Cook. We stopped in town for coffee and lunch before making our way to our cabin which turned out to be a 100 year old homestead on a farm. It had a couple rooms, a full kitchen and a living room. We realized it had been 5 months since either of us had been in a living room (a real living room, not a common area in a hostel shared with strangers). So, I cooked us a nice dinner and we watched Jeopardy and the Simpsons on a couch. We even had gourmet Hokey Pokey ice cream, which is New Zealand’s local flavor.