20. A Sunrise Walk to Mueller Hut

Knowing how hot it is these days, and how many people are crammed into Mt Cook village (which makes me slightly uncomfortable), I left before dawn to walk up to Mueller Hut to beat both the heat and the mass of people who I imagined would be following the same trail in daylight. It was a beautiful night; the moon was full and high in the sky, so I didn’t need my torch even in the bush track near the camping ground. This track climbs up 1000 metres within 5 kilometres, so it’s a steady uphill gradient until near the hut where it flattens out a bit – still uphill though.

The moon stayed visible in the sky while the sun rose which made an easy transition between moonlight and sunlight – at no point did I need to unpack my torch.
There were very few lights visible in Mt Cook village in the darkness, and I learned later that this is purposeful to ensure great viewing of the night skies. Some of the best astronomical viewing in NZ and in the whole world is situated here, around Lake Tekapo and Aoraki/Mt Cook, and so the region as a whole is trying to improve on that by turning their night lights down or off.

I was befriended by a small flock of kea above the Sealy Tarns (small mountain lakes which will show up better in the photos taken on the way down). They were a pleasant distraction and followed me for a short while after I continued up, screeching and beating their wings whenever they landed or took off. The track up to the Sealy Tarns was a staircase; past this point it became a poled route through scree and rock.

The sun’s nearly here…

…yes! How wonderful to have come up so early and watched the sun rise up over the horizon.

I took this photo on my way up, and met the kiwi man who owned it on my way down. He and his partner had climbed and set up after dark the previous night – I said I thought I’d seen their torchlight looking up at this route from the camping ground before going to bed. They had a big camera and tripod and were busy taking photos. I also talked briefly with another man from Europe who had spent the night in a tent even higher up the mountain – he was peeved because a decent-sized hole had been ripped in his tent by a kea while he was sleeping.

I looked down on Mueller Glacier Lake in the foreground and Hooker Glacier Lake at the back, and could see how the Hooker Lake drained into Mueller Lake. Together they become the Hooker River, which in turn becomes the Tasman River when it reaches the valley that we visited yesterday. Then the Tasman River runs into the past glacially formed Lake Pukaki. The mountain towering over the lakes is Mt Wakefield which is the southern most mountain on the Aoraki/Mt Cook range. I loved it that Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3754 metres, is on this range! 

And there it is!!! The mountain on the right of the photo is Aoraki/Mt Cook!!! The downward slope on its peaks is part of the Great Traverse. It’s such a nice day after days of bad weather that there surely must be climbers making the summit up there. I stop to think about them – wishing luck for them and thinking that they would have started out in the very earliest hours of this morning. And that they would have better views today than anyone else in the country!

The vista was such that I continually stopped to take in the landscape and breathe the early morning air. I could see the White Horse Campground one small hill away from Mueller Lake where our caravan was parked up – just for one night, as we already knew it was too busy for us to want to stay another. As soon as I finished my walk today, we visited the information centre/museum then headed off for our next stop.

A close up of Mt Cook, being kissed good morning by the sun.

One last scree field to cross and I’ll be on the top of the ridge. Mt Sefton, and lower down The Footstool, are the mountains with the sun on them.

On the ridge. The snow stakes led up all the way from the Sealy Tarns as this route in winter is snow and ice bound. Only experienced climbers with the right equipment are recommended to climb this route in winter.

The Mueller Hut was visible just below the peak of Mt Olivier but it took me a while to see it – even though a Fijian man who had climbed up behind and was walking with me was pointing it out! It was darker on this side of the ridge with no direct sunlight, and it looked like one of the rocks.
It was cold, brr – I put on my sweatshirt, woollen hat and gloves.

The hoar frost shows the chilly temperature.

Mueller Hut, built for mountaineers…and in summer frequented by sightseers.

I entered the hut through the foyer, leaving my pack and walking poles there. Inside people were busily eating breakfast and getting ready for their day while others were still asleep in bed. One woman said she’d been cold overnight – ugh, I don’t think I would want to stay up here without a very good sleeping bag. Out on the deck, a kea was chipping ice from the water tanks.

Another shot of Mt Sefton (left), The Footstool (centre) and Aoraki/ Mt Cook (right). I took photo after photo, and naturally not one caught the real beauty and ambience of this place. The best thing of all is simply to be there, and to use all your senses to enjoy the moments that are passing by.

Another kea – this one came so close and was trying to peck at my camera, my pack, my waterbottle, my clothes. A man who overtook me on the way up – yes, there were several others who climbed up early the way I did – told me that you should never encourage these birds, so, bearing this in mind, I walked away from it. Funny, wanting to run from a native animal rather than to get closer!!

I heard quite a rumbling, and caught sight of the tail end of an avalanche falling from this patch of melting snow on Mt Sefton (close up photo). I heard another rumbling a few minutes later – and people climb these mountains?! I talked with a British man who, camping in a tent in the White Horse Campground a couple of days before in a thunderstorm, had seen big flashes of lightning and not only heard crashes of thunder, but also rumbles of avalanches in the mountains. Impressive that he stayed in his tent, and was still here now!

I saw a lot of rocks that were either scratched or smoothed by ancient glacial action on them. This particular rock was both scratched and smoothed.

Most of the people I saw today were European or British travellers – not many from the South Pacific except for these two Fijians and a tiny handful of kiwis. The Fijians kindly posed for a photo as they overtook me on the way down. One of them had walked with me for a time on the way up – it was nice to hear about Fiji as I visited there some years ago. This man was working in NZ and wondering if he would make it through the winter. I could easily sympathise – it’s SO much warmer in Fiji than in NZ!

Halfway back down the Sealy Tarns came into sight.

An example of the staircase below Sealy Tarns.
Don’t be fooled by the seeming lack of people at this point; the track was a continual stream of folk heading upwards. I spent the whole way down saying hi hi hi over and over again, to be friendly. Most by far were friendly back and I had a couple of nice talks with different people which was enjoyable. The odd person was uncommunicative – but maybe they were tired from the uphill slog. One woman said she wished she was me lol – I was also happy to be me, descending rather than ascending as it was already a very hot day with crowds of people out and about.

Back in the bush near the campground I found some soft mingimingi in fruit. I picked a couple of berries and ate them just as I had higher up with a snowberry plant also in fruit.

I took a sideshoot along the Kea Walk next to the camping ground, winding in and out of a continual stream of people to a view of Mt Sefton, the Footstool, Aoraki and Lake Mueller. Wanting to leave, and also not really wanting to leave…

Looking back, we regretted not going to the Edmund Hilary Centre in Mt Cook village as we heard afterwards from several different people that it’s very good. So we’ll get back there again sometime…

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