So you want to climb Mt Cook/Aoraki
SO YOU WANT TO summit Aoraki/Mount Cook? “If you’ve never fought a bull before, and you’re going to be thrown in the ring with one, well, asking to climb Mount Cook is like saying I want the biggest, baddest bull you’ve got.”
That’s how Aspiring Guides’ director and experienced mountaineer, Whitney Thurlow, contextualises the notion of attempting to summit New Zealand’s 3724m Aoraki/Mount Cook.
“If you picture what would happen to you if you were not experienced in the bull ring, it’s not a pretty thing. Same goes for climbing Aoraki.”
Little wonder, then, that the mountain sitting head and shoulders above all others on New Zealand’s South Island attracts not only iconic labels, but also iconic alpinists eyeing off her tempestuous crown.
Time warp back to Mount Cook Village on a particular day in 1972, and witness from the foothills a fearless matador of the mountaineering kind attacking Aoraki’s flanks, rising to the summit like an angry bull to a raging red rag. On the formidable direct South Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, a speck of a figure called Bill Denz creates history, one hold at a time.
“Bill was one of the major first ascentionists at Cook,” says Thurlow who himself has climbed the peak “12 or so times.”
“When you look at the South Face from the village, it’s hard to believe that anyone could climb it, but Bill put up the first route straight up the face, solo, a long time before anyone else was climbing anything like that. The fact that it is impossible to visit Mt Cook village without looking at the South Face and being reminded of him makes him hard to beat as Mt Cook’s most iconic climber, even if he wasn’t the first.”
Mt Cook: New Zealand’s heartland of mountaineering
Known as a ‘difficult’ mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook has played host to many legendary mountaineers the likes of Denz, each of them adding their own layer of climbing history atop the mountain’s reputation as one of the most dangerous but alluring on the planet. This, despite it being less than half the height of the bigger, more famous peaks scattered across the Himalaya.
Europeans first struck out to reach the summit, visiting Irishman William Green and Swiss mountaineers Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufman making it to within 50m as early as 1882. But it was a local Christmas Day triumph when New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, James Clarke and George Graham summited the peak for the first time, via the Hooker Valley, a traverse that was not repeated again for 60 years.
“The Aoraki/Mt Cook area is the historical heartland of mountaineering in NZ,” says Sam Newton, General Manager of the New Zealand Alpine Club.
“And while it doesn’t have the challenges of a thin atmosphere, it still has all the challenging aspects of significant height gain, steep terrain, crevassed glaciers and fast-moving weather systems.”
“In a word, Aoraki is still big,” says Thurlow. “The vertical drop is one of the biggest on the planet – you go from virtually sea level up to more than 3700m very quickly. And you can look out at the ocean from the summit. Very few places in the world have as high a vertical drop, or a bigger view, than that.”
At its upper reaches, Mt Cook is not a playground for enthusiasts without considerable experience under their climbing harness.
“In terms of the physical effort and technical skills required to summit, Mt Cook is extremely challenging – it’s quite a feather in your cap if you can climb in the kind of environment it presents,” says Thurlow. “There is no easy way up. No matter what route you choose, you are exposed and nothing comes easy. Combine that with the weather challenges and you always feel quite privileged to get to the summit. You don’t always get to the top and when you do it’s a pretty special occasion.”
“As well as having the requisite technical mountaineering skills, climbers need to have a high degree of fitness, self-reliance and the ability to read the weather,” adds Newton.
Dangerous climate on Mt Cook
The volatility of the weather and landscape is evident in literally earth-shattering events, such as in 1991 when the entire top of the east face of Mt Cook collapsed containing 10 million cubic metres of snow, ice and rock, turning the summit into an exposed ice ridge, and chipping more than 10m from its official height. More recently, Gardiner Hut – oft used on summit attempts – was almost swallowed by a rock fall off the South Ridge.
While shifting earth represents one danger, the shiftable weather remains ever threatening, too. Warm air sweeps in from Australia and Indonesia to the north, while from the south, cold air pummels into the ranges, the meeting of the two over New Zealand making for unstable weather, no matter the season.
“Heavy rainfall at higher elevations also means that the glaciers here are as big as any in the world,” says Thurlow.
While Aoraki/Mt Cook is the jewel in the parklands crown, it is far from the only lure. The 70,696ha park encompasses 19 peaks soaring more than 3000m. Glaciers cover 40 per cent of the region and there are five major valley systems: Godley, Murchison, Tasman, Hooker and Mueller.
“Aside from climbing Aoraki/Mt Cook, there are a variety of attractions for the adventurous traveller – ski touring and ice climbing in winter, rock climbing and trekking in the summer,” says Newton. “There are literally dozens of other peaks – both harder and easier than Mount Cook itself – that can be climbed via hundreds of routes.”
It is this concentration of climbing targets that drew the world’s most famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary.
“Mueller Hut is one of those places that has started a lot of people off on their mountain climbing careers,” says Thurlow. “It’s close to the village – only a couple hours’ walk away – but the view is special. A lot of people have never really seen that sort of big glacial view before. It’s right next to where Hillary climbed his first big peak, and arguably that is what set him off on his career.”
Hillary summited Cook itself in 1948. It was Mt Cook National Park that also entranced and ensnared the long-term future of Thurlow, originally from America.
“On my first trip to New Zealand I didn’t know too much. But right next to Mount Cook, there’s a peak called Mount Dixon. It was the first peak I climbed in the park. I was 25-years old and I had no business being there at all, truth be told. I wasn’t experienced enough to do it, but I was lucky enough to make it to the top. From what I saw at the top of Mt Dixon, right there and then I said I’m going to live in this country. I’m 60-years old now and it’s all the fault of the Mt Cook National Park and what I saw of it from Mt Dixon.”
Mt Cook lies within the Southern Alps of New Zealand within the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.
Mt Cook Village is 55km off the Christchurch-Queenstown highway, about three hours north of Queenstown and 3.5 hours south of Christchurch. The Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Village is a 105km drive from the Tekapo township.
International visitors should get flights into Christchurch or Queenstown.
The easiest way in to Mt Cook Village is to hire a car, or there are regular buses to from Queenstown, Christchurch and Wanaka.
Things to do near Mt Cook
Not looking to make a summit attempt? But you still want to explore the wilderness regions that spread out below the peak that is Aoraki/Mt Cook? Here’s a top list of tramps from short to multiday, but all achievable by non-mountaineering adventurers:
There are numerous short walks from 10 minute to four hour-long rambles that emanate from the Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, exploring the surrounding native alpine bush. If you’re after something a little further afield, there are two day-long walks that can be undertaken: to Ball Hut
in the Tasman Valley or the Sealy Trans Track.
Try a multiday alpine route by taking in the two-day Ball Pass Crossing, which traverses the Mt Cook Range between the Hooker and Tasman Valleys.
The Godley and Macaulay valley tracks are multi-use, meaning walkers, mountain bikers or horseriders can all explore. Distance ranges from 18-32km and the trails are located north of Lake Tekapo.
Mueller hut route
At 1800m (nearly half as high as Aoraki/Mt Cook’s summit), Mueller Hut provides a 360-degree panorama encompassing glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks, and is accessed via a 5.2km trail passing through alpine scrub, herb fields and scree slopes over a 1000m vertical ascent.
General information: www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/aoraki-mount-cook/
Climbing: Aspiring Guides offers numerous departures via two different routes each year, from October-December, that attempt to summit Aoraki/Mt Cook. Climbs take six days, with 1:1 guiding and all technical equipment provided. Access is via helicopter or walk-in, with walk-out on both options. Summit day is usually between 14-18 hours. Trips cost NZ$5050. See www.aspiringguides.com
Avalanches: All park visitors should consider carefully the class of avalanche terrain they are going into, and check the avalanche-danger advisory prior to undertaking any trip. There are two tools to help you assess avalanche danger: the Backcountry Avalanche Advisory (BAA) and the Avalanche Terrain Exposure scale system (ATES). See www.avalanche.net.nz