Piercing the clouds of Aoraki/Mount Cook

Topping out at 3,724 m (12,218 ft), Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. It served as Sir Edmund Hillary’s training gound for Everest, and is one of the highlights of any trip to the South Island. During the term holiday, we spent four fantastic days there, exploring the trails through the valleys.

The drive to Aoraki/Mt. Cook itself is something to enjoy. Highway 80, the only road into the area, winds along the western shore of Lake Pukaki. The lake is of an impossibly bright turquoise colour, which comes from “rock flour”, granite ground up by the glaciers. And in the distance are the the imposing peaks of the Southern Alps. And Aoraki/Mt. Cook is very prominent even in that impressive range. You cannot help but pull over at at the many parking areas to admire the view.

The impossibly blue waters of Lake Pukaki
Aoraki/Mt. Cook rising up in the centre

The road ends at Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village, set at the base of the mountains, right at the mouth of two valleys.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village is quite an understated development. The Village contains several accommodation options, ranging from backpacker hostels to luxury hotel, and a few eating establishments, from cafeteria-style to high-end. And all done without paving over everything in concrete; in addition to the roads, there are walking trails connecting all the different buildings. It straddles the fine line between over-commercialization and complete lack of facilities. In America, many/most national parks go to one extreme or the other. Places like the Grand Canyon (South Rim) are so paved over, it often feels like being in a suburb with little connection to the great landscape. On the other hand, places like Rocky Mountain National Park are so devoid of facilities (must drive outside the park) that it makes it hard to really “get into” the landscape unless you’re ready to go “hardcore”. Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village does it right I think. Don’t get me wrong — there is still a gift shop with every kind of souvenir available, and large tour buses coming by every day — it’s just that it’s scaled appropriately to keep it manageable. And what a setting for the Village. The snow-capped peaks all around are spectacular. And from most of the area, you can see the summit of Mt. Cook.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook seen from the Village

The Village sits at the mouth of two valleys, Hooker and Tasman, which allow visitors the opportunity to explore as much or as little of the area.

The weather, like most mountainous regions, can be quite variable, so there’s no guarantee of getting a sight of the famous peak on any given day. While we were there, we got all kinds of weather in the four days. We had a day that was sunny and warm enough to be out hiking in a t-shirt. We had a day where it drizzled non-stop. We had a day where a storm blew with gale force and threatened to rip the concrete buildings off the foundations. We had sleet, we had cold, we had sun, and everything in between. Bottom-line: come prepared for any weather.

Hooker Valley

The track that runs up Hooker Valley is the most popular one. It runs for about 5 km (3.1 miles) one way, and involves a very gradual climb of about 120 m (400 ft). The track is wide and very well-maintained, easily doable for most people. Being the popular route, it can be quite busy, especially in the beginning. The farther you go, the fewer the crowds.

But don’t let the crowds scare you away. The Hooker Valley track is popular because it is gorgeous. It is surrounded by high peaks, with glacial rivers running along it, and magnificent views in all directions.

Swing-bridge on the Hooker Valley track
Well-maintained trail suitable for all
Crossing glacial rivers

At the beginning of the track, the summit of Mt. Cook is not visible (because of the way the valley curves). But pretty soon, the massive behemoth comes into view and dominates the landscape.

Is there a more stereotypical Kiwi landscape?
Aoraki/Mt. Cook dominates the view

Along the way, there are many small pools formed from the streams and rivers that create fantastic reflections.

Last light over Aoraki

At the end of the track, you come upon Hooker Lake.

Hooker Lake at the end of the trail

At first, the lake may not look very impressive. Until you notice the glacier at the end and the huge icebergs floating in the water. Walking down to the water’s edge brings you closer.

Melting ice on Hooker Lake
The lake flowing out onto Hooker River
Ice sculptures on Hooker Lake
Hooker Glacier up close

I’ve never been into arctic exploration/adventures, but standing near these giant blue walls of ice was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. It made me want to visit Antarctica.

Family portrait at Hooker Lake

Note that this is not the only trail in Hooker Valley. There are many other trails as well, requiring advanced/expert skills (e.g. includes travel in avalanche-prone areas).

Tasman Valley

The less popular area is the neighbouring Tasman Valley; less popular because it is not as dramatic as Hooker, and you cannot get as close to the glaciers as easily. The valley is more spread open, so you don’t feel as hemmed in by the mountains.

Entrance to Tasman Valley

Our exploration of Tasman Valley were on the two days of pelting rain, sleet, and hail, blowing and biting into our skins like pinpricks. Coupled with the barren and rocky landscape (compared to Hooker Valley), it felt like we were walking in Mordor.

Heading to Tasman Valley
Not a great day for hiking, but we made it work
Mountains in the mist
Excuse me, is this the way to Mordor?

There are four destinations easily reachable via the two main trails in Tasman Valley. The trail to the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint is a bit steep and quite rocky (tricky in wet conditions) at the end, but the view of the glacier is quite expansive.

Walking the trail to Tasman Glacier Viewpoint
Tasman Lake and Glacier in the distance
At the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint

The other trail takes you to the shore of Tasman Lake itself. The trail is quite flat and splits about halfway through. One branch goes to the jetty. While this goes right to the water’s edge, it is not as interesting due to all the boating equipment (the jetty is the launching point for the many commercial boating/kayaking operations). Also, the glacier is not visible from the jetty.

Tasman Lake from the jetty

The other branch of the trail brings you to where Tasman Lake flows out into Tasman River. The area has a stark beauty, especially in rough weather. There are many areas to scramble up and down here, although they can be quite slippery and treacherous in wet conditions.

Tasman Lake from near Tasman River
Tasman Glacier seen from the river
The weather wasn’t the best

Despite the weather, we had a great time. The landscape is quite simply stunning. I lived in Colorado for 10.5 years (including in a ski town for almost 6), but the Southern Alps here are more dramatic. Part of it is because they rise up so sharply from the plains. Many mountain ranges (e.g. in many parts of Colorado) rise up gradually, first starting with foothills, then mid-range, and then finally the high peaks. At Aoraki/Mt. Cook, the landscape doesn’t bother with any of the small steps. It rises up 1,500 m (5,000 ft) from the valley floors, making for a dramatic setting.

My only regret is that the weather wasn’t clear enough after dark for astro/nightscape photography. Only means that I’ll have to come back again!

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