Mueller Hut, Mt Cook
Duration: Full day from Mt Cook, or very early start from Queenstown
Distance: 10km return, 5-6 hour hike
Rating: Challenging. Some off piste with a good level of fitness recommended.
Looking for a day hike that gets you into some big mountains and rewards you with the kind of huge alpine views usually reserved for serious mountaineers? Then you can’t do better than the hike up to Mueller Hut! No other formed track in New Zealand gets you into the heart of the Southern Alps amongst some of New Zealand’s highest mountains like this one does.
Now, I won’t lie. Getting up to 1800 meters on foot does come with a certain amount of work. Saying that, I’ve found that anyone with a good level of fitness and a bit of determination — or reasonable fitness and a lot of grit — can get to the top. Either way, I’ll be there with you every step of the way providing anecdotes and encouragement. You once could get dropped off at the top by helicopter, but trust me when I tell you the views are even sweeter infused with pride and tinged with sweat.
The secret is to leave early enough so you can sneak up before the sun does. So, if we start at the bottom, 10 minutes from the start of the track we’ll come across a great example of Kiwi humour. Engraved on the first step is a small sign that reads: Only 1806 to go. (Don’t worry, you usually lose count after the first 200 steps or so.) The first hour is a steep pull up to Sealy Tarns, which marks the halfway point (more or less) and the views get more dramatic with each step. A tarn is a pond or pool formed in a mountain by a glacier and this spectacular example gives us some amazing reflections of the surrounding ranges. It’s also a good excuse to catch our breath and enjoy a snack and photo break here while soaking in the panorama.
The Frind and Tuckett glaciers are now in full view, hanging from the east face of Mt Sefton. They’re so close it feels like you should be able to reach out and touch these huge ice cliffs. Maybe around the next bend. From here, we’ll continue to make our way through alpine scrub and herb fields for the next hour and a half of our ascent, and the trail starts to level off a bit as we get closer to the hut. Just keep placing one foot in front of the other. During this next section, we often still come across patches of snow even in the midst of summer due to the relatively high altitude.
It’s worth pushing ourselves to reach Mueller Hut in order to arrive before the ‘11 o’clock rumble.’ Listen closely for a deep rumbling sound, like a thunder storm approaching, signalling the start of the ice falls. Each night ice forms on the nearby hanging glaciers and in the morning, when the sun reaches them again, it melts and softens causing huge chunks of ice to break off and crash to the valley floor below. Sound echoes through the mountains, making it harder to pinpoint, but from the hut we can glance around the sides of the mountains quickly for what looks like a trail of smoke pointing to the source.
I often find it quite emotional sitting back to watch this awesome display of nature from such a unique vantage point. The 360-degree views of uninterrupted alpine beauty is something to behold in itself. To the east, Lake Pukaki flows towards the dry, barren landscape of the McKenzie country. To the north, we can see Monastery Peak and the Nuns Veil flanked to the west by Mt Cook (New Zealand’s highest peak), Mt Hicks and Mt Rosa, just to name a few. Last but not least, looking toward the south we can see the Four Sisters: Mt Marie, Jeanette, Jean and Darby.
Amplify the panoramic scenery with the rush of endorphins and the unforgettable sense of achievement you’ll feel from transporting yourself up to this special place and it can be a bit overwhelming. Here, surrounded by ancient glaciers flowing down into terminal lakes with thousand-year-old icebergs floating in them that have broken away from the ever-moving glaciers, is the perfect opportunity to contemplate our tiny place in the world. I hope you’ve packed your wide-angle lens. We’ll have plenty of time to kick off our boots and devour the hearty picnic lunch I’ve brought up for us while we soak up the warmth of the sun and breathe in the crisp mountain air before starting back down again. It’s another good hour and a half back down the way we came, but there’s a good chance those big grins will still be on our faces long after we get to the bottom.
Note: You will want to have a good level of fitness for this hike and be happy to walk off piste during some of the hike.