Hiking Mt Cook village to Mueller Hut
During my journey of capturing New Zealand photographically, I have stayed at the Mount Cook village approx. four times. Accommodation wise I have camped at the Whitehorse campground as well as the Mount Cook Alpine Lodge. I highly recommend the Lodge as it has a large lounge area and kitchen which is perfect for late night editing sessions against a backdrop of stunning inspirational views.
Mount Cook Village information centre is where you will be further inspired by the story of pioneering Australian woman, Freda Du-Faur. She was the first woman to climb Mount Cook in 1910. I found the tale interesting in the small details such as the clothing she had to wear, not being permitted to wear pants, Du-Faur made the challenging climb in a knee length skirt, knickerbockers and leather ankle boots. I imagined her scaling the mountainside, skirt hitched up, knickerbockers blowing in the mountain breeze; the image compelled me to experience a stay further afield, so I booked in at the Mueller Hutt with three of my girlfriends. With the daring and controversial Freda in mind we set of on a modern-day adventure.
At the time of the hike I didn’t have my own hiking pack & I had no other option but to borrow my husband’s enormous hunting pack, twice the size of everyone else’s. Into the cave of a pack I loaded a super warm sleeping bag, a Kathmandu puffer jacket, the essential camera and two lenses – a 24-70 + 15-30 – a drink bottle, back country breakfast meal, some cliff bars, torch and change of clothing.
The adventure began after parking at the White Hill Camp ground around 2pm. We set off under a scorching sun during a mid-summer afternoon, we were soon wishing we had bought far more water. After 1800 stairs with little shade we finally reached the half way point – Sealy Tarns.
Sealy Tarns to Mueller Hut –
Sounding like a mysterious spot from a romantic history film, Sealy Tarns is well worth the steps it takes to get there. Picnic tables overlook the ultimate view across the Hooker Valley for a refreshment and photo opportunity. Two small tarns shimmer above the mountaintops spread out below, the surface of their waters reflecting the clouds scudding across the sky above, which seems to be closer from way up here. The vastness of the mountains in New Zealand are breath taking.
Fellow hikers assured us that the worst was over and that we only had an hour approx. to go from Sealy Tarns to Mueller Hut. The rest of the journey was a bit of a scramble over tussocks and loose rockfall, forging our own way through the mountains, slipping in icy snow which stung like splinters under our hands as we grasped what we could to get to the top. This is a great example of the great New Zealand alpine track. The track from Sealy Tarns to Mueller Hut is not maintained but is marked with orange markers to keep hikers on track somewhat. The route meanders through scrub, herb fields and tussocks with parts of the track ascending into scree and rocks. Hikers of one of the most well known Mount Cook hikes are greeted by the magnificent views of the Mueller Glacier crossing the valley. From here you go South towards the hut, around twenty minutes across the alpine ledge. Once we had finally summited we were almost out of patience thinking that iconic red hut was surely just around the corner and finally, thankfully, it popped into view. Just at that moment of coming across Mueller Hutt, the sky rewarded us with parted clouds and we were treated to the tip of Mount Cook, an epic 3,724m high, so we dropped our packs where they landed and got our cameras out for some fantastic shots. The changeable weather is typical of Mount Cook weather. Approx. 10mins later we made it to the hut where we were greeted by Colin, who in his eighties and a volunteer, hikes in for three weeks each year to welcome the hut guests and oversea the running of the hut – what a bloody legend! He’s up there with Freda in my books.
Staying at Mueller Hut:
Mueller Hut is in demand and Mueller Hut booking is needed from mid November through till April 30th each year. If you cannot be flexible around dates it’s a good idea to book as soon as you know when you want to do the Mueller Hut route. Otherwise a month or so advance is a good idea, perhaps even two months if you want a weekend! Fees for staying at Mueller Hut is $36 pp, per night. Camping around the hut is $15 which includes the use of the Mueller Hut facilities.
Colin instructed us that there might still be some drinking water in the tank but for general water use and cooking we were to fill a pot with snow and melt it. Mueller Hut is divided into two main sections – a kitchen area with gas cooking facilities and a bench seating area and then two bunk rooms which sleep 14 people. We thought staying at Mueller Hut was certainly going to be a cosy night sleeping side by side with a group of hunters on a trip to hunt tar. There really is nothing quite like rolling over to a stranger snoring in your face! Thankfully the long drop wasn’t too far away from the hut either.
After a short reprieve where I managed to down a whole block of chocolate as well as some Panadol for my poor back (Kathmandu if you are reading, I will take a woman’s pack…) we were off again. To our delight we discovered a group of famous instagrammers camping at the edge of the mountain, getting some epic shots. I won’t name names, but it was exciting seeing the behind the scenes side of how they get their shots. The light was incredible up there – clouds rolling over the mountain tops, glaciers commanding valleys with Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, and Sefton spread out in the distance, sheer drops from cliffs, sparkling snow and a brilliant sunset. We made the most by taking plenty of prized photos.
When the light faded we made our way back to Mueller hut for some mountain tucker and a cuppa tea while chatting with the instagrammers photographers. By 10pm I was ready to call it a night, utterly exhausted and happy, I was one of the first to sink into bed. The hunters came back an hour or so later and were up talking for a while, reliving the hunt of the day before the snoring began. A full moon shone through the big window which was without curtains – making for a restless night of sleep. When we woke at 5am, we didn’t feel as though we had gotten much sleep.
Sunrise wasn’t as impressive as the night was, but it was better than not having the chance to catch it at all. After we watched the sun float up over the mountainsides we headed back to the hut for a dehydrated backcountry meal. It was surprisingly good and enough for two people to share. Since we were up we decided to hit the track as the sun was set to only get hotter and we hoped to catch some early morning sky reflections at Sealy Tarns. The walk back down was a dream with the weight of the food gone and the easy downhill slope, my pack felt like it was floating in comparison to the hike up and I almost had a bounce in my step. We made our way back across the snowy tip of Mount Olivier until we reached loose gravel and found evidence of previous hikers having taken a quicker route down the snowy mountainside – on their bums! The indent left in the track almost looked like a bobsled track. Let’s do this! I said to the girls and I braved the way. It was the highlight of the whole hike, sliding down the mountainside – thoughts of Freda flew out behind me as I sped down using my hands to propel me forward until I gained speed with snow flying in my wake. The girls followed with peals of laughter.
The final part of the track before we reached the tarns was slower going as we had to discover each foot hold to keep from sliding down steep inclines. There weren’t the beautiful reflections we were hoping for, but the Hooker Valley laid out before us was again a welcome sight and we enjoyed a refreshment before hitting the stairs of the descent. We passed lot of hot, puffy hikers with many over the age of 65 – I thought, Good on em, being an Adventure Granny is certainly a life goal I have in mind. We arrived back at the car park hot, dirty, sweaty and with jelly legs. We were happy and in one piece having enjoyed our photography adventure. What was called for now was a big drink of water, strong coffee and a hot pie, to celebrate one of the best hikes in New Zealand.
When to go and What to take –
When to go and Weather information:
Mount Cook National Park weather can be unpredictable year round, the route from Sealy Tarns to Mueller Hut can experience severe weather and avalanches are more common in Spring and Winter but can occur any time of year. Therefore it is important to check with the staff at the Aoraki/Mount Cook Visitor Centre on the day of your hike so that they can keep you abreast of any weather changes/events which could be risky to you. Mount Cook in the Summer months (Dec-Feb) and the track to Mueller Hut offers a general New Zealand mountain trek experience for anyone who has moderate tramping experience as long as care is taken. During Winter (June-Aug) the route is only suitable for those with a good level of mountaineering experience, including walking on ice and snow with ice axe and crampons, navigation skills, use of an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel. For Ski Touring, there must be a thorough knowledge of avalanche dangers and a strong ability to navigate alpine terrain. Winter is definitely the most challenging time to hike the route. Winter conditions can still exist throughout Spring (Sept-Nov) as well as Autumn (March-May) so check with the Visitor Centre to get a better picture of current conditions. Watch out for those windy days as the exposed part of the track at the beginning of the route is hit by huge gusts at times.
What to Take:
You will need your trusty well fitting hiking boots, a good layering system plus a decent raincoat. You need to dress for all conditions which is why layering is so important. A warmer jacket, hat and gloves will be appreciated once you cool down from walking. Do not forget to pack sunscreen and be vigilant in reapplying as the alpine sun can be unforgiving. Sunglasses are also a must.
The hut has gas and gas cookers so no need to pack any cooking equipment. There is a water tank to refill your bottles and the hut is also fitted with mattresses and a longdrop toilet.
You will need your own: Food, Sleeping Bag, Cooking Pot, Cutlery, Matches and Toilet Paper. A Torch, spare Batteries, First Aid Kit and of course your drink bottle are also essential.
Make sure you have an Ice Axe, Crampons, Avalanche Transceiver, Probe, Shovel – plus the ability to use above equipment.
A Note About Wildlife: You will most likely come across some cheeky, beautiful Keas flying about the hut – enjoy them but DOC warns do not feed them as it is both terrible for their health and encourages them in destructive behaviour.