Aoraki/Mount Cook

December 6, 2020
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Aoraki/Mount Cook Region. Map data ©2016 Google. Localities added.

NEW Zealand’s highest peak,Aoraki/Mount Cook, lies at the heart of a national park that combines dangerousmountaineering opportunities with simple, scenic daywalks and the start of theAlps 2 Ocean cycle trail, which goes all the way down to Oamaru. The Alps 2Ocean cycle trail also has an alternative beginning at nearby Lake Tekapo.


Mount Cook Village, at the foot of Aoraki/MountCook, is totally accessible by car and bus, and you can use it as a base foractivities that are as adventurous as you like.

An old 1930s-type poster at Mount CookVillage

Walks you can do in the vicinity of Mount Cook Village without getting intoactual mountaineering include the Hooker Valley Track, which gets close to theHooker glacier, and walks along the Tasman Valley which in their turn bring youto the Blue Lakes and the Tasman Glacier.

At the Hooker Glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook

See the webpage, and also downloadthe brochure Walking Tracks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park from DOC,which covers the Hooker Valley Track more briefly and also a range of othersincluding the Tasman Valley walks.

For the cycleway to Ōamaru, see

In the remainder of this chapter, Iwill talk about a gnarly mountaineering skills training adventure I went on,and then reflect on earlier generations of climbers, including women who wentup in long dresses and hobnailed boots.

My High Alpine Skills Training adventure

WE started our High Alpine Skillstraining course near Mt Cook Village, staying at the New Zealand Alpine Club’sUnwin Lodge, which was a very eerie place. Every time I had stayed there, Icouldn’t believe the stories I heard about dreadful accidents from people who’dactually seen them happen. For instance, one time I was sitting in the loungeand a party of four climbers came up and were let in sombrely by the hutwarden, as they had lost someone on the mountain. It was the sort of place wheredeath was quite a frequent occurrence.


Tramping back to the Unwin Lodge

As withdiving, you always climb with a partner too (at the very least, somebodyhas to hold the other end of the rope!) Before the course started, I remembertalking to a woman who told me that she and her climbing partner had hadpitched their tent half under a flat rock face and half out in the open. Anavalanche had come down and completely covered her climbing partner. She had todig her partner out and said they were lucky to be alive because they bothcould have died.

I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this climbing business is quiterisky’; for generally I am fairly conservative when it comes to taking risks.

New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook/Aoraki has longoffered a challenge for aspiring climbers. To Ngāi Tahu, the peak representsthe most sacred of ancestors and it is therefore tapu (forbidden) to climb onits head. Government cultural guidelines recommend not standing right at thetop, not cooking or eating right at the top, and to take out all rubbish (whichpeople should do anyway).

All the same, European explorers have come to the area fromthe time of earliest settlement until now to attempt the climb. These includeSir Edmund Hillary, who learnt his mountain-craft on Mt Cook and itssurrounding peaks. The Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park itself was established in1953 to protect the mountainous area, even though some of the land in the parkis still privately owned.

To start with, we trekked some way up the nearby SealyRange, and my feet became covered in blisters. We did some training and learntbelaying, and then tramped back down to Unwin Lodge. From Unwin Lodge, flew byhelicopter up and over the charming Sealy Tarns to the Barron Saddle Hut tostart our alpine training in earnest.

Once we got there, we found out that an earlier hut at anearby location, the Three Johns Hut, had been blown over a precipice by thewind in 1977. Three people inside at the time were killed. Huts on Mt Cook havealso been taken out by avalanches.

The Barron Saddle Hut was a metal cylinder which looked likeit been designed by an engineer to handle extreme natural forces. Even thissurvival bunker had lately had some of its windows blown in, or sucked out, bythe local whirlwinds. Their empty frames were covered over by wood. I got nosleep whatever at first, worrying about all the ways the elements seemed to beconspiring against us.

From the hut, we went via Barron Saddle to stay overnight onMt Annette on the Sealy Range. There was a beautiful sunset over the MtCook/Aoraki mountain range. I’d brought a ‘bivvy’ on the trip, a weatherproof bagthat zips over your sleeping bag for sleeping outdoors. But I had left itbehind in Barron Saddle Hut by mistake, because I was so tired. In the end, Ihad to borrow an emergency blanket off one of the instructors. I wrapped thesurvival blanket around my sleeping bag and our group slept outside under thestars that night, huddled together.

It was beautiful, though cold. But I had enough clothes on,about three or four layers, to cope.

The instructors were more than professional, keeping anextra eye on people like me who were relatively inexperienced. After gettingnervous initially due to the unnerving Unwin Lodge tales and the history ofBarron Saddle and Three Johns, I felt completely safe in the hands of theinstructors.

Top to bottom: the High Alpine Skills courseclass photo; learning knots; one of the Sealy Tarns

Top to bottom: the Barron Saddle Hut; a closerview of the Barron Saddle Hut with its damaged windows; sleeping out under thestars

It had been quite an adventure and Mt Cook was stunning, butthe whole time I just didn’t feel comfortable with my level of alpine skills. Ihaven’t given up on that sort of thing, but I’m going to take a step back andthink I’m better off with a guide in such mountainous areas.

I’ll probably need to get some better climbing boots toobecause at the end of the alpine course it took my feet a month to repair fromall the blisters I got.

The ones who began it all

Having done all this training, I amin awe of early climbers who ascended these mountains in hobnailed boots. I wasfascinated to learn how the nail-heads poking out of the bottoms of the boots,initially quite blunt, took on more and more pointy forms until one day someonehit on the idea of removable crampons, which could be made more pointy stilland then taken off when they weren’t needed.

Climbers also ascended in long skirts and generallyrespectable looking attire if they were women in the Victorian era, assurprisingly many were. A more informal look had come in by the 1930s, however.

Mountaineering Group at Kea Point (nearAoraki/Mount Cook), 20 February 1896. photographed by Joseph James Kinsey. Fromleft, rear, Matthias Zurbriggen, Isabel Baker, Jack Clarke. From left, front,‘Signor Borsalino’, John Holland Baker, May Kinsey, Noeline Baker. Zurbriggenand Clarke are names in New Zealand alpinism; Clarke was part of the firstparty to summit Mount Cook in 1894 and Zurbriggen, a Swiss, was among otherthings the first to summit Mt Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. J.J. Kinsey was a Christchurch businessman deeply involved in the organisation ofthe Antarctic expeditions of Scott and Shackleton, later knighted for servicesto polar exploration. (Reference PA1-q -137-66-1, Alexander Turnbull Library,

Freda du Faur, the first woman to climb Aoraki /Mount Cook. Photograph by GeorgeMannering circa 1910, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, NZ, via WikimediaCommons.


‘Mount Oates Mountaineering Party at the MinghaRiver’, 15 February 1931. From left, Betsy Blunden, John Dobree Pascoe and BryanBarrer. Betsy Blunden was the first woman to work as a guide at Mount Cook,from 1928 onward, and the world’s first female alpine guide. Pascoe would go onto become a famous photographer. (Reference PA1-o-407-089-5,Alexander Turnbull Library)


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