Welcome to Mt Cook National Park
Of all our national parks Mt Cook National Park is the least accessible. Even Fiordland National Park for all its remoteness and challenging weather is home to several Great Walks and plenty of shorter excursions that can be completed relatively easily from a car park. Mt Cook National Park is not like that. The main access point is the road to Mt Cook Village, so far so good but the road comes to an abrupt halt just beyond the village. There is scarcely any transition from tame to feral. One moment you are amongst crowds of camera touting visitors enjoying the gentle manicured paths, board walks and bridges coupled with plentiful signage and carefully labelled viewing platforms that mark the lower reaches of the Mueller and Hooker valleys. The next you’re sharing ground trails with goats though these trails quickly surrender to do it yourself route finding through scree, rubble, bluffs, unstable rock piles, thin shreds of alpine vegetation and scrawny tussocks. The Spaniards are typically robust but the associated puncture wounds and blood stained clothes render them a last resort. The flimsy stems of the beautiful Mt Cook lily are everywhere but afford little by way of physical support. Should you survive trial by vegetation you have the typical moraine, glaciers, crevasses and the steep snow slopes that go hand in hand with big mountains to look forward to.
But not the mountains you see on the top of Swiss chocolate boxes or the cover of Lonely Planet. With all due respect to the Hermitage, the Old Mountaineers Cafe and the White Horse Campground Mt Cook National Park is somewhat lacking in green pastures festooned with pretty alpine flowers, cable cars and cute chalets as per Europe. The relatively undeveloped state of the Park is in many ways for the better but it does mean that most visitors must be content with taking scenic flights above the mountains or one of the few short walks up the Hooker Valley. If your fitness and skill levels are up to it and it’s summer there is the possibility of venturing to Mueller Hut or possibly up the Tasman a little to Ball Hut. These options are pleasant enough but they are at the “look and don’t touch” end of the experience range and hardly scratch the surface of the treats in the Park. To actually get amongst it all you need alpine gear, alpine skills and alpine experience. Mt Cook National Park is for climbers.
Accessing the Climbing Park
It’s this “look but don’t touch” vibe that kept me away from the Park until relatively late in life. Why drive to the middle of nowhere just to stare at mountains from your car? Better to hang out in the other parks where you can tramp for weeks in remote, beautiful and accessible landscapes. It was only after I became reasonably proficient in the art of using ice tools and crampons along with ropes for glacier travel and pitching climbs that I chose to enter. My first visit was both worth the wait and a salutary reminder of the power of mountain weather. We completed the classic trans-alpine circuit along the Sealy Range heading first up to Mueller Hut from the village camping below Mt Sealy then traversing round to Barron Saddle hut then back via the Mueller glacier. We got out just before a large depression arrived. It lingered leaving friends trapped in Barron Saddle Hut for the best part of a week.
Other trips soon followed. They were of a deceptively luxurious style that predominates in this Park. Chopper up to a flat spot near a remote hut/base camp where you stash all your food and gear for a week or so while you climb as many peaks as the weather, snow conditions, skill and fitness permit. I say deceptively luxurious because unlike European alpine huts that come with decent heating and hot meals and pretty much anything else you care to pay for New Zealand alpine huts while flash by our backcountry hut standards still only contain mountain radios, gas cookers and great views. The fridge is the snow outside your hut, there is generally no heating, you do your own cooking, if the toilet is buried you dig it out yourself, if the water tank is frozen you melt snow for water and bed space is relative. If there are more people than mattresses you top and tail. There is no booking system. The huts are open to whoever turns up.
Even for climbers, without the benefit of a helicopter or float plane most peaks in Mt Cook National Park require a multi-day approach march. While walking in is good for fitness, snow condition assessment and soaking up the general alpine vibe you also run the risk of exhausting your weather window and yourself before you get a chance to climb anything. You must carry more food and gear. Alpine climbing is all about efficiency. In New Zealand conditions this often means electing to fly to near your objective. One peak of moderate difficulty that is best reached by simply walking from Mt Cook Village is the Footstool. I’d had my eye on the relatively straight forward main divide route for some time. In early November 2013 weather and snow conditions coincided with pre-booked cheap flights to Christchurch. Mike, DJ and I headed south.
Footstool Part 1: Sefton Biv Scramble
The Footstool (2764m) is a pointy, slightly scrawny dwarf of a mountain flanked by Cadogan Peak (2449m) on one side and the drama of Mt Sefton’s (3151m) noisy east face on the other – ice falls off the steep east face almost continuously. It sounds like someone stirring up cutlery in a commercial kitchen sink magnified lots. Cloud cover permitting you can see the Footstool from Mt Cook Village though most of those doing the looking are more interested in the noisy one (Sefton) and the gorgeous one (Aoraki).
Footstool is accessed by heading up the Hooker Valley then following Stocking Stream from the Hooker Shelter until below the Stocking Glacier. From the remnant glacier you head up scree into a large rubble filled gully which if you are lucky contains snow. The gully leads to a rocky slope north of the main ridge. Above this slope you follow a tussock gully onto vegetated rock ledges that ramp back to the main ridge. Once the ridge is gained it is just a matter of following the edge of the Tewaewae glacier all the way to Sefton Bivvy. You can head up the main ridge from the scree but none of us fancied that route it looked by a considerable margin the least appealing of several less than appealing alternatives.
Mike selects a gully to the left of the main ridge gambling the snow visible on the lower slopes will continue all the way and that no avalanches will come down to greet him. He arrives at the Bivvy before DJ and me giving him plenty of time to dig it out as it’s almost entirely covered in snow. DJ and I engage in a couple of hours of sustained scrambling with a few pauses to soak in the exposure and admire a woolly Tahr close up. I manage to snap a few photos of the glorious views back down to the Hooker Valley floor, the Hooker lake at the bottom of the Hooker glacier and across to the Mt Cook Range to La Perouse (3078m) and the magnificent south face of Aoraki/Mt Cook. On our left hand side we were treated to views across to Mueller Hut, the Sealy Range, Sefton, Footstool and Codagan. Not a bad reward for about three hours of effort.
The oldest shelter in Mt Cook National Park
Sefton Bivvy is a small orange dwelling that sleeps four people. It is not insulated and you can’t stand up in it. There are a couple of mattresses though and a mountain radio so you can tune in at 7pm each night and get the weather forecast and find out who is in the surrounding huts. It’s one of oldest buildings in the Park built in the 1900s by the then Chief Guide for the Park, Pete Graham. He decided having a bivvy would make climbing Sefton and Footstool easier. Climbing Sefton from here remains a significant mission but the bivvy certainly makes both peaks more accessible and visiting this delightful spot is an excellent and challenging trip in itself. I’m in awe of those early climbers who carried the building materials up here on their backs!
We’re stoked to find the Bivvy empty and waste no time moving in. A party of four arrives soon after us having come up to climb Footstool as part of their training for Mt Cook. They get to camp at the rock bivvies behind Sefton Bivvy. While the rocks look inviting in the afternoon sunshine I have no doubt it will be very cold out there come sun down. It’s cold enough inside our orange palace. As I’ve got a cold of my own I promptly retire to my sleeping bag in an effort to stay warm leaving Mike and DJ to enjoy the sunset. A couple of times they insist I pop out for a viewing. When I reluctantly comply it’s worth getting cold all over again for.
Footstool Part 2: Three Climbers, Two Glaciers, One Ice Bulge
Usually for me the term “alpine start” is just a euphemism for a sleepless night punctuated by numerous checks of my watch to establish whether it is nearly time to get out of my nice warm sleeping bag. This time though, possibly due to my cold induced pre-fatigue I sleep right through until various alarms wake us all. After a hot drink and a quick breakfast we’re on the snow by 4am with another pair of climbers that arrived after we went to bed just in front of us. Snow conditions are great for cramponing. If step plugging had been required immediately we would have probably retreated to our sleeping bags. The main divide route crosses east facing slopes meaning they catch the sun at first light ensuring the snow is slush by mid-morning.
After warming up on the traverse we stop to rope up for the Eugenie glacier. Although DJ and I have climbed with Mike who is from Austria many times this is our first time climbing together on a glacier. We discover that a combination of darkness, the early hour and Kiwi accents is not ideal for explaining the finer points of Kiwi coils. We put Mike in the middle of the rope and set off again. Conditions are cool and calm and so are we. As the sun starts to come over the horizon we’re treated to La Perouse and the south face of Aoraki/Mt Cook lighting up on our right and Mt Sefton’s east face sparkling to life on our left. We remove the rope at the large saddle on the main divide. From here it’s a steep plod up the north-east snow slopes to the summit.
As the terrain progressively steepens we switch from a single axe to two tools. As the Footstool is my third 2+ graded route I think I have some idea of what to expect. The ascent route on Footstool is shorter and less steep than either Sefton or Aspiring but with the same limited scope for resting ones calves. Beware the false comfort of expectations! Two moderate routes doesn’t an experienced Alpinist make. I look up from my two tool climbing to see a formidable looking overhanging ice bulge blocking access to the summit.
I’m taken aback. “This was supposed to be a straight forward climb” I think as I wait for DJ to catch up. I had imagined cruising triumphantly onto the summit proper as per Sefton and Aspiring, both of which have gentle final approaches. The group in front of us has pitched the ice bulge to gain the summit and Mike completely unconcerned by the ice bulge has cheekily prussicked up their rope to join them. DJ having been unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade me to head up also disappears up the ice bulge and out of sight. I watch him place and replace his tools and use his crampons to carefully find sustainable footholds. It does not look easy.
Alone at the bottom of the bulge I take some deep breaths and attach myself to the snow stake anchor Mike has left, remove my pack and attached it too. I do my best to stretch out my calves and to avoid looking down between them to the slopes far below. Better to look up at the ice bulge. “Have I come all this way to pike at the crux?” I ask myself. Meanwhile above me on the summit DJ is no doubt explaining to Mike that the third member of the team is having a crisis of confidence down below. Mike, who loves climbing ice bulges abseils down and talks me through the options for getting to the top. His calmness and refusal to contemplate the option that I simply stay where I am and wait for DJ to come back down helps me find the confidence to head up. Mike is assuming I will go up. Giving me options also helps enormously. I get to choose one. I’m back in control. I choose to be belayed from below so Mike sets up a belay and I head up with him giving me tips on the optimal foot placements along with welcome words of encouragement. I concentrate on placing my ice tools and my crampons decisively. There is some swearing but also progress upwards.
As is so often the case with obstacles we encounter in the hills and elsewhere once I get up the first few metres of overhanging ice the terrain is more straight forward and within minutes I’m climbing comfortably to the summit. The bulge is a lot easier to climb than it looked from below. By the time I arrived at the summit I’m smiling and thoroughly enjoying myself. When Mike appears shortly afterwards DJ throws him a look of respect mixed with genuine astonishment. Mike the ice bulge whisperer. The summit of the Footstool is relatively long and flat, possibly this is how it got its name, that or the fact that from the summit so many of New Zealand’s giant mountains are visible close up. It does feel like you are on a footstool looking up at all the bigger stuff. I spend a bit of time wandering around, soaking up the beauty of the place especially the precipitous south face of Sefton right beside us and the views of La Perouse and Mt Cook. Out west we can see the coast and the Copland Valley.
Using the anchor built by our predecessors we abseil off the summit and back to the steep slopes below the ice bulge. From here Mike and DJ are comfortable down climbing but I know I’ll be slow and we were now in a race against the sun which is warming the snow on the Eugenie glacier. We set up a system for lowering me for a couple of pitches then we all down climb together to the glacier where we rope up with Mike in the lead.
The snow is as soft as we feared and the trench left by the six climbers in front of us does little to help as Mike wades from one hole to the next. Descent is slow, tiring but highly amusing at least for DJ and me as we laugh at Mike’s frequent plunges into deep holes and his interesting manoeuvres to free himself. We’re in a relaxed mood knowing the climb is largely behind us and it will just require a bit of perseverance to get down. At the bottom of the glacier we stop for a rest, some food and to enjoy the views. The snow is slightly firmer here so we put the rope away and each head down to the Bivvy at our own pace.
Arriving at the Bivvy at noon we decide that we will pack up and head back to the Village leaving the accommodation free for new climbers. The lure of a pizza and beer at the Old Mountaineers Café may have also played its part in our decision-making. After a second lunch we head down to the Hooker Valley floor the way Mike ascended. This route is easier than that favoured by DJ and I the day before. Apart from occasionally sinking in snow up to our thighs or getting lodged between snow and rock we make rapid progress. After another leisurely break at the snow line where we pack away our crampons and ice tools while enjoying some snacks and admiring all the alpine flowers we continue to the valley floor.
Wandering back down the board walks of the Hooker Valley each of us at our own pace, each of us is happy in our own way. Mike is happy to at last find a New Zealand climb that doesn’t involve a huge walk in. DJ is happy to climb a mountain he has not already climbed. I’m happy to climb a mountain.