Hooker Track & to the TOP of Mt. Cook (Day 3) 23 February 2006

I went to the top of Mt. Cook yesterday! Unbelievable. I splurged on a scenic helicopter ride – nearly an hour – and it [almost] left me speechless. We flew up the Tasman Valley (where I am staying, in Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park), over the Tasman Glacier, which is not the longest in the world outside the Arctic Circles but in the southern hemisphere. I still don’t remember how long it is, but I think not 70km – maybe 27km! We then flew between Mt. Tasman and some other peak, over the Main Divide (I presume their version of the Continental Divide) and landed on the Franz Josef Glacier, which is 11km long. I simply could not believe the spectacularly beautiful scenery – literally surrounded by jagged, pointy peaks and snow, and icefalls! As you can imagine, I was in heaven, or felt like it.

It was a fun ride – when we landed on the glacier, another chopper landed, and we switched choppers – I guess the one we started out in had to go back to the coast.

We then took off again, and he flew us over several icefalls and then over Fox Glacier (and I took about 100 photos), and then, as we headed back, we flew back over the Main Divide and the pilot pointed out a cabin and several climbers that were awaiting his services on the next run – the hut and climbers were at about 11,000 feet on a bit of flat rock, surrounded by glacier ice and snow – very cool! We then flew down over the Tasman Glacier again, and to my surprise, we then headed back up and approached Mt. Cook – flying at over 12,000 feet!!! We were coming straight at it, and proceeded to fly around it, and then over it. But as we started to go over (I am laughing right now, literally feeling the motion again as the chopper is rocking with the wind!), we were pushed back by the wind at the top (he called it a sou’easterly), so had to be content with continuing to gaze straight across at the sides and top of the razor-sharp, literally steeple-pointed peaks… wondering in amazement at exactly where climbers aspire to and reach. It made me think of the film “Touching the Void”. We were told by our bus driver that the mountain claims about 4 lives per year. I hope to put some of the photos on the site as soon as I find an internet cafe with a USB connection (for my camera). I did not think to use my phone camera!

Now, as for the Hooker Track… it was a wonderful hike. The 6 miles took me 4.5 hours. It was mostly flat – only about 700′ elevation gain, but the track (trail) is beautifully maintained, and very popular, so there were a fair number of hikers of every age. It is very rocky, starting off in a wide open field of alpine grass, then changing to rolling rocky lateral morraine from the glacier’s passage. Just off the track is the Alpine Memorial, commemorating those who have died on Mt. Cook – a beautiful, sharp pyramid monument built out of stone. Although Mt. Cook is now hidden by another steep foothill, the view to the left is of the many spectacular hanging toes of the Mueller Glacier. Only a short way after the memorial, as the sound rose in volume, we took a steep turn down to the first of two hanging bridges, this one across the runoff from Lake Mueller – milky grey-white water roaring over gi-normeous boulders. The bridge was very cool – with a warning that only 20 persons were allowed on the bridge at one time.

The track then proceeds a long way up the valley between rocky, thickly vegetated morraine hills, the track very rocky, and the sound of the river subsided. But as it proceeds up the valley, Mt. Cook reappears and thereafter totally dominates the sky. The sound rises again, and then a much more spectacular hanging bridge appears, just after the track hugs the wall of the cliff for about 200 feet. At this point trampers (hikers) are warned by a sign on the fenced in section of the cliff “DANGER, falling rock – DO NOT STOP between signs!” After the bridge, the terrain became decidedly alpine tundra, with wet marsh everywhere, and the track was often built into wooden slats. When we finally reached Hooker Lake and the glacier, about 3 miles up the valley, it was dirty brown, as are many glaciers in NZ – the mountain falling on them faster than they advance.

On the way back, I enjoyed the bridges as much as the first time – maybe more! As I was about to start to cross the first bridge on the way back (the more spectacular one), I noticed an older couple taking off on the trail across on the other side. I had noticed this trail when I passed by the first time – it looked very dicey, and had thought of Therese, nervously crossing the scree slope near the top of our Long’s Peak hike. This was much steeper, and the track was a *very* thin, crossing a very steep scree slope that plunged straight into the roaring river. To get to this trail, you have to go through a gate – not locked, but closed, but I noticed when I passed by the second time, there is no warning. Anyway, I was noticing this couple, the fellow heading up across the slope *in sandals!*, and I said to myself, boy, I wouldn’t do that in any kind of shoe, and thought they were taking unnecessary chances. I watched for a few minutes, as he kept going slowly and gesturing to his companion (his wife?), who was hesitating, watching, to come on. This continued for several minutes, as she watched and waited, and he progressed slowly. Anyway, I headed on across the bridge, wondering if I should stay and watch, or do something, or what. Something distracted me, and the next time I looked, they had more of an audience, but the fellow was working his way back, **much** more slowly (I wonder if he had slipped and been spooked and changed his mind?), and to my great relief, they were close to the safer part.

I meant to mention in my last post that it was done in the internet cafe at the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe – a charming place with floor to ceiling windows looking at Mt. Cook. I then, as I did last night, walked home in the complete dark following the white center line of the road to get to my motel.

A few more images:
* I saw two fellows during the hike, at different times, wearing very colorful horizontal striped leggings.
* A blazing sky full of the Milky Way and maybe, the Southern Cross? Have to ask Karen!
* Cyclists and kayakers began to arrive last night for a multi-sport event (ironmman) starting today.

I am disappointed that I did not see a Kea parrot, the cheeky birds that love to eat tourists’ food – they are common in this area.