For the second time in my life, I was defeated by a mountain. Call it fear, or a self-acknowledgement of my personal limitations, but sometimes, I have to know when to quit. I’m an avid hiker, and love getting out into the wilderness and the mountains, but when it comes to tramping, there are three things that I don’t enjoy: lots of stairs, boulder scrambling, and rock faces to negotiate. I’d happily walk up a steep path than have to negotiate the monotony of flight after flight of stairs, and somehow I lose the enjoyment of a walk if I have to get down on my hands to negotiate a boulder field or haul myself up a rock face.
I awoke in Mount Cook village to another glorious blue sky with the sun beating down from above. Knowing how fickle the weather can be in the mountains, I got going early. From the YHA hostel in the lower village, the path snakes through to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village and near there, a shared path leads off towards various end points. This first section is the same start as that for the Hooker Valley track, but today I took the left fork towards Kea Point. Mt Sefton glistened in the morning sunlight as I headed nearer it. Along the path the Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut track split off into the bushes, but I headed forth towards Kea Point which sat on the moraine bank of the Mueller glacier terminal lake. A small amount of cloud swirled around the summit of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook lay half in shadow in the distance. There were no kea to be seen, and only a few dedicated people were up at this time, so the viewpoint was peaceful and quiet.
On the return trip, the valley opened up before me, with the Hermitage hotel just poking up above the bushes. Back at the start of the Sealy Tarns track, a sign warned of avalanche risk for those heading to Mueller Hut on the Sealy range. I was heading as far as the Sealy tarns, but at the back of my mind, I hoped to continue up to the hut if the conditions would allow. Soon after getting on to this track, the steps started. 2200 of them to be precise. The altitude gain is around 540m, and it is mostly achieved through negotiating step after step after step. Despite my dislike of steps, the view is fantastic from every available vantage point. With increasing altitude, a slightly different perspective is obtained of the hooker glacier, the mueller glacier, and the valley past the village. Mt Sefton felt increasingly within reach, and there was a frequent burst of sound from avalanches cavorting down Mt Sefton’s slopes.
On this occasion, the snowline was at the level of the tarns. Some stale snow was scattered by the path just below the final gain in height, and the tarns themselves were frozen over. A picnic table has been erected to give a perfect spot to stare out at the world below. After a brief respite for fluid replenishment, I decided to give the Mueller hut track a go. On the ascent to Sealy tarns, I had met a few hikers coming down who had spent the night in the hut. They had reported that there was plenty of snow between the tarns and the hut, and that it was quite slushy in places. By the time I reached the tarns, a group of friends that I had met lower down on the track were disappearing into the far distance above me. Another sign warns of avalanche risk, and from here onwards, the path is narrow, rough and marked only by orange poles.
It started off innocent enough: a rough, stony path that was easy to follow, but not hugely far up was a small rock face to scramble up, and a little beyond that another one. It was at this point that I started to question my sanity. I had done that one thing that no hiker should do: go off tramping without telling anyone my route plan or expected time of return. Not only that, but I was not at my peak level of fitness, and here I was, on my own with no-one to spot me, negotiating the best route up a rock face. Granted, it was just a small rock face, not one that needed ropes or special equipment, but I found myself pausing to decide in my head the sense in going on. I was keen to get up to the hut, to see the view, feel the achievement in doing so, and be able to tell people I’d done it. On the other hand, my dislike (and a touch of fear) of rock scrabbling, and the thought of tackling all of this just to find out that I couldn’t get across the snow, eventually made me turn back and return to the tarns.
Sealy tarns sits at an elevation of 1250m, and I estimate that I gained maybe only another 50m, if that. With Mueller hut at 1800m, it would have been a long stressful hike onwards for me. Defeated, I returned to the picnic table and hoovered up my lunch, my pride slightly wounded.
Just 45 mins earlier, the view from the tarns had included a lot of cloud that had billowed over Mt Sefton, but shortly after my return, the cloud had burned off somewhat and the view was delightful. Several avalanches skipped down Mt Sefton’s slopes, and the full colour palette of the Mueller glacier lake was evident below. The amount of sediment in the water determines the colour, and there was a mix of blues and greys. Unfortunately, the alpine flowers were not yet in bloom, and I’m sure they look spectacular when the time is right. Two kea appeared to goad each other, one landing briefly near the table. Many hikers appeared, and sat for a while, and I spent around 45mins soaking up the view, reluctant to leave. Eventually though, I thought it only fair to leave the view for others, and I headed off back down the many many steps to the bottom.
This time round, with less exertion required, I could actually pay attention to the creatures and plants around me. Little birds flitted between the vegetation, some curious, some alarmed by my presence. There were crickets everywhere: brown ones near the top, and green ones lower down. I learned later at the Mount Cook visitor centre (which is well worth a visit!) that these are adaptations to the environment, and that other colours appear at other altitudes also. I also discovered at the visitor centre, that there was an ice and crampon warning for the Mueller Hut track which made me feel slightly better about my failed ascent. By the time I was near the bottom, the cloud had started to roll in again, and the summits of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook were once again shrouded. The morning is definitely the best time of the day to get out in the mountains. I reached the Hermitage hotel, and sat absorbing the sunshine, gazing over at the statue of Edmund Hillary who forever gazes towards the summit of Mount Cook.