Every December, mountain-lovers are drawn to the majestic Mount Cook National Park. Follow the greatest climber of them all – local boy Sir Edmund Hillary
He is known simply as Sir Ed. People talk about him as if he’s still alive, still climbing, still imparting words of wisdom. Sir Edmund Hillary may have died in 2008 but his spirit lives on throughout New Zealand, and nowhere more so than around Aoraki – Mt Cook – where he first strapped on a pair of boots and climbed into the mountains.
It was there I learned about the man’s achievements – and not just the first ascent of Everest: he was the first man to reach the South Pole since Amundsen and Scott, and the first to stand at both poles and on top of Everest (he visited the North Pole with none other than Neil Armstrong in a twin engine ski plane).
As I drove towards Aoraki down the long road from the highway I was fascinated by the stunning cerulean-blue Lake , its garish colour caused by glacial deposits. But it was nothing compared to the sight that greeted me as I came round a bend and saw the mountain for the first time. Mt Cook could not look more splendid or imposing if it had been specially designed.
An hour later I sat in my room at the spectacularly sited Hermitage Hotel, just staring out of the window. Wisps of cloud formed and re-formed around the long summit ridge, and the colour of the snow and rock changed as the sun moved through the sky. At dinner, at the accurately named Panorama Restaurant, I was just as transfixed, though the parade of gourmet food – including trout from the glacial lake (of course) and local wine (naturally) – proved successful at diverting at least some of my attention.
That night I gazed through high-powered telescopes at distant clusters of stars and even other galaxies, not visible in our unfortunate northern hemisphere. It was pitch black, clear and dead quiet. My host took great pleasure in telling me that we were 220km from the nearest traffic light.
The name of the mountain is a powerful reminder of New Zealand’s split personality. New Zealand’s highest peak is known as Aoraki, or Mount Cook, or Aoraki Mount Cook. Aoraki means ‘cloud piercer’ in Maori; its English name honours that Cook – British naval Captain James Cook, who first circumnavigated New Zealand on his epic voyage of discovery and thus became the first European to set eyes on the mountain.
As fond as I am of one of the greatest explorers of all time, the Maori name does seem more appropriate – particularly as you stand in the valley below, staring up at the summit. It is impossible to stand there for long without giving in to the overwhelming desire to don hiking gear, strap on crampons, grab an ice axe and head into the hills.
The same desire seems to have fired the young Edmund Hillary when he first gazed on this sight in 1939, aged 20. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the mountain; when he became the first living New Zealander to appear on a dollar bill, he insisted that Mt Cook was pictured behind him, not Everest. Born and raised many hundreds of kilometres to the north in Auckland, he was something of a loner at school; during his long daily train journeys to and from school he used to read tales of derring-do, and imagined one day taking part in such adventures himself.
He first saw the mountains on a school trip aged 16, and it did not take him long to head to the Southern Alps and attempt his first climb. Following in his footsteps, I decided to start with an easy-ish climb to break myself in. At 3,754m Mt Cook, with its terrifying mix of glacier and loose rock, requires the full climbing rig; however, its little friend Mt Ollivier is doable in shorts and trainers.
My guide was Hugh: wiry, tanned, and squarely in the tradition of New Zealand mountaineers who, inspired by Sir Ed and that extraordinary generation, have come to be a major force in the world of alpine climbing. He tore off, taking advantage of the cool early-morning air and the light mist that kept the sun off us for the first two hours. As we switchbacked up the steep sides of the glacial valley he explained about the processes that carved out the massive features, from the seismic activity that had pushed up the razor-sharp Southern Alps along the length of New Zealand’s South Island to more recent erosion caused by the old Maori practice of burning forests to flush out moa – large flightless birds that were eventually hunted to extinction.
The Southern Alps are not hugely high but they provide plenty of challenges. Sir Ed served his apprenticeship in these peaks, making first ascents a-plenty. Hugh pointed out lines and routes as we climbed, naming the adventurous souls who pioneered them – many of them mad European climbers who came to New Zealand at the turn of the last century and found an unexplored alpine playground.
There is more history in these hills than a casual observer might think. Hugh gestured at the rusting remains of the lifts that used to pull skiers up the mountains as long ago as the 19th century; they fell into disrepair as the massive Hooker Glacier shrank to a shadow of its former self. Rough hillsides of boulders dumped by the melting glacier replaced a perfect ice sheet. Now trees are starting to push through the scree and rocks, and you can see the process that will one day make this a steep, lush, wooded valley.
By 11am the sun had burned through the wispy clouds and fog; suddenly the whole expanse of the valley, the glaciers and Mt Cook were visible. We stood silently, absorbing the staggering views that stretched all around us: a vast wilderness, a paradise with jagged peaks, sky-blue lakes and majestic glaciers.
Luckily we had broken the back of the climb. As we gulped down water Hugh recounted Sir Ed’s first experiences in these mountains; he had also chosen Mt Ollivier for his first climb. Perhaps Everest beckons for me too...
Like Sir Ed, we stopped at the Mueller Hut. There has been a cosy shelter here since 1914, though the harsh climate takes its toll – periodically it has to be rebuilt. After the Second World War, materials for a new hut were dropped by an Air Force Dakota; hardy builders retrieved the scattered bundles and sledged down the frozen slopes atop them, using the parachutes as brakes and ice axes to steer. Every bundle was retrieved. The current hut is the fifth incarnation, built in the 1990s; 130 flights carried in some 60 tonnes of equipment.
The hut sits in a bowl, the valley floor far below; above the hut loom several peaks, making it an ideal place from which to strike out if you want to summit one of them early in the day. The hut is built on boulders – trees and grass won’t grow this high – and provides pretty sumptuous accommodation. It’s certainly a good deal better than in Sir Ed’s day, with mattresses, weather forecasts, gas stoves and water – everything you need to escape a rough day on the mountain.
We pushed on, and Hugh started to eye Mt Sealey, slightly higher than Ollivier and another of Sir Ed’s early conquests. We gazed up at it longingly, but the saddle between the two peaks is heavily corniced, with the remains of a once-great glacier below – and we’d left our crampons in the car.
Over the years, climbers have searched every boulder for an old tin box containing paper and pencil in which summiteers left notes; Sir Ed is known to have written such a message after his first summit but no one has ever found the box. For a second I eyed the nearest few rocks and thought about tearing them up, before being overwhelmed by the futility of it. Instead, we ate our sandwiches as an east wind howled up the valley and crashed into Mt Ollivier, making the summit ridge uncomfortably chilly as the sweat quickly froze to our skin.
We meandered back down the moraine, doing what I love doing best in the mountains: attempting to find new routes, trying to read the terrain despite never having seen this stretch of hillside before. We came to vertical patches of bald rock, deep fissures slicing through them, which we had to skirt, but also useful little stream beds that were perfect for scrambling down.
As we got lower the temperature on the sheltered western face of the mountain rose, and slowly patches of grass and wildflowers became the norm. We rejoined the marked path to make the final descent, and were amazed to see tourists in flip flops attempting to climb to the Mueller Hut or beyond with no water and only two hours of daylight left.
The owner knew Sir Ed well and has assembled a fascinating collection of papers, pictures and objects connected with the mountaineer. He showed me round the exhibition, explaining that Sir Ed is famous in New Zealand for far more than the first ascent of Everest. There was his epic trip to the South Pole, ascents of Mt Cook and a daring rescue on that peak, an utterly stunning tale of bravery and mountaineering skill. Above all there is a real sense that his spirit lives on, driving generations of New Zealanders to take to the mountains but also to think deeply about their responsibilities to the landscape and environment.
The following day I took a helicopter up the route that Hillary pioneered and along which he also mounted the rescue attempt. We clung to the ridge, the pilot reminding me that Mt Cook is as challenging as any terrain in the world. The wind shook our little chopper like a leaf as we circled the peak itself and I got a good look at the various routes to the top, particularly the south ridge, first ascended by Hillary.
We set the helicopter down on the glacier and, donning crampons, tentatively walked to the edge where, for the first time, I looked down on the west coast. The situation felt deeply precarious, and I was almost glad to be up in the helicopter again, buffeted by the wind that howled over the ridges.
On the way back along the still-impressive Hooker Glacier we spotted two figures in that unmistakeable hunched position of mountaineers: hoods up, ice axes in hand, lifting one booted foot after the other and placing them deliberately a few inches further up the glacier. As always, I wondered how on earth they’d ever make the summit – but of course they probably did: step by step, with one eye on the weather and another on the mountain. Just like Sir Ed used to do.
A new four-day walking trail named after Sir Ed will opened to trekkers in January 2010. The Hillary Trail is described as a back-to-basics tramping experience – hikers can camp along the route, which skirts the North Island’s west coast near Auckland. The trail begins at the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park and traverses some of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches – including Sir Ed’s favourite, Anawhata – on the way to the endpoint at Muriwai. Information is available from www.arc.govt.nz
Dan travelled with Audley Travel