Mueller Hut, 29-30 March 2014

Mueller Hut, 29-30 March 2014

Sitting at 1800 metres on the Sealy Range in the Mt Cook National Park, the Mueller Hut on a fine day provides a panoramic view of glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks.

To make the most of the weekend there, the five of us – Bruce, Barry, Catherine, Christine and Dorothy – left Timaru at 6 am on Saturday morning and arrived at the DOC Visitor Centre before its 8.30 am opening time. Bruce had been in phone contact a couple of days before and places were reserved for us. Just as well because with the recently introduced on-line booking system others were not so lucky. One Christchurch party who had planned an overnight trip to the hut weeks before, were told when they called at the Centre soon after us, that the hut was already full. Feeling gutted, they had no option but to be satisfied with a day trip to the hut.

From the White Horse Hill carpark we joined the well-worn track across the scrubby flat to Kea Point and soon branched off to begin the steep 1000 m climb, first to the Sealy Tarns located at about the halfway point and then following what is described as a ‘route’ for the rest of the way.

With 1800 wooden steps constructed in recent times, the track is somewhat easier than it used to be. However, while it may be ‘easier’ it is definitely not easy! It is a steep ascent that in some places could be likened to climbing a ladder! The Sealy Tarns are nestled on a narrow bench and with a table and seats alongside the larger one it is a natural place to rest, have a snack and admire fabulous views of all the mountains and the Hooker and Mueller Glaciers with their meltwater lakes. With no wind Mt Sefton, the Footstool and Mt Cook were perfectly reflected in the tarn’s still waters.

Continuing upwards, where the climb seems slightly easier, the trail winds through alpine scrub and herb fields, past a large jumble of big boulders and over a steep slope of scree, finally cresting the Sealy ridge. Here the imposing glacier-clad eastern face of Mt Sefton presents a magical sight. Turning south for the last 20 minute hike, we followed poles and cairns along the gently rising, rocky ridge until the bright red Mueller hut stood out under the summit of Mt Ollivier.

Pleased to have arrived at the hut by 1 pm, we were happy to dump our loaded packs, find ourselves a bed and have some lunch. By now blue skies and sunshine were beginning to appear and, with 1933 m Mt Ollivier waiting to be scaled, it wasn’t long before we took off along the rocky ridge for the summit, carefully negotiating our way around and between large boulders. The views were stupendous in every direction: from the snow-covered Annette Plateau, the head of the Mueller Glacier and the aptly named Scissor mountains at its head, to Mount Sefton, the Footstool, Cook and the mountains beyond it. Looking down, the glaciers and terminal lakes, Mt Cook village, the Tasman River and Lake Pukaki were stand-out features. Altogether, a majestic, powerful, dramatic landscape. With some regularity our attention was attracted to Mt Sefton as we listened to and watched avalanches of ice crashing off the iceshelf down the vertical face and onto the Frind Glacier below.

We looked over to another peak marked by a large rock cairn in the direction of the Annette Plateau that we figured was Mt Kitchener but with a moderate wind blowing and feeling satisfied with having reached the summit of Ollivier, decided to descend and explore a little in the area of the hut. It was nice to have the time to amble along, to sit and admire the hanging glaciers, crevasses, near and far-away peaks; to spot the Sefton bivvy through binoculars; to marvel at the orchids and other little plants that survive in this harsh, rocky environment; to etch our names in one of very few patches of snow around and to watch one young overseas tourist running with gusto to shoo the keas away from his little orange tent.

The Mueller Hut which opened in 2003, the fifth one to be built on the Sealy Range, is unheated but does have gas for cooking and the luxury of solar lighting.

Bruce, the leader, had very kindly prepared a hearty meal for us at home the night before coming and lugged it up the mountain. Rice was cooked and the meal was soon ready. What a treat for those of us who prepare meals every night at home! And what a treat to be able to enjoy our meal while looking out the windows at our country’s highest peak ‘the cloud piercer’, Sefton and the Footstool.

The highlight of the evening was to stand outside and witness the sun setting on Mt Cook. Next morning the brilliant pinks, reds and oranges of the sunrise lighting the skies behind the Liebig Range, the pink glow on Mt Sefton followed by the first rays of sunshine striking its summit were equally impressive and unforgettable sights.

Unfortunately all good things come to an end. We left the hut at 9 am, saying goodbye to the voluntary hut wardens (Ron and Diane Paulin from Timaru) and set off down the track, soon stopping briefly to watch and photograph five inquisitive young keas. The descent was broken by a rest and something to eat at the Sealy Tarns before the knee-crunching, stomping descent of the steps. Back at the vehicle by 12.30 pm, we called at the DOC Visitor Centre to check out and to spend some time looking at the many interesting exhibits. With seemingly no expense spared on this new Centre, one could easily spend half a day there viewing the excellent displays and watching audiovisual presentations on the natural and mountaineering history of the area.

We had a short break at Tekapo and were home by 4.15 pm, happy with what we had accomplished over the weekend. Getting to the Mueller Hut involves a strenuous climb but is well worth the effort.

Special thanks to Bruce for arranging this trip and preparing the evening meal and to the others for their cheerful company.

Dorothy Tomlinson

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