Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mt. Cook (Aoraki) and some mountaineering history

Mt. Cook which had been hidden behind clouds the previous day- stood out clearly rising behind Lake Pukaki as we drove in from Lake Tekapo. Mt. Cook or Aoraki- named by the Maori meaning "sky piercer" is the highest mountain in New Zealand- at 12,316 ft (3,754 m). While much smaller than the Himalayas- it is just as challenging. The first 10,000 feet are a vertical ascent. That and the sustained glacial climbing, rapidly changing weather conditions, high likelihood of avalanches (we heard two just yesterday) and between 15-20 hours to the summit and back- make this climb only available to the most experienced climbers. About 250 people climb this every year- although I am not sure how many of those actually summit.

The first recorded ascent was done in 1882 by William Green (Irish), Emil Boss (Swiss) and the guide- Urich Kauffman (Swiss). The first woman to climb was Freda du Faur who's photo is below. In 1906, when visiting Christchurch from her home country of Australia to see an exhibit- she also visited Mt. Cook. It appears that she was then hooked. By 1909, she was training as a mountaineer. Only one year later- she summited Mt. Cook (in a skirt on less) on 3 December 1910- with the fastest recorded time. Her life is fascinating. Before her suicide in 1935, she published an autobiography entitled "The Conquest of Mt. Cook" which was published in 1915. I found this audio documentary about her life-

And Sir Edmond Hillary, a resident New Zealand mountaineer, reached the summit in 1958. The locals believe that his training on Mt. Cook provided him with the skills needed to summit Mt. Everest.

So- no, we won't be snapping photos from the summit while we are here. In fact, the weather has turned so much that we're stuck indoors for what may be the entire day. We did have perfect weather for the majority of the day yesterday so went on a hike through Hooker Valley- complete with three frighteningly long swing bridges (which Nate clearly is not bothered by- photo below), beautiful views of Mt. Cook, the excitement of hearing two nearby avalanches and the chance to see and hold glacial ice that broke off the glacier last week... An incredible day- I'm so thankful we arrived yesterday and not today!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Last trek in New Zealand- Milford Trek

The Milford Track is known as one of the finest walks in the world. For 6 months of the year- it has 40 "independent trampers" a day- every day. Then there are also folks trekking on the Guided Walks tours. This is the luxury version where porters carry the food and bedding for the trampers - and the trampers are treated to comfortable beds and hot showers followed by wine and/or beer (that they didn't have to carry). In direct opposition, we sleep in separate huts located on different locations on the trail. We rarely see each other on the trail. I found this breakdown between the two options on a Guided Walks website-

Going Guided--
Comfortable lodges
Comfortable beds
Drying rooms
Hot showers
Meals provided
Travel provided
Small backpacks
Knowledgable guides

Going it alone--
Basic huts
Carry your own bedding
You get wet, you stay wet!
No showers
Carry & cook your own food
Arrange your own logistics
Large backpacks

What they don't mention is the enormous cost difference. It is significantly cheaper to do the hike on "your own" (you're never on your own- there are 39 others)- than with the Guided Walks. The Guided walks are around $1900 for Milford Track while doing it independently is several hundred dollars (yes, still costly). The base cost is for buses to and from the ferry, the ferry at the start and end of the track and the huts for each night on the trail. All of the other Great Walks that we have done also had a cheaper camping option. Due to the extreme amount of rainfall in the Fiordland region of the South Island- huts are the only option.

The plus side (and there are many) to going with the Guided Walkers is that you carry a significantly lighter pack and are able to take a hot shower at the end of the day! The Independent trampers also do the Milford Sound hike in less time while the Guided Walkers having an extra day on the trail. It's a great option for someone who is unsure of their physical condition/endurance for a multi-day trek. When my knees start to go out on me- this is what I'll be doing! It's hard to even imagine how heavenly a hot shower would be after a long day on the trail. The independent trampers go days without a shower- maybe without even bothering to change socks! If Nate and I want to clean up- we have to jump in the closest safe body of water- and have! Since I've never seen the Guided Walker's huts- I can't attest to their plushness but I'm rather sure that the hikers get a bit more privacy. The Independent trampers sleep 8 or more to a room- sometimes sharing one long wood plank to sleep on. But all this being said- I wouldn't change a thing- truly. It's how it's supposed to be done... although a glass of wine in the evenings would indeed be lovely!

So back to our hike- we got off the Milford Track on 20 April. It's a four day hike with the first day being just a short hour and a half from the ferry drop off. To hike it, you must ferry across Lake Te Anau to the trailhead. Our ferry pulled out of Te Anau Downs- and took us to the start of the trail. From there we swatted at sand flies as we strapped on our packs- took a few snap-shots and started the first of our four days. The trail was beautifully manicured all the way to the hut- following the Clinton River where we saw large rainbow trout!

The following days were quite a bit longer but very doable. The total length of the hike is 33.5 miles/55 kilometers - with the only steep push being the first two hours of the third day to reach McKinnon Pass. Because of the trails popularity, we found the condition and signage on the trail as well as the size of the huts were wonderful.

It was remarkable to walk the valley floor surrounded by lichens, moss, ferns and an amazing number of waterfalls. Fiordland is one of the wettest places in the world but NZ is in the middle of a critically serious drought - so while the waterfalls were beautiful- we were told that they are only 1/30th of their normal volume. We had no rainfall at all while on the trail- so while the environment seemed amazingly lush- the rangers seemed to think that everything seemed a bit wilted from the lack of rain. The rangers also told us stories of trampers having to push trough knee-to-hip levels of water- which explains the orange trail markers. That certainly would have changed my level of enjoyment- but at least we'd be clean! :)

The birds were also amazing. We saw the ever present fantail- showing off it's spread plumage as it dances about. The New Zealand Pigeon (Maori name is Kereru). This pigeon is the world's second largest pigeon. It's hard to imagine one that's larger. We heard the Tui- with it's unique electronica call. The Weka who looks like a Kiwi but with a shorter beak and who are not nocturnal. The I was introduced to the Kea for the first time. The Kea are an alpine parrot- the only in the world. There are only about 5,000 of them- per the Kiwi Birdlife Park ( in Queenstown- a must do if you're ever in Queenstown. Nate- who can do amazing bird calls had a half hour back and forth with them before we set off on the trail on the third day. There were around 30 or more of them perched in the trees abound the hut- probably looking for some treats. They are famous for flying away with trampers boots, unzipping backpacks and getting into whatever they can. We tied our boots laces up and hung our boots from hooks outside of the hut to dissuade them from taking our boots. I was thrilled to see my stinky shoes just where I left them the next morning. We also heard the elusive Kiwi after dark- but never have seen them in the wild. We did however have a lot of time to watch them at the Kiwi Birdlife Park- that sets up a display in a darkroom to simulate evening for these nocturnal birds.

So- now that we've completed our last hike in New Zealand- I can't help but feel torn with how much we've done/seen in our two months here but also sad to not have done more. The Routeburn Track looks fantastic. Maybe I'll have the chance to come back one day...