New Zealand offers breathtaking landscapes for anyone who loves the outdoors. It’s the ideal playground for mountaineers. Easy access and professional, experienced guides can help you climb some of the most amazing peaks in the world. The South Island of New Zealand is where climbers will want to go to experience the best that this country has to offer. Snow-capped peaks dominate South Island, with 37 peaks at more than 2,900 meters (9,500 feet) tall. The Southern Alps harbour the tallest mountains in New Zealand. All of these 37 peaks, save for one, are within 16 kilometers (10 miles) of the highest point in New Zealand, Mt Cook.
The tallest point in the country, the tippy top of Mount Cook, stands 3,724 meters (12,218 feet) above the valley below, situated along the west coast. The relative height might not seem so impressive compared to peaks such as Everest (twice as tall), but Mount Cook presents a formidable challenge and a technical climb on par with any in the Swiss Alps. Let’s take a look at climbing Mt Cook from the point of view of someone unfamiliar with this beautiful mountain.
History of Mt Cook
Indigenous Maori tribes call the highest point in New Zealand by the name Aoraki, which means “Cloud Piercer.” Maori legend has it that the sons of Raki, the sky father, turned to stone monoliths that continually watch over the islands. The mountains are sacred to the Maori who believe their gods live among these majestic peaks. The mountain is often referred to as Aoraki Mt Cook.
Europeans used the name Mount Cook for the first time in 1851. This moniker was in honor of Capt. James Cook, the intrepid English explorer who became the first European to land, map and explore the islands.
It took another 43 years before three people would become the first ones to reach the peak of Mount Cook. New Zealanders George Graham, Jack Clark, and Tom Fyfe pierced the clouds themselves on Dec. 25, 1894, as they reached the summit by ascending the north ridge of the mountain. They started in Hooker Valley, on the west side of the peak system.
This is where the legend of climbing Aoraki Mt Cook grows. It would be another 60 years before people would follow the trio’s route to the top of the highest point in New Zealand. The reason the western route is much harder is due to the steeper climb straight up the sides. Starting from the eastern sides of the peaks is more common and offers a more gradual climb.
Graham, Clark, and Fyfe stayed in the area to become mountaineering guides for climbers and explorers. The trio guided plenty of famous climbers to the top of Mount Cook.
Matthias Zurbriggen made the first successful solo climb on March 15, 1895, less than three months after the trio reached the top. Zurbriggen has a ridge named after him in honour of his ascent.
Subsequent climbs along some of the highest mountains in New Zealand routinely follow an eastern and southern route, otherwise known as the Grand Traverse. Grand Traverse climbs start from Tasman Lake, work up the eastern side of the mountains and go over two smaller peaks on the way up to the pinnacle of Mount Cook.
The first woman to scale Mount Cook was Australian Freda Du Faur. She scaled Mount Cook in December 1910. She also became the first woman to make the Grand Traverse three years after her initial ascent up Mount Cook.
Many famous mountaineers and climbers ascended Mount Cook over the years. Perhaps, most notably, was Sir Edmund Hillary in February 1948. Hillary scaled the south ridge of Mt Cook alongside Harry Ayres and Mick Sullivan, two of New Zealand’s most famous mountain guides. Ruth Adams was also with this four-person crew. Hillary made the climb five years before his famous ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. Several facilities near Mount Cook, and the south ridge that he scaled, are named for Hillary
Bill Denz ascended the south face of Mount Cook beginning in 1972. He would make that same journey at least a dozen times after that initial climb. Denz made this amazing climb by himself as one of the best solo mountaineers to reach the summit.
Difficulty of Climbing
Since 1907, nearly 80 people have died attempting to reach the peak of Mount Cook. Another 60 are listed as missing but presumed dead somewhere on the mountain. Causes of death vary from hypothermia and weather to falls and avalanches.
Guided ascents, even along the most common route taken to the top, require experienced mountaineers with years of climbs behind them. Several crevices greet climbers, even along the most common route to the top. Weather makes climbs even more challenging.
Warm winds off the Tasman Sea from Australia meet colder winds from the south along the tops of the ridges. The Tasman Sea is just 44 kilometers (27 miles) from the peak, so warm air from the ocean clashes from colder air around the mountain on a frequent basis. That makes for unpredictable weather at Mt Cook. Conditions can change very quickly. A clear day can turn cloudy, rainy and snowy in mere minutes. Snow remains on Mount Cook year-round. Surrounding glaciers note the regular precipitation that pummels the area.
To illustrate the unpredictable weather of Mount Cook, just look back to December 14, 1991, just as summer was about to begin. The entire top portion of the east face of Mount Cook collapsed in a spectacular avalanche. An estimated 10 million cubic meters of snow, ice and rock tumbled down the mountain. The collapse actually shortened Mount Cook by 10 meters (30 feet).
Summer months, from November to February, represent the normal season for climbing Mt Cook. The actual season is shorter than four months because glaciers may melt and cause huge crevasses to form along popular climbing routes. A secondary season happens from May to October as snow solidifies on lower altitudes, but avalanche risks are greater.
Around 150 to 200 people attempt the summit each year, although local authorities do not keep any official statistics.
How Locals View the Mountain
There are plenty of local guides who know the mountain range well enough to lead climbs to the top of the tallest point in New Zealand. Wolfgang Maier, who moved to New Zealand after many years leading climbs in Europe, is one of the most experienced mountain guides out there. “This is not a mountain for beginners, by any means. It takes planning and mountain skills. Climbers attempting for the first time should hire an experienced guide who understands the mountain’s temperament”. Despite the challenges, Mt Cook is climbed 200 times a year.
Part of Mount Cook’s lure are the 48 different routes you can take to reach the top. Local climbers and guides have a number of routes to choose from depending on conditions, the abilities of their team, and their goals.
Most expeditions to the top take five to six days, depending on how many people are in a group and if bad weather stalls the climb. When conditions are perfect and climbers move quickly, ascents and descents can take as little as two to three days. Wolfgang recommends planning for 6 days so as not to disrupt schedule.
The most popular climbing route starts at Linda Glacier. Base camp is at Tasman Glacier, just north of Tasman Lake on the east side of Cook. Many teams hop into a helicopter that takes them to Linda Glacier. The Linda Glacier route follows the north side of Mt Cook, and this route offers the least-steep climb. Once teams traverse the glacier and scale up to the ridge, mountaineers follow the ridge line up to the summit.
The Linda Glacier route is generally considered easiest because you don’t follow the ridge line for a very long distance, and around 80 percent of all mountaineers select this route to the top. However, don’t let the term “easiest” fool you because every route to take to the pinnacle requires experience and ability on the part of the climbers. The Linda Glacier route starts in the north, which is the opposite direction from the Grand Traverse route. The Grand Traverse is a different animal entirely.
Climbers refer to the ‘Grand Traverse’ as the longest and highest ridgeline to climb. Over the course of this route, you walk along the tops of Low Peak, Middle Peak, and High Peak. High Peak is the top of Mt Cook.
The Grand Traverse starts on Hooker Glacier and proceeds to Gardiner Hut about 1,760 meters into the climb. From here, you have another 2,000 meters of a climb. You approach Low Peak from the west, and you scale a lot of altitude in a short time heading towards the top of Low Peak, which is the hard part.
Once you get to Low Peak, you walk for 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) to the crest of Mount Cook. The entire stretch of the ridge line gives you an incredible view of your surroundings. Ahead of you is a narrow ridge that leads to your goal. As you walk along the ridge, to your right stretches out more mountains with the glacial valley below. To the left is another valley, mountains, and the Tasman Sea. Straight ahead lies the peak and the western coastline of South Island. The view is spectacular, and there’s nothing else like it on Earth.
Visiting Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook is part of New Zealand’s most popular vacation destination, Mount Cook National Park. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, two sites closer to the western coast of South Island, open up to the Tasman Sea’s coastline.
There are several places to camp, hike, hunt and explore. Several hikes take you to villages in the region as you scale rocky valleys and outcroppings. Bring a mountain bike and cycle the area for a faster way to view some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery. A modern visitor’s centre welcomes visitors to the area. There are several levels of accommodations near the park, including hotels, hostels and campsites. You can rough it here, or spend your trip in a lap of modern luxury.
If you want to take in other peaks of the area, other mountains serve as great summits for experienced climbers. Consider ascents to the tops of Mt Tasman, Mt Aspiring, Minarets, Sefton or Malte Brun. All of these peaks are more than 3,000 meters (9,000 feet) tall and offer challenges for climbers.
The summer months can be quite busy, but it’s the best time to visit because you can soak up the sun while hiking among lakes, glaciers and wildflowers. If the scenery of this area looks familiar, that’s because Mount Cook served as a backdrop for a few key scenes in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
How to Get to Mount Cook
The nearest big city to Mount Cook is Christchurch to the northeast. After taking a plane to Christchurch, you can either drive to the national park or take a smaller, chartered flight to one of the smaller airports that dot the region. Once you land at one of the smaller airports, shuttles can take you to and from the major hubs in the Mount Cook region.
What to Bring
Check with your guide before you make the trip as to what to bring. If you forget something at home, New Zealand is a mountaineer’s paradise, buying equipment en route is straightforward and inexpensive.
Even if you can’t make it to the top of Mount Cook due to some unforeseen circumstance, your trip to the area is well worth it. The majestic mountains rise up from the sea to touch the clouds in a stunning display of many landforms jammed into a small area. These peaks aren’t as high as the Himalayas or the Andes, but the steep slopes make these summits more challenging than some of those taller, more famous mountains. If you’d prefer something a little easier but no less impressive why not experience the beauty of the Southern Alps by talking a guided Alpine walk. You can still enjoy the scenery and challenge yourself at the same time.