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Beyond belief

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August 2022 Issue

Mueller Hut, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park

Nicknamed the ‘highest backpacker hostel in New Zealand’, the fifth incarnation of Mueller Hut squats on the snowfield beside twin long-drops. It was opened in July 2003 by Sir Edmund Hillary. As a youngster, Hillary had come here on a family holiday, ascending the modest slopes of Mt Ollivier on the Sealy Range. It was his first ‘real’ mountain. 

About thirty years ago I camped on the ridge leading to Mt Ollivier, hungry for adventure. I was kept awake all night by the thunder of avalanches sifting from the hanging glaciers of Mt Sefton into the Mueller Glacier below. 

A stay at Mueller Hut is the most popular overnight trip in Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park. From the car park at White Horse Hill, an easy tourist trail leads to an abrupt ascent of a steep staircase. Altitude is hard-won as the trail weaves up vertiginous gullies to the viewpoint. In winter the Sealy Tarns are frozen, but the grandstand view to The Hermitage and up the Hooker Valley makes it all worthwhile. Myriad snow-covered peaks are etched in black and white, sharp against the luminous blue of the sky, where Aoraki takes centre stage. 

From here you may need to strap crampons to your boots as the poled route leads along a snow-filled basin and crosses avalanche paths. The slope steepens, and an ice axe is recommended to reach the ridgeline above. When the ridge is crested turn left and you will spot the red shed 600m to the south. Allow 4–5hr for this trip in winter conditions.

From the hut, I enjoyed cramponing up the summit ridge of Ollivier (1933m) for a dawn photo shoot. I was thankful there was no wind as I fixed my camera to the tripod: despite three layers of gloves, my frozen fingers could barely work the controls. The view was beyond belief; I was elated.

3.88km to hut
Total Ascent
3–5hr to hut
Mueller Hut ($45, 28 bunks)
White Horse Hill car park

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