What’s your favourite mountain hut? It’s a question those who spend time guiding in the mountains are often asked, so when Matthew Pike queried some of New Zealand’s top mountaineers and rangers they were only too happy to share their views and stories
There’s something about a backcountry hut that can send almost any New Zealander glazy-eyed with deep nostalgia. Their hearts return to childhood tramping trips, with that huge plate of devilled sausages and the vile tasting sip of whisky they pretended to enjoy.
It’s a memory so powerful that even seasoned mountaineers who have perched in huts atop glaciers and have woken to views of alpine ridges and snow fields, struggle to be drawn from the romantic vision of their youth.
And in New Zealand we’re spoilt for choice – DOC alone has almost 1000 backcountry huts. Some are wooden shacks barely large enough to lie down in. Others are huge, modern constructions with electricity, gas cookers and running water.
So when determining which hut is our favourite, does it matter if we share a night with 50 trampers snoring and coughing their way to dawn? Does it ruin the experience if the hut is so small that volunteering to collect firewood is the only way to fart and get away with it? Or is it always location, location, location?
Wilderness asked some of the country’s top mountaineers to tell us their favourite huts and what makes these little gems so special.
Tony Brindle, Alpine Guide: Colin Todd Hut
Over his 30 year climbing career, Tony Brindle has stayed in many mountain huts – but there’s one that stands out above all others: Colin Todd Hut in Mt Aspiring National Park and which sits at around 1780m on Mt Aspiring’s Shipowner Ridge. This photogenic hut is a 12-hour return trip from the summit via either The Ramp or the Shipowner Ridge followed by the North West Ridge. The views from Colin Todd are truly spectacular both up to the North West Ridge and over the Bonar Glacier to the surrounding peaks.
“It’s the location that makes it stand out from all the others – right on the glacier in the middle of nowhere,” says Brindle. “You get a great view of Mt Aspiring – New Zealand’s version of The Matterhorn.
“For me, a good hut’s all about what you can see from the deck at the front. I take tremendous inspiration from a view like the one at Colin Todd – it gives me time to reflect and reminds me of my place in the world. I feel very small compared to what’s around me.
“The view from the toilet is quite stunning too!”
Access Many parties fly in, but for those keen to tramp, access is up the West Matukituki River, past Scotts Rock Bivouac and Bevan Col and across the Bonar Glacier. Alternatively, hike to French Ridge Hut, up the ridge to Quarterdeck Pass and along the Bonar.
Cost per night $20
Trev Streat, Alpine Guide: Tasman Saddle Hut
Trev Streat has been skiing since 1965 and climbing since the late 70s. He’s director for Wilderness Heliskiing and Ski the Tasman and says it’s the views from the 14-bunk Tasman Saddle Hut, perched impossibly on a rock near the top of the Tasman Glacier in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, that make it his favourite.
“For me, it has to be Tasman Saddle Hut,” he says. “You get an extensive view down the glacier and can see Aoraki/Mt Cook, too.
“If I’m with a small group of people I’ll always prefer an old hut like this one. Old huts seem to have more character and style.
“The newer huts are normally very well built and have everything you need, but tend to be soulless.
“If you’ve had a particularly good experience or trip at a hut, it helps build up an overall fondness for the place – you like it through association. But I tend to prefer being somewhere where there aren’t many people around.”
Access Most people fly in, but it is possible to reach it by heading up the Tasman Glacier from Ball Hut Road via ‘Garbage Gully’. Then head either west near Mts Walter and Green or east under Mt Darwin. It takes at least one-and-a-half days and there are no huts on the way, though there’s a bivvy rock at De La Beche.
Cost per night $30
Steve Moffat, Alpine Guide: Empress Hut
Steve Moffat has led climbs up the likes of Ama Dablam (6828m – one of the highest technical climbs in the world) and has guided to the summit of Everest. He has a passion for Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park’s Empress Hut, dramatically placed 2500m high at the top of its namesake glacier with Mt Hicks, Mt Dampier and Aoraki breathing down its neck.
“Out of the high huts, Empress Hut at the Hooker would be my favourite. The views are gob smacking and you have to do the hard yards to get to it. From there you see the pyramid shape of Sefton – it’s a gorgeous part of the country.
“You can’t just fly there, so everyone you meet when you get there has had a hard slog. It takes about one-and-a-half to two days to reach.
“I love the huts in this country. As guides we tend to go to the same huts quite regularly so it’s sometimes nice to visit a different one.
“It’s sad to see some of the old huts go. I love the classic squeakiness of the floorboards. With new huts, you don’t get the same sense of tradition, but it’ll come in time, as they wear in.
“We’re passionate about our huts here in New Zealand. People are amazed at how many we have. Wherever you are, there’s always some sort of shelter nearby.”
Access Hooker Valley, then Hooker Glacier via Pudding Rock Cables to Gardiner Hut. Then skirt under West Ridge and Earles Ridge to Empress Hut. There’s no aircraft access in the Hooker Valley
Cost per night $20
Jimmy Johnson, DOC Ranger: Ketetahi Hut
Editor’s note – Ketetahi Hut can no longer be used for overnight stays. It is a day-shelter only.
Jimmy Johnson has been a ranger for DOC Turangi since 1995 and has been a volunteer hut warden in Tongariro National Park for more than 20 years. For Johnson, Ketetahi Hut stands out, not just for its views and position, but for the big part it has played in his life.
“When I started as a volunteer hut warden I was always looking after it and spent a lot of my time there,” Johnson says. “It’s the highest hut on a Great Walk in New Zealand and the view is one of the most outstanding in the country – especially at sunrise or sunset.”
For most, it’s the last hut passed on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but not many stay overnight. Anyone who wishes to will now have to wait – a boulder fell through the roof during the Mt Tongariro eruption earlier this year and the hut has been badly damaged.
“It’s really worth staying overnight,” Johnson says. “You get a great view of Lake Rotoaira and Mt Pihanga and, on a clear day, you can even see Mt Edgecumbe.
“I started to look after many more huts as the years went on but this one still gives me that feeling.
“I even got married there. We had the ceremony at the hut – 12 guests hiked up for it and anyone doing the crossing that day was invited. We carried nibbles up and even brought a big wedding cake! We were heading up and down for the two weeks before the day bringing in the supplies.”
Access From car park at northern end of Tongariro Alpine Crossing or having descended from Blue Lake on the same route
Cost per night $32 ($15 in the off-season).
Kerry Parker, DOC Ranger: Bushline Hut
Kerry Parker, DOC ranger for Nelson Lakes National Park says Bushline Hut, on the slopes of Mt Robert, is one of the best. It’s a popular lunch stop on day walks and sits just above the tree line offering spectacular views over Lake Rotoiti and right out to Tasman Bay.
“You get a great view of the alpine fault line,” he says. “You can actually see the depression from up there. It runs through Kerr Bay to the Red Hills behind. There aren’t many places you can see a fault line like this. You also get a clear view of how high the glacier would have been by the truncated spurs in the valley.
“I love the fact that the hut’s so easy to reach. You can get there in no time if you’re fit. Paddy’s Track leading up to it is so good and it’s great to see so many young kids heading up there with their families. It doesn’t take them long to get there and they like to play in the snow.
“Generally, I prefer the older huts. The new huts have no character or feel. I quite like the old school huts, the small back country ones where you smell the smoke when you step inside and you get the fire crackling away.”
Access Part of the Mount Robert Circuit. From Mount Robert car park take either the Pinchgut Track or Paddy’s Track
Cost per night $15