There’s something very special and uniquely Kiwi about climbing from lush beech forest into a Narnia-esque alpine world. In many continental mountain ranges this sort of ecosystem transition takes place over a thousand kilometres, so to be able to walk it in a morning is quite a privilege. But it’s one most trampers don’t take enough advantage of.
So with that in mind Wilderness has whipped up a ‘bucket list’ of alpine huts. Some, like Mueller, are virtually indisputable; others, we admit, have been selected with unashamed bias – once you’ve skied fresh powder to the doorstep of a hut you can never look at it the same way again. Fortunately there’s one sure fire way to test the accuracy for yourself – pay them a visit!
Mueller Hut, Mt Cook National Park
If you can only visit one alpine hut before you die, then this should be it. Mueller feels like you’re in the thick of things, but it’s only four hours walk from the cafes of Mt Cook Village. The slopes directly above the hut make for some pleasant afternoon skiing, as do the ones down to Sealy Tarns. Or if you’re feeling bolder, Mueller is the stepping off point for some truly epic alpine adventures.
Access Follow the poled route from White Horse Hill, near Mt Cook Village. The DOC official times are: two hours to Sealy Tarns, then another two hours to Mueller Hut.
Cost per-night $35.70
Notes The Slopes above Sealy Tarns can be risky at times (either bullet proof ice or sketchy avalanche conditions) so be sure to check with DOC regarding the conditions before setting off.
Brewster Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park
After a straightforward but strenuous approach, Brewster Hut gives access to some amazing terrain including Mt Armstrong, Mt Topheavy, the Brewster Glacier and of course Mt Brewster itself. It’s enough to keep even the most ambitious ski-mountaineer entertained for quite some time. Although it may look benign in good conditions, it’s very close to the West Coast so the weather can change fast. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Access Cross the river at Fantail Falls car park then follow the poled route up a broad ridge for approximately four hours to find the hut just above the bushline.
Cost per-night $15.30
Notes Brewster Hut is unheated, so make sure you bring a decent sleeping bag.
French Ridge Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park
French Ridge is the launching pad for some classic mountaineering routes around Mt Aspiring, but even if you never get past the Quarterdeck, it’s still an inspiring location with some gut-churningly sheer drops around Gloomy Gorge and overlooking Scotts Rock Bivouac. This one takes a little longer to get to, thanks to the walk up the Matukituki Valley but it’s well worth the extra miles.
Access Walk up the Matukituki, past Aspiring Hut then follow the poled route from Pearl Flat on the Matukituki River West Branch for about four to five hours. Most people will overnight at either Aspiring Hut or camp at Pearl Flat but it can be done in one long push.
Cost per-night $20
Notes In my experience this one’s best done as a spring trip, when the approach to the hut is clear of snow but there’s still plenty left on the slopes above it.
Kirtle Burn Hut, Pisa Conservation Area
The terrain surrounding Kirtle Burn Hut is pleasantly gentle. This spot isn’t going to make it into a Warren Miller film any time soon, but it’s the perfect locale for those just getting into ski touring or as a first trip of the season while your legs are remembering how to parallel turn.
Access From Snowfarm pick up the ridge to the south-west of the Kirtle Burn following it for about an hour (you can just follow the valley floor, but the views are nicer on the ridge).
Cost per-night $5 (Plus Snowfarm charges $20 per car to use the access road)
Notes Watch out, the gentle rolling hills can make the navigation deceptively tricky (particularly if the visibility isn’t great) so keep your wits about you.
Luxmore Hut, Fiordland National Park
Perhaps it’s just my childish imagination, but Luxmore Hut feels as close as I’ll ever get to living out my James Bond fantasies. You step out the door straight onto your skis in the morning. (“But James, I need you.”… “So does England darling.”) Ski amazing terrain all day and when you’re done you simply call in a helicopter from Te Anau. In a word: awesome.
Access A ten minute helicopter ride from Te Anau or a five to six hour walk from the Lake Te Anau control gates.
Cost per-night $15.30 ($51.10 in Great Walks season)
Notes Luxemore Hut has a stove, but dry firewood is almost non-existent in winter. If you’re flying in it’s worth bringing your own fuel.
Routeburn Falls Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park
Routeburn Falls Hut is typically packed in summer but in winter it takes on a tranquillity that borders on post-apocalyptic. Frost feathers grow in shady corners, delicate ice formations dangle from nearby rock overhangs and of course under their winter cloak the mountains take on an entirely different persona. If you’ve only been on the Routeburn Track in summer, then you’ve only seen half of it.
Access From Routeburn Shelter follow the well manicured Routeburn Track, turning left at Routeburn Flats Hut. Three hours should get you there if you’re not too heavily loaded.
Cost per-night $15.30 ($51.10 in Great Walks season)
Notes Like Luxemore Hut, Routeburn Falls has heating but you’re best to bring your own fuel.
Pioneer Hut, Fox Glacier névé, Westland
If you’re confident with your alpine skills, then Pioneer Hut is a must-do. From this shelter, perched precariously at the top of the Fox Glacier at over 2300m you can access some of New Zealand’s wildest terrain, including Mt Tasman, Mt Lendenfeld, Mt Haast and Mt Haidinger to name a few of the possibilities. Alternatively you can skip the peak bagging and make the classic ski descent to Chancellor Hut, one vertical kilometre below.
Access Helicopter from Fox Glacier Township
Grade Difficult – very difficult
Cost per-night $30
Notes The terrain around Pioneer is not to be taken lightly. Make sure you have the skills and gear you need for this one – if in doubt go with a guide.
Angelus Hut, Nelson Lakes National Park
The peaks close to Mt Cook and Mt Aspiring get the lion’s share of the attention from New Zealand’s alpinists, but if you do a little research you can find some great hidden gems further afield – like Angelus Hut. This lovely little spot features a relatively mellow approach, gives access to some very user-friendly terrain and the sublime views over Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti are worth the trip by themselves.
Access Follow the zigzag track from Roberts Ridge car park to Bushedge Shelter then follow the poled route south-west along Roberts Ridge, past Mt Julius to reach Angelus Hut. On skis this should take about six hours.
Cost per-night $15 ($20 in summer)
Notes It’s not uncommon to find Angelus Hut largely buried by snow, so it’s worth planning your trip to allow a bit of time to dig your way in.
Mangatepopo Hut, Tongariro National Park
This little hut is a great place to base yourself for an assault on Mt Ngauruhoe; one of Aotearoa’s most desirable ski touring peaks. This mountain’s almost perfectly conical shape means you can choose your snow conditions: if it’s a little wind-scoured on a due southerly aspect, just traverse around by few degrees on this ‘snow-dial’ and you’ll invariably find what you’re after.
Access Three-quarters of an hour of easy trail leads you to the hut. From here it’s another two hours to South Crater in good conditions
Cost per-night $15 ($31 in peak season)
Notes Sadly vandalism is a problem at the Mangatepopo Road car park so remember to ‘lock it or loose it’.
A word on skills and gear
It’s better to be forced to turn around because you brought too much gear than forced to stay – permanently – because you didn’t bring enough. If you’re heading above the snowline, always bring a transceiver, shovel and probe; consider bringing an ice axe, crampons and a rope. And most importantly make sure you’re well practiced in using it all.