The long ridge When most people visit Mt Cook Village for the first time, their attention is directed firstly at Mt Sefton, towering spectacularly overhead, then at the big guy, Aoraki/Mt Cook, as it emerges up the Hooker Valley as they near the Hermitage.
Once they get over the visual impact of these two giants, they consider which of the many walks they’re going to do. Quick fixes include Kea Point, Hooker Valley, Tasman Glacier lake and the Red Tarns. With a bit more time on hand, Mueller Hut is often the priority.
Far fewer people know about Wakefield Ridge, an equally accessible option that takes you high above both the Hooker and Tasman valleys.
From Hooker Corner, the trail is marked by a not very obvious cairn close to the bridge and ascends steeply at first through scrub. At about 1000m, the scrub gives way to tussock and rock, and the beautiful views up Tasman Valley, back out to Lake Pukaki and across to the Sealy Range and Mt Sefton, leave no doubt that you’re already on the tops. It’s easy going from there to about 1450m and, even if you go no further, you’re rewarded with a fabulous picnic spot high above the busy comings and goings of the village. A there-and-back trip to this point only takes about four hours of non-technical scrambling.
It’s difficult to judge distances high up on the ridge, but the picnic spot is not even halfway to Mt Wakefield. To go further requires appropriate gear, including good footwear for narrow craggy sections and an ice axe and crampons if there’s snow ahead – which is the case for all but the hottest weeks of summer. It’s not a technical route, but there are a few exposed rocky spots and avalanche awareness is important on the snow slopes. It surprised me just how large the area is on either side of the ridge. In November there were still large snowfields from about 1700m.
At around the 1500m contour, the ridge becomes more rugged and exposed, which slows progress. This is good because a slower pace gives more time to enjoy the ever-improving views.
It took about six hours for our party to reach Mt Wakefield, 2058m. The view from the summit is not only 360-degree panoramic, but it also looks directly onto the southern face of Aoraki.
On the return, we opted for a ‘shortcut’ down a steep 850m scree slope, directly from the ridge at 1550m all the way to the valley floor beside the Hooker River. The upper half of the scree was a joy – nice small, forgiving rubble that we bounded down. The scree further down was larger and more irregular, requiring much more care to avoid falling or twisting an ankle.
At the bottom, having been on the go for nearly 10 hours, we looked forward to a nice stroll beside the river, along the trail shown on our map, back to Hooker Corner. But this track fell into disuse over a decade ago and, had we tried to follow it in the other direction, we would have discovered the sign explaining this. Two hours of brutal bush-bashing later we emerged, scratched and thirsty, back at Hooker Corner. Retracing our steps down the ridge would certainly have been the much easier option. At least we’d enjoyed the scree, which added extra variety to our day. And the cold beer back at the Village couldn’t have tasted any better.