“Holy Shit! Would you look at that?!” – Our vertical journey to Mueller Hut

February 17, 2015
You know what is really relaxing? I mean like, seriously mentally soothing? Emotionally calming? Totally soul cleansing?
Not spending 3 hour’s pay on a 1-hour massage. And not gogi berry-kale-chia seed extract smoothie cleanses. And for the love of God, it’s not Netflix binges.
Mountain climbing. To feel truly connected, small yet significant, humble yet empowered, I recommend finding the tallest mountain you can confidently climb, and doing that.

Scott and I had planned on trekking to Mueller Hut at the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park for the last several weeks. This weekend excursion also happened to fall on good old Valentine’s Day. 
How could I have known that leading up to this trip I would be feeling incredibly overwhelmed and mentally exhausted? I still haven’t figured out how to plan when life is going to get crazy on me. But then life handed me a perfect weekend to climb a mountain, which happened to be right at a moment when I needed some fulfillment and clarity. Coincidence?
Anyhow! Mueller Hut is a 28-bed accomodation perched atop a dramatic alpine ridge with 360 degree views of mountain tops and glaciers. Huts such as these are not as unique as this sounds (if you aren’t a Kiwi). New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has an amazing system of huts set up (and has done for over 100 years) for serious mountain explorers, scientists, hunters, etc. There are many apline and back-country routes with huts strategically placed, not to deter one from camping, but to allow for safer and longer adventures. The most basic huts aren’t much more than shelter with sleeping mats or bunks, but larger huts include a basin to do dishes (and sometimes running water), a common eating room, maps, emergency supplies, and occasionally in high season a Warden to facilitate/educate/regulate.
The week leading up to our trip I kept a hopeful yet doubtful eye on the weather. I had been warned, if it’s cloudy or poor conditions, don’t even bother. And, you guessed it, despite our week of late summer sun, the weekend was forcast to be cloudy with periods of rain.
With this in mind, I packed the car on Friday night with the equipment to go anywhere. Tent. Food. Chairs. Blankets. Beer. And we decided to decide our route on Saturday morning. But because of this plan, I discarded the idea of actually spending the night at Mueller Hut. (Full disclosure: something’s gotta be pretty damn amazing for me to want to spend the night in a 28-bed room.)
Saturday morning met us with gloom and doom in Canterbury, but the completely unreliable MetService hinted that things could possibly maybe but not surely be sunnier down south. We filled up on gas and coffee and hit the road.
With Mueller Hut being our only big plan, we actually kept things pretty leisurely. A coffee and muffin stop on Ashburton. Ooh, we also bought a new camera, the Canon Power Shot G15 (re: last year’s camera majorly on sale, all good for someone still trying to keep up with technology from 2010). I’m not a spur of the moment consumer, but we had done a bit of recent research and the desire…no, necessity for a new camera prompted this on the road purchase.
At Lake Tekapo we stopped to grill sausages and onions on the roadside. This is a Kiwi camping lunch people, and in a Kiwi travel fashion. If you intend to backpack/campervan/whatever through NZ, I recommend you buy a camp stove and start enjoying sausages. 
We also played a little with the new camera.
From Tekapo to Twizel, we stopped at a random lake, did a short hike through the high plains, and drove the levies looking for the rare black stilt (no luck). I spent most of this time getting further acquainted with the new camera.
My favorite beer right now. An aromatic (floral) hoppy Pale Ale from Liberty Brewing
in New Zealand, not bitter on the palate or on the finish. Refreshing, yet not boring. A+ guys.
The rest of the day was spent leisurely hiking/walking around Twizel, without photos since the new camera came with a 10% charged battery. Don’t you worry though, I based my Valentine’s Day date night table choice soley on location near an outlet. (Side note: when in Twizel, eat at Shawty’s. Appreciate their craft beer, local wines, and tasty food. You will thank me.)
Prior to leaving Christchurch, Scott had scoped out potential camp sites on Google maps. He found us a lakeside spot on Lake Pukaki, which conveniently required a 4WD vehicle to access. He loves testing the old Subaru’s limits.
Despite a few celebratory Valentine beverages, we made the decision to get up at 6am to a) beat the weather which was indicating “afternoon clouds moving in” and b) try to catch sunrise in the Mt. Cook carpark over breakfast. Thus, no photos of our lakeside camp spot.
As it turned out, sunrise was a mere pink glimmer in the sky for about 5 minutes. And, the sky was packed with clouds. Socked in. Not a peep of blue. But once you’ve arrived at Aoraki/Mt. Cook carpark, you don’t really leave. It’s a long drive. So despite being told to save the hike for a clear day and despite the foreboding “clouding in” I had read about, we set off. 
A note about the Mueller Hut tramp: it starts with 10 minutes of undulating bush walk. That’s all the flat you get. You then climb 1,800 stairs- steep stairs- to the midway point where there is a large picnic table with a helluva view. Then you start the Sealy Tarns track, a 1,500+ foot rocky mountain-side terrain with moments of scree scrambling. Where I would recommend it to those who are fit and agile, the DOC insinuates that any tramper (as opposed to “walker”) with moderate fitness should be fine! I think Kiwi fitness and everyone else fitness may be on different scales!
Note: all stair photos are completely different stairs… and only the most scenic stairs were selected for this blog!
A short stop to turn around and admire the view thus far. That’s Hooker Glacier in the background,
the same one Kim and I hiked to a few months ago.
What a view!

Before we even finished climbing the last few hundred stairs, we were in the clouds. We couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of us, and we surely couldn’t make out where the ridge line was. We were hiking blind! At one point we passed a hiker who was stopped and told us he planned to turn around, as a group of elderly trampers had advised him the clouds weren’t meant to lift all day. Though this concerned us slightly, there was no way we were going to just throw away the 1000+ stairs we’d already climbed.

Then the trail turned to this:


After about 2 hours ascent, we ran into a German girl, and a few moments later another German girl, who both excitedly promised us that Mueller Hut was in the sun! Who knew for how long, but when they had left, it was above the clouds!

At this moment we abandoned all exploration and photo opportunities, and we even ate while we climbed. If this thing was going to be in the sun for a limited time only, we needed to get there ASAP.  We sensed we were nearing the top as more and more people were coming down (having spent the night). And though we were still socked in the clouds, we were encouraged by the sight of something on most of their faces/heads: sunglasses!
The rock climb/scree scramble turned to full-on boulder jumping and I smiled to myself thinking again how DOC recommends this hike for any tramper. But I was loving it, and the feel of the sun creeping through the last wisps of cloud and hitting my skin. As we broke through the clouds, Scott exclaimed, “Holy Shit! Would you look at that!!?”… just as we passed a mom and her school-aged daughter. “I mean, look how amazing it is…” he corrected himself, and was met with a dubious look. We scurried the last few feet.
And then, we arrived:

Photos do so much more justice than words in instances like these. 

Aoraki/Mt. Cook
We explored, then sat on our own piece of ridge line and just watched. We watched the clouds undulate, burn off from below, and eventually roll in from above. We watched pieces of glacier cleave, listening to and feeling the rumble as the broken bits cascaded down the mountain. We searched for Keas, admired the numerous glacial waterfalls, and soaked up the harsh alpine sun.
We took the time to be present in our surroundings. To feel small. To think big. To clear our minds and hearts. A place like this will do that to a person.
After about an hour we left our spot and checked out Mueller Hut, vowing to come back some day and stay the night. What would the stars look like from this little piece of mountain top?
Camping shelters- not for the faint of heart!
Kitchen inside Mueller Hut
One of 2 bunk rooms, 14 people each.
We ate, and took our time walking back from the hut to the trail. We watched a paraglider whip by, taking in the views from what I can only imagine is the most epic vantage point humanly possible. And then we descended.
The wonderfully frustrating things about experiences like these is that no photo I take is going to resemble the beauty I felt when I looked with my own eyes. As I endeavor to become a better photographer, to share these places and moments with all of you (or just you, mom), I hope to be able to capture just that little bit of extra magic. But I also accept that moments like these need to be absorbed and preserved in the mind’s eye, because a camera lens held by the most fantastic photographer in the world couldn’t recreate what a place like this made me feel.

Our descent was perfectly clear. We enjoyed the irony of it: that we actually found it less majestic being able to see what’s coming next. (There’s a life-metaphor if I’ve ever heard one…) It was an awesome experience hiking up “blind”, having no idea how much further or how steep the trail would go. It was like being led to a secret location with a blindfold on, the clouds finally uncovering the glaciers and mountains, as if to say “surprise!”. 

We finished the hike feeling battered, starving, spent, fulfilled, and happy.
View from near the car park- not half bad for those who don’t have the time or capability for a hike.

Never ones for getting on the road home too early, we took one last detour down on last dirt road to our own private beach on Lake Pukaki. We threw a blanket out and slept in the sun. Hard. Several thousand feet of climbing and descending in one day will do that to you. 

A really nice beer: a hoppy red ale (thus, “scarlet”) which is actually has sweet, toasted malt notes on the nose.
This combined with floral hop aroma (thanks to Washington State’s Yakima hops), makes for a beautiful beer
just to smell! Full-bodied and well balanced, it finishes strong as well, with slightly bitter hops lingering on the palate.

Until next time, mountains. Thank you for everything.

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  • Reply Anonymous February 17, 2015 at 3:01 am

    Amazing photos!!

  • Reply kidrdaso March 8, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    What an amazing hike! Now I’m even more bummed to be at the end of my four months in NZ without having hiked anywhere near Mt Cook. I happened across your blog while googling info on spotting the yellow eyed penguin, and stuck around for a couple more posts…imagine how surprised I was to see your man wearing a hat from none other than Crow’s Feet Commons, one of my fav coffee places in Bend! I don’t know if you guys are from there, or not, but be sure to hit me up for a bike ride and beer and a spot to sleep on the couch if you ever make it back to Oregon. Cheers, Kimberly

    • Reply kristen.fellers@gmail.com March 9, 2015 at 8:36 am

      Thanks Kimberly! We’re not from Bend, but feel like we are! We hail from Northern CA, but who knows where we’ll end up next. Cheers!

    Come on, you must want to tell me something!