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Just before the end of the season - before the lower level snow arrives together with a higher avalanche risk, and when there is a hut warden in attendance - I decided to head up to Mueller Hut in the Mount Cook National Park.

I set off from the White Horse Hill car park in mist and rain, and it was probably just as well. I was unfit, having managed to squeeze in about zero exercise since Bob’s stroke; and if I had seen the relentless climb I was about to tackle in all its glory I would probably have turned tail and scampered to the safety of home.

 



So cold and wet I trudged up the 1800-odd steps, followed by a few pernicious zigs and zags, up to Sealy Tarns – roughly the halfway point. Just before the tarns, a couple emerged from the now very thick mist, on the descent. The lady said to me: “You’re over the worst bit – it is much easier from here.”

She lied, but that lie was also the reason I made it to the hut. I had been contemplating giving up and turning back for about the fourth time by then...

To be fair, perhaps it wasn’t a lie for her, or for anyone who was reasonably prepared - fitness-wise - for the trip. It is much easier to walk on a gentler incline without cut stairs forcing the length and height of each step you take.

But for me, it was an outright lie. I was already exhausted. It was too cold to rest and too misty to risk not pushing on in case the mist got worse as opposed to better.

The terrain was still steep, and ever upwards – and it wasn’t long before my legs were shaking with exhaustion, making it hard to walk and harder still to boulder hop and balance when the mountain route demanded it.

Without the steps the path was just a vague trail through boulder fields and scrub. The orange path markers were hard, often impossible, to see at 200m apart and I was walking, under a heavy pack, at snail's pace – alone. It was only the thought that I was over the worst that had me putting one tired leg forward at a time. And yes I cursed that lady several times through the late morning and into a miserably misty afternoon.

It usually takes two hours to the tarns and another two to the hut. It took me six in total – and if it was much further, or longer, I’m not sure I would have made it.

There were several times that I thought of dropping my pack and walking to the hut to ask for help, but the mist was thick and if I didn’t reach the hut I would need the pack contents to survive so on I pushed – and eventually made it. You can't imagine how relieved I was to see the hut appear and take form in the mist.



It was the hardest walk I’ve ever done. Not in distance, not in height… but mentally and emotionally based on fitness levels. (Having Bob in respite care and Shanti at the kennels probably didn’t help either). And I was very pleased that I’d been smart enough to plan two nights at the hut so that I had a rest day before walking out again.

It also made the trip worthwhile, as the weather only cleared the following afternoon, revealing the surrounding snow-capped peaks and to-die-for views. I also got to spend time up close and personal with a flock of curious kea, which was a highlight of the trip (and meant lugging the heavy camera with me was worth the effort). I also got to my first of several avalanches (see pic at end).

Walking down was easier, but hard going on tired legs. The sun was out. It was a glorious day, and there was time to rest when needed – and feel sorry for all the sweaty, red-faced, puffing tourists (and the path was swarming with them) walking up for either the day or, if they’d booked far enough in advance, for the night.

Mueller Hut had been on my bucket list for about four years. I had hoped to lure Bob there with me, but it is unlikely to happen given the severity of his stroke… so it was one of a few small goals I had set for myself this year, and I’m pleased to have achieved it – but next time I won’t plan something quite that ambitious without ensuring that I’m back in training first.

The trip was hard, and I didn’t really enjoy it - but I did learn from it.

I had hoped to revisit Black Hill Hut with Shanti in the snow this year too.  It is about 200m lower at 1600m instead of 1800m (dogs are allowed, and it is right on our doorstep) but I’ve decided to hold that off, at least for this year, as it would not be enjoyable without getting some hill training back into my legs.


Mt Cook and the Hooker Valley as seen from the ridge near Mueller Hut.

 

Avalanche...

 

Mueller Hut and toilet, surrounded by icy peaks.