Hello from the South Island of New Zealand!
For our 10-day adventure, we created a hiking-heavy itinerary sure to keep us busy. Admittedly I knew this, but somehow I also did not know this. It’s probably more accurate to say that I initially agreed to a handful of hikes, but didn’t realize exactly what I was signing up for. To mentally and physically prepare for our vacation-turned-hiking-trip, I did a little math for our planned hikes by calculating their distances and elevation grades to get a better feel for what I was getting into.
Spoiler alert, I’m extremely bad a math.
Prior to our trip, Disa, my roommate and friend I am traveling with, and I spent a fair amount of quality time with our gym’s StairMaster, a piece of machinery I’ve since developed a serious love-hate relationship with. On one such trip to the gym, I casually mentioned that we were doing quite a few hikes in New Zealand and showed her the list of my calculations. She read it for a few moments before delivering a puzzled look. To her, the numbers seemed too low and she laughed saying, “did you calculate the elevation gain based on the roundtrip miles, or just to the top?”
My heart immediately sunk. Of course I didn’t calculate the elevation gain for the upward portion of the hikes. To do such a thing requires basic logic and elementary-level math abilities, which I clearly opted to disregard entirely. Alas, I needed to double the elevation gain per mile on each hike that I already considered tough. See, this is why I don’t like math, it can lead to some serious heartbreak.
When I re-calculated Mueller Hut Trail, I was wide-eyed; it was 1,150 foot elevation gain per mile, more than triple what I like to do on any given day, and double what I dub as more “strenuous” on my personal sliding scale of hikes. “We’ll be fine,” Disa said. She’s right, of course, it’s not all that bad in the grand scheme of hikes, but I kindly reminded her that we were planning on doing 5 of them in 7 days. “We’ll be fine,” she said again, laughing.
MUELLER HUT: A BRIEF SUMMARY
Mueller Hut sits in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, perched at about 6,000 ft. above sea level. The trail to the hut was originally opened in 2003 by Sir Edmund Hillary, who may sound vaguely familiar as he was the first person to successfully summit Mt. Everest. It’s a challenging route through various alpine landscapes that is equal parts brutal and beautiful, and staying overnight at Mueller Hut is the ultimate reward for all the sweat it takes to get there (which is a lot). After trekking up, you stay with two dozen other hikers in the midst of incredible scenery, and in the morning you are privy to one of the most beautiful sunrises you will ever see (or so they say).
Now if there is one thing I learned about New Zealand, it’s that it is filled with the most beautiful mountains – untouched, glorious specimans, begging to be climbed. And New Zealand knows this. They know it and they want you to explore, but they also want to taunt you a little bit by not making it easy. (Which is actually a great thing because the enviornment remains pristine and wild, but this also translates to it being challenging and strenuous to access.)
Now, if numbers aren’t your strong suit (and I sincerely sympathize with you if they’re not), then allow me to break Mueller Hut down for you in a more digestable way. To do this, I need you to humor me a moment, if you will, and imagine yourself on a StairMaster. Now imagine being on that godforsaken piece of equipment for 4 hours straight under the baking sun, with a 15 pound pack on, from 12pm-4pm in the afternoon. Lovely, isn’t it? This trail is so steep that it has 1,500 stairs in one section alone, which is the equivalent of an 80 story building. For perspective, that is a few stories more than the Columbia Tower, the tallest building in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, which is 76 stories high. Then after you’ve successfully climbed those 80 stories, you still have a one-mile uphill scramble across loose gravel and boulder fields. My point being, Mueller Hut Trail is a doozy. Not an impossible doozy, but a challenging and uncomfortable one, to be sure.
WE’RE ON OUR WAY!
On the morning of our hike, we woke to warmth and sunshine spilling into our van, ready to take on the day. At 11am, we excitedly drove to the park’s visitor center to check-in and pick up our pre-booked overnight tickets. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we learned that the weather had zero concern for our interests and absolutely no issue in meddling with our plans. Real sweet of you, Weather. While we knew that conditions were going to be less than ideal, we weren’t expecting staff to heavily dissuade hikers from staying overnight due to predictions of extremely adverse weather. They were offering full refunds and suggesting that we make it a day trip instead. You can imagine that we were obviously a bit disappointed to have traveled 36 hours across the world to do this challenging hike, our first of the trip, and not have the opportunity to enjoy the full experience.
We looked over the latest weather information they provided, and after discussing our options, we decided that the forecast didn’t look entirely terrible. While they expected 30-50 mph winds the next morning (not great), they only expected 1 cm to 3.25 inches of rain (not horrible). Being from Seattle and having gone on a drenched-out hike or two, we opted to keep our tickets and decide our next step when we reached the top. It wasn’t Plan A, but the weather is not known for its forgiveness, and all we can do is make the best of it while bending to its mercy. Plan B would suffice for the time being. The rangers agreed that we made a good decision and that we could still receive a refund if we came down that day, and with that, we set off as soon as possible to beat the evening rain.
PART I: DEATH STAIRS
It’s never ideal to hike in the afternoon heat, but when you’re told that a storm is brewing that may trap you on a mountain in the dark, you don’t dilly dally. And dilly dally we did not, which is how we found ourselves standing at the trailhead, reading a sign saying “Mueller Hut – 3.5 hours” at 12:30 in the afternoon, beneath the blazing sun with our overnight gear strapped to our backs.
Let me begin by saying that this trail does not mess around. In fact, 95% of the time it is absolutely grueling. The other 5% is for the first half-mile, which is relatively flat along packed-down gravel, lulling you into a false sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, the trail won’t be that bad. Then the first sight of stairs abruptly jolts you back to reality and the trail gets right down to business.
The Stairs. Those terrible, never-ending, ridiculous, and preposterous pieces of wood slapped together to mock my very existence.
For the next mile, we huffed up 10 steps at a time, followed by a break to catch our breath, then 10 more steps and more huffing and puffing followed by a break. We set mini goals to make it more bearable: “We will take a break at that big rock!” or “At that funny looking bush up there we will drink more water!” Every dozen stairs or so, we internally (or in my case, externally) cursed the stair’s upward existence and wondered how there could possible be more, and perhaps more importantly, who on earth even brought up all this wood to build these steps anyway!?
Onward and upward we climbed, with shaking legs and sweat dripping, until we completed all 1,500 steps (yes, Michaela, my other travel companion, kept herself busy by counting them). Luckily the views were beautiful 100% of the time.
Case and point:
PART II: ROCKY MADNESS
After finally (finally!) finishing the stair section, which I was confident would never end, we made it to the unofficial “lunch spot.” At this point, hikers gather for a break and drink in the views before tackling the next mile. While here, we chatted briefly with a few Germans who were on their way down; they told us that they had also planned on staying overnight but were turned back by the warden of the hut who wasn’t allowing anyone to stay due to worsening weather conditions. At that point we resigned to our fate and accepted Plan C, which was that it would only be a day hike after all.
Determined to reach the top before the storm, we parted ways with the Germans and started the next section: the mile of gravelly doom and dread. The following hour was an uphill battle on loose gravel chips and scrambles across large boulders. To make sure hikers are on the right track, there are orange poles placed every 200 meters (thank you New Zealand rangers for those, by the way), and it felt like a little scavenger hunt to find the next pole (and let’s be honest, the next break). The top of the ridge is visible during this section, and seeing tiny specks walking about on the ridge line was both daunting and encouraging; We could see the goal, but it was so far away.
PART III: UP AND OVER
Upon reaching the top of the ridge, we found ourselves amidst a rock-filled landscape with towering mountains to the side of us, as if stepping into a mildly happier, sunnier version of Mordor. Unlike Mordor, these mountains were pocketed with glaciers, and every now and then we would hear massive thundering sounds in the distance followed by calving glaciers that spilled down the mountainside.
From this point, we had only a half-mile to go before the hut, and yet it couldn’t have felt more far away. While there was next to no elevation gain remaining, the boulder field was tricky, enhanced by the baking sun and fierce winds. When we finally saw the red hut in the distance, bright like a beacon amongst the beige abyss of rocks, it felt like seeing an oasis for the very first time.
To our surprise, we found it completely void of people; apparently even the warden had said sayonara. In the kitchen, an updated weather report was written on a whiteboard and indicated that instead of 3 inches of rain, they expected 15 inches, and instead of 30-50 mph winds, like we had anticipated, there would be 120 mph gales billowing through the mountains. That sure escalated quickly.
We soaked in the view of Mount Cook for about an hour, with the sun deceptively keeping us company as the massive storm cloud begin to make it’s way over from the west. Once we felt a small sprinkle of rain, we knew it was time to go. We packed up and said goodbye to a man and his son who had just made it to the summit and were determined to stay overnight. (10/10 do not recommend, gentlemen…) We personally had zero intention of coming down the next morning in mud flows and winds that would fly us off the mountain, and we hope that they came to that same conclusion.
AND BACK DOWN WE GO
Now the only equally annoying thing about going up 1,500 stairs and climbing a mile through loose gravel is the inevitable necessity of going back down them.
As we crossed the boulder field back to the ridge line, we could feel the storm come to life, but luckily our pace was just beating the rain. The wind, however, only continued to grow more fierce. As soon as we crossed the ridge, we were shielded from the wind and I was shocked at how the weather changed so drastically in such a short distance.
Throughout the trek down, we could see the campground far below us, giving us a visual goal for the next two hours. We could spot our ridiculously bright green van, which was once surrounded by cars but now sat mostly alone with only a few other campers remaining. It looked like most visitors opted to clear out of the area. We also befriended our new favorite species of bird, the kea, which are known as the “clowns of New Zealand” (and for good reason). They bee-bop around, attempting to eat metal or plastic objects, which clearly does not work, and then they screech at each other and say hi to you. “Screech” may not be the right word, it’s more of an endearing sound; sometimes pitiful, often ridiculous, and entirely adorable.
While we made it back to the van before dark, our knees were very displeased (and days later they’d still not forgiven us). After hot soup and an equally toasty shower, we curled under our blankets and were lulled to sleep by the howling of the wind and the rain beating down on the roof. During the night, the wind was so strong that it continuously shook our van, leaving me wondering what the weather at the hut must be like if it was this strong in the valley.
Despite the weather and all my groaning about the stairs (which were understandably necessary for the steep grade of the trail, but annoying nonetheless), it was a seriously spectacular hike. Climbing up the mountainside without tree coverage allowed for constant views of the lakes, valley, and Mount Cook, which domineered the skyline. It also allowed for sunburns, I may add. While I have no intention of doing this hike again, for those of you wanting to do Mueller Hut yourself, I highly recommend it.