We knew the weather was risky for our return. 55m of rain and 90 km winds. Classic!
But at least we had today. Light winds, the sun breaking through clouds curling off Sefton and under Aoraki’s tip in a rolling boil.
‘We’ll pack for two nights just in case’ I declared.
I was convinced—if we got stuck at least we would eat.
Aoraki became shy with cloud as we ascended the staircases leading away from the Hooker Valley. The cruisey stairs seeming like such a frivolity especially in light of our recent trip to French Ridge Hut. They hinted at the popularity of this trail in peak season but we couldn’t help but feel we were seeing this place at a very special time in history.
The lovely maître de at the Hermitage the night before had exclaimed his dismay at the half full dining room. Pre C they would seat 600 a night. Half of the Hermitage was shut down and operating at a megre 40% capacity. We had braced ourselves for a full hut, jam packed with other keen walkers but after navigating the rocky boulders that lead us up through Sealy Tarn we arrive at our abode with only a handful of company, the hut warden Meredith and just two young girls from Christchurch.
From our glorious position at Mueller Hut we listen to the ice crack and roar under Sefton peak while playing spot the biv – Sefton Biv a bright red dot perched across from us. Bunkering from the increasing winds behind walls made from metamorphic rock at the foot of Mt Ollivier as we look back towards the valley and the glacial milk of Puukaki, the clouds rolling in and fully obscuring Aoraki by dusk. I had read how this majestic mountain came to be according to Ngaai Tahu tradition. Aoraki a young man and his brothers came from the heavens to visit their father, Ranginui’s new wife, Papatuanuku. Seeing that their father would not be separated from his new beloved Aoraki and his brothers wished to return home to the sky world and their mother, Pokoharua-te-pō, Goddess of the winds and storms. But on their return Aoraki made a mistake in his Karakia and the canoe in which they travelled in was upturned and the men became stranded and were turned to stone—their hair turning white and Aoraki standing as the tallest mountain amoung his siblings, Ka Tiritiri o te Moana—The Southern Alps. I felt for this majestic maunga. I wondered what he had thought of his fate and how his mother must miss him. I’ve stuffed up my takutaku many times—trying to remember the right words, forgetting full verses. Perhaps the Gods have become kinder with time or seen as mere humans amoung these great majestical Gods.
At dusk we watch one lone kea seemed hell bent on destroying the nearby weather station and that’s when the rain sets in. We spend the evening chatting in the shelter of Mueller Hut and jumping up and down on the spot in an attempt to keep warm. Tossing in our sleeping bags when night falls to sound of wind that seems within a gust or two of raising the iron roof.
The two girls that had been with us bravely leave at 7am the next morning but Jack and I stay put watching sheets of rain wash the windows from the safety of our sleeping bags falling in and out of sleep. Such luxury! When we walked Te Araroa a day spent in a hut seemed like such a frivilous indulgence.I could never placate my need for constant movement into a still enough state to surrender to a hut day much to the chagrin of poor Jack who was often forced from many cozy huts out into the elements. But here we were in this ice box on a ridge. We were going nowhere. Even the kea hell bent on lead poisoning had disappeared, hunkering down somewhere. We played cards, drank tea, chatted with the the hut warden. Paradise.
The weather lifted the next morning and we were privy to see Aoraki and his brothers in full sunshine and glory. The eastern sun sending waves of cracking and splintering ice from Sefton’s glaciers but a mix of heat meeting the cool valley floor kept an impressive sea of cloud over the valley—as if we could step out for a moment onto these fluffy tops. We spent the morning in awe and observing the return of the kea who seemed thirsty and enjoyed drinking out of the rain puddles captured on the tops of the rain water tanks. It was difficult not to linger and we left late, descending into the sea of cloud at Sealy Tarn and encouraging the dubious ascending trampers to keep going. Every other encounter on our way down preferenced with a polite “hello” followed by…. “do we come out of this cloud?“
“And it’s great.”
“So worth it.”