Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mount Cook

            Like many things that begin in Haast, my four day trip to Mount Cook began in the rain, and the rain was heavy even by West Coast standards.    The highway out of Haast starts out by following the Haast River upstream for nearly fifty kilometers.    When I left the township, it wasn’t actually raining, although the skies looked pretty dark.   Halfway along the Haast river, I noticed that I was seeing waterfalls on the mountains that I had never seen before.   This was my first indication that I was going to be in for a wet drive.   I drove into the deluge about ten minutes later.   The waterfalls continued to be abundant and spectacular.   On one particular section of cliff, there were six or seven small waterfalls plunging down into the drainage ditch next to the road.   It almost looked as though someone farther up the hill had turned on a line of fire hydrants and aimed them all at the highway.   In deference to the Nissan’s bald tires, I was creeping along through the standing water at about 30 kph.   Fortunately, the rain started to slacken off as I started up through the Haast Pass itself, and although it was still raining hard, I was no longer quite so afraid of hydroplaning into a ditch.

            At the top of the pass, I met the first cyclists.   There were apparently at least two different escorted cycling tours on the highway, both of which had unerringly picked the rainiest day of the month of March to cycle up and over the 1500 foot Haast Pass.   There were probably close to forty cyclists on the road, all doggedly pedaling uphill in the rain at 5 or 6 kilometers an hour.   Highway 6 being what it is, there were very few safe places on the road to pass.   This did not prevent some cars from passing anyway – my refusal to do so unless I had a clear view of the oncoming traffic occasionally earned me an angry line of campervans lining up behind my rear bumper.    I also watched a red coupe nearly run over two cyclists in front of me.   The coupe passed my car, and kept accelerating as he swung back into the proper lane - only to come to a screeching halt in front of me when he saw the bikes I’d been following.   I physically do not know how the coupe avoided running them over – my best guess is that some guardian angel must have temporarily lengthened the road to give the coupe the braking distance it needed to stop.   I’ve heard cyclists complain that New Zealand drivers are criminally reckless about passing bikes, but even from within the comparative safety of an actual car, the drive was terrifying.   I didn’t want to stop, however, because I knew I would only have to re-pass the same bikes all over again, and I figured that sooner or later, I would catch up to the front of the pack.   That happened, but not until Makarora, when it got flat enough that it was actually possible to pass the bikes without risking death in the process.    I am ready to write to the New Zealand highways commission and suggest that they put in a bike lane over the Haast Pass – it would be far safer, and, one would assume, much less terrifying for the cyclists.

            After running through the cyclist/campervan Southern Alps slalom course, I stopped for lunch in Wanaka, and continued the drive through the MacKenzie country, and up Highway 8 towards Mount Cook village.   I was expecting more mountain driving on the way to Mount Cook, but the road was surprisingly, and welcomingly open, mostly due to the engineering work done by the Tasman Glacier during the last ice age.   The road to the town went through a classic, Yosemite-like glacier valley, with steep, high mountains, and a big, flat, U-shaped floor.   Basically, a few thousand years ago, the advancing glacier acted as a big bulldozer, flattening out the valley floor, and whittling away at the sides of the adjoining mountains.   When the glacier retreated, it left behind a big, broad, steep-sided valley that leads up almost to the foot of New Zealand’s highest mountain.

            I got to the village around 5:30, and checked into my hostel.   Just as I arrived, two girls were getting ready to go on a hike out to a local viewpoint.   Although I wasn’t quite clear on where they were going, I grabbed my boots, shoved a few hiking essentials into my backpack, and joined them.   We followed a footpath out of the village, past a public campground, and up into the jumbled collection of low hills that make up an old moraine from the Muller Glacier.   The entire walk was in the shadow of Mount Sefton, which is the huge, glacier-studded mountain that looms over the village.   About an hour later, we got out to Kea Point, which looks out over Lake Muller, at the foot of Mount Sefton.   Mount Cook, also known as Aoraki, was jutting up like a spire further back in the valley.  It looked stunning, and the sunlight out of the west was lighting up the snow on the summit well after everything else in the valley was in shadow.   

Kea Point, looking towards Mount Sefton

            At this point, it was 6:45pm, and I thought we had reached the end of our walk.    The girls said that they were going to continue on to the Hooker Valley track, to try and get to the end of the track to take pictures of the mountain at sunset, which would be at 8pm.   I felt obliged to point out the obvious fact that if they planned on taking pictures from the end of the track at sunset, they would then be walking back the entire length of the trail in the dark.   The girls weren’t deterred, and said they would just walk fast.   They didn’t have a flashlight, or any light source other than the screens on their cell phones and cameras.  I opted out, saying that I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, which was true, but  mostly I felt like there was a distinct possibility of this turning into the sort of hike that involves the New Zealand Mountain Rescue Association.   I walked with them as far as the Alpine Memorial, gave them my flashlight, and went back to the hostel. 

            I figured they would be back by 10pm; they actually got back about fifteen minutes before that, after hiking in the dark for an hour and a half.    The French girl thanked me repeatedly for lending them a flashlight; it sounded like they had a bit of a scary time getting back.   Her English was not very good; she kept talking about there being someone following them on the trail, and that he’d frightened them.   It didn’t sound like she was talking about a hiker, but I never was able to get the full story.    (Wouldn’t the presence of another person on a dark, deserted trail be comforting?   Have the sasquatch moved into Mount Cook National Park?)   The French girl left on a bus early the next morning, which was one reason why she was so keen to hike the Hooker track that evening, as she wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to go out there.

            I went out the next morning to hike Hooker Valley Track - the same trail that the girls had been on the night before.   Now having been out there myself, I sort of understand why the girls were willing to disregard common sense in order to hike this particular trail.   The Hooker Valley is possibly one of the best day hikes I have ever been on, and it isn’t even that hard of a track.   I’ve been on plenty of hikes in Alaska where there are great views and scenery – towering mountains, blue-grey glaciers, and alpine lakes - but generally, you have climb uphill for a few hours and a couple thousand feet in order to enjoy these views.   On this trail, the total elevation gain is only a few hundred feet, and you’re seeing glaciers before you even start walking.   As in, you can see glaciers from the carpark.   There aren’t many hiking trails that can make that claim.   The trail also crosses the Hooker and Muller rivers on swingbridges, which give great views of the rivers below.   The whole of the Hooker valley is very open, meaning that you’re looking at Mount Sefton and Aoraki for basically the whole hike.   Of course, it helped that the weather on this particular day was great, sunny and warm, with no clouds to speak of, so I could see all the way to the summits.   I imagine the hike would be slightly less spectacular with low cloud cover - but you’d still see a lot of glaciers and lakes.   As it is, being able to hike this trail on a perfect weather day is possible the single best thing I have done on this entire New Zealand adventure.

Swingbridge crossing the Muller outflow stream, with Muller Glacier's terminal lake in the background

            On the trail ahead of me was a small mob of schoolkids, who were up from a New Zealand school on a four-day extended field trip.   Every so often, I would pass a clump of kids rummaging around in the greenery to one side of the trail with clipboards and field guides in hand.   A few of the adult chaperones tried to apologize that the kids were walking slow; I just told them that I was in no hurry.   I couldn’t think of a short way to explain that they were my personal heroes of the day for bringing kids out to such an amazing place as part of a field trip.   My elementary school certainly wasn’t that cool.

Best.  Field Trip.  Ever.

            The Hooker Valley track ended at a terminus lake in front of the Hooker glacier.   Compared to the hanging glaciers on the mountains themselves, the Hooker Glacier was so covered with rubble from its own moraine that the ice was visible only as a faint blue line at the far end of the lake.   The lake itself was the thick, grey color of chocolate milk, courtesy all of the silt and sediment that the Hooker Glacier is grinding up and carrying downhill.   Most of these terminal lakes (there are three in the Mount Cook area) have formed within the past century, as the glaciers have retreated further and further into the mountains.   I learned on this trip that the formation of these lakes is actually changing the topography of the glacier’s outflow streams.   When an outflow stream flows directly from the front of the glacier itself, it carries with it enough silt to continually build up its own streambed.   Basically, there is so much silt and sediment entering the stream that the stream never erodes a deep channel, like most rivers do.   But now that so many of the Mount Cook National Park glaciers have suddenly developed lakes at their terminus, the lakes are acting as a giant settling pond for all of the silt and debris that would otherwise be carried further downstream.   So, the outflow streams, which now depart from the far side of the lake, have much less sediment in them than compared to a century ago.   And without this extra silt, the streams don’t have enough sediment to keep rebuilding up their own streambeds.   So, the rivers and streams downstream of the glacier are beginning to carve out proper channels for the first time since the last ice age.   This has the potential to dramatically change the look of the big broad, flat valley over the next few centuries, as the river channels get deeper and deeper over time.   New Zealand is a pretty awesome country for anyone even mildly interested in geology, because a lot of the landform-shaping processes happen in a short enough time span that you can see the differences just by looking at old photographs.

Hooker Glacier's terminal lake, with Aoraki/Mount Cook on the left.   The chocolate color of the water is from silt and other suspended debris.   The glacier's terminal face is faintly visible at the back of the lake.

               One very dramatic example of landform-shaping change has to do with Mount Cook itself, New Zealand’s highest mountain.   Mount Cook has always been New Zealand’s highest mountain, but the mountain currently is about thirty feet shorter than it was when it was first climbed in 1894.   In 1991, the summit of Mount Cook fell off.   It triggered a huge landslide involving 12 million cubic meters of rock sliding downhill for seven kilometers before coming to rest on top of the Tasman Glacier.   The event was witnessed by a group of climbers, who watched the entire landslide from the comparative safety of a hut on the mountain’s east face.   (The climbers would have been directly in the debris path at the time the landslide happened but for the fact that they had inadvertently slept through their alarm.)   The landslide wasn’t triggered by an earthquake (though the impact of the landslide slamming into the valley floor was picked up by seismographs in Twizel, 70 kilometers away), nor had there been heavy rain, strong winds, snow slides, or anything else that could feasibly have triggered such a massive event on the mountain.   Later inspection of the mountain showed that the entire summit of Mount Cook is very unstable; it’s possible that there could be another such landslide on the mountain at any time.

            The end of the Hooker Valley track gives a great view of how steep Mount Cook actually is – the western side of the mountain seems to drop down to the surface of the glacier in one long, near-vertical rock face.   I ate my lunch at the lake, and meandered back along the track to the trailhead.   On reaching the campground, I decided to take a different route back to the village, which turned out to be a bad idea.   The valley that Mount Cook village sits in is so flat, and wide, and treeless that it makes it difficult to judge distances.   It’s possible to hike towards the village for 45 minutes, and not feel like you are getting any closer to your destination.   The valley itself is interesting to look at, but not that interesting to walk through  – there’s only tall, yellow grass, interspersed with glacial erratics - giant boulders that were carried downhill by the glacier a few thousand years ago, dropped in the valley as the ice melted from under them, and remain there to this day because very few other natural processes have the ability to move rocks that big.   But mostly, the valley floor is wide, and flat, and grassy.   As in, you could photoshop a zebra into your vacation photos, and it would not look terribly out of place.

            I had planned to hike up to the Red Tarns in the afternoon, but I ended up getting slightly lost trying to find where the trail actually started.   Instead, I hiked the trail I did find, which meandered through a birch forest on the lower slopes of the mountain immediately behind the village.   By the time I found the Red Tarns trailhead, my legs were not up to hiking the whole length – the trail is straight up, and whoever built it apparently had a moral aversion to switchbacks – so I stopped about halfway.   Although I never saw the tarns themselves, I got far enough past the tree line to be able to look back across the village, and the huge valley that encompasses it.

            Back at the youth hostel, I watched The Return of the King with a few other travelers, which was cool both because it is a great movie, and also because the day before I had driven through the general area where most of the Pelennor Field battle scenes had been shot.   (They still apparently offer tours of the Twizel-area farm that hosted the shoot, where you, too, can don plastic sword and shield and run screaming downhill to do battle with CGI’ed Nazgul.)

            The next day, I dithered over whether I wanted to pay $150 to go on a guided kayaking trip of Tasman Glacier’s iceberg-filled terminus lake, or just drive out there myself and hike near the lake for free.   I decided that going out on a kayaking tour of an iceberg-filled glacier terminus lake was likely going to feel too much like work, since this is basically the job description for what I do in Alaska.   Also, part of the reason for living in a foreign country for six months is to do things that I can’t actually do back home.   I decided to just go and hike on my own, which turned out to be a good call.   Partly because Tasman Glacier’s icebergs were not all that the kayaking company’s promotional material had made them out to be.   There are not very many of them, and they are not that big.   Mostly, the icebergs looked a little sad, sitting all morose and silt-covered as they melted their way into oblivion.   Of course, since it’s the end of the summer here, there is probably less ice in the lake right now than at other times of the year; the lake probably looks more dramatic in spring.   I think I have turned into a glacier lake snob; the Iceberg Lodge’s lagoon has ruined me for all other glacier terminus lakes.   

Tasman Glacier's terminal lake.   Beautiful, but somewhat lacking in icebergs.

            The second reason I was glad I didn’t kayak was that by 10:00am the wind had picked up noticeably.   By noon, it was gusting at around 50 knots – not strong enough to blow you off your feet, but strong enough that you had to factor the wind gusts into account in order to walk around.   In those conditions, I doubt anyone was running kayaking trips, (and if they did, the trips would have sucked – paddling into a headwind that strong is never fun).   Aside from the lack of icebergs, the lake itself was pretty cool, mostly because the lake is bordered on three sides by enormous moraine walls – cliffs of jumbled rock several hundred feet high.   Also, the moraine is recent enough that there aren’t any plants growing on it, giving Tasman the surface-of-the-moon quality that one finds in recently retreated glaciers.   

            Unfortunately, the strong wind wasn’t local to the glaciers; by the time I got back to the main Mt Cook road, I could see a line of clouds being pushed over the summit ridge of Mount Sefton.   The wind continued for the entire drive south to Wanaka, shoving the Nissan back and forth across its lane with alarming intensity.  Every time I got out of the car, I expected the wind to be worse than it was, just based on how things felt inside the car.   In fact, it wasn’t a very substantial wind,  but neither is the Nissan a very substantial car.   The next day in Wanaka, the wind was still blowing hard, but I was able to pick up a couple of hitchhikers for ballast.   Between them and their camping gear, I estimate we added around 400 pounds in weight to the car.   I dropped them off in Haast township, correctly interpreted the look of dismay on their faces at how small Haast township actually is, and offered to take them another three kilometers down the road to Haast Junction.   They were going to try and catch a ride up to Fox or Franz Josef, the closest towns to the north of us.   Another indication that very few people want to stay in Haast any longer than it takes to buy a coffee and top up their petrol.

Hooker Valley Track

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