One of my biggest motivations in learning to paraglide was to be able to combine hiking with flying. I’ve always loved walking up mountains, and the allure of walking to the top and flying back to the bottom was huge. Once you’ve reached the top of the mountain, getting back down is never nearly as much fun.
Since learning to fly last year, I’ve done some small hike-n-flies, but nothing that compares to this recent trip to the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. With an epic forecast for the weekend, I set off to Mt Cook with a couple mates from Queenstown to hike to the incredibly picturesque Mueller Hut.
The plan: Hike to Mueller Hut on Saturday (approximately 1850 meters), spend the night in the hut, and fly back down to the village the next morning.
The Mueller Hut might possibly be the most scenic backcountry hut in New Zealand. Although given the Department of Conservation manages 950 huts, and I’ve only seen a handful, I can’t argue this point too thoroughly. Nevertheless, it’s just incredible.
Perched high above Mt Cook Village on the Sealy Range and in the shadow of Mt Ollivier, you’ll find the 28 bunk Mueller Hut. It’s a serviced hut, so in the summer months, there is a volunteer warden to look after the place and gas provided for cooking. The hut has jaw-dropping views of Mt Sefton (3,151 meters) , The Footstool (2,764 meters), Aoraki Mt Cook (3,724 meters) and countless glaciers and snowfields. In the warmer months, these glaciers are constantly in motion and you’ll often hear the thundering crack of avalanches and sections of ice calving off the glaciers below Sefton & the Footstool.
The Hike to Mueller Hut
The hike to Mueller Hut is a grunt – especially when you’ve got 15+kgs of paraglider + food + water + a sleeping bag on your back. It’s just over 800 meters of climbing over about 5kms, so pretty steep all the way. You can leave from Mt Cook Village, but most people park at the White Horse Hill campground. One-way, you’re looking at 3 – 4 hours to the hut, depending on how keen you are and how often you stop to take photos (which you’ll likely be doing quite often).
The first half of the track is very well maintained by DOC as it’s used frequently by day walkers. There are steps cut into the hill as far as Sealy Tarns – about 1300 metres. As you rise above the car park, you get increasingly more beautiful views of Mt Cook, Mueller Lake and the Hooker Valley. This is another good day walk in Mt Cook – walking from White Horse Hill campground to Hooker Lake and back – about 2 hrs return.
At Sealy Tarns, there are a couple small alpine lakes and a picnic table to take in the view of the valley. The track becomes less well maintained from this point, and technically becomes an “Alpine Route” as opposed to a DOC Trail. It’s a nice change from the steps, and you’ll find yourself scrambling up rocks as the vegetation changes from alpine scrub to scree slopes.
Another hour or so of climbing past Sealy Tarns, and you come to a saddle of sorts where you have your first jaw-dropping views of the opposite side of the ridge. Mt Sefton, the Footstool and their glaciers are well worth the climb you’ve just done. We had a picture-perfect day with not a single cloud in view. As you reach the saddle, you can scramble over some boulders to your right for some excellent photo ops and an epic place for a bit of lunch.
This was the first view I had of our launch site for the flight the following morning. The photos below shows it quite well – a rather committing southeast facing launch over the valley below.
From this saddle, it’s a quick 15 minute walk or so on the west side of the ridge to Mueller Hut. It continues to be a bit of a scramble over boulders, but the route is marked by orange pylons.
If you’re not totally wrecked after arriving at the hut and scouting out your bunks, it’s well worth the hike to Mt Ollivier – 1,933 metres (the peak at the top of the photo above) – the first mountain that Sir Edmund Hillary climbed in 1939. It’s only another 30 or 40 minute scramble up boulders that get bigger and bigger, and it’s well worth the walk. There are massive views out over the valley, and it’s an awesome view of the hut below as well.
On a clear night and morning, Mueller Hut’s an epic spot to be to watch the sunset and the sunrise the next morning. The evening light was fantastic, as was the sunrise the next morning.
Evening light on Mt Sefton & the Footstool…
Aoraki Mt Cook Sunrise…
As epic as it was to see the sunrise over the valley filled with cloud, this cloud inversion that we woke up to spelled disaster from a paragliding perspective. Without being able to see the valley below, we wouldn’t be able to launch from the Mueller Saddle later that morning. After packing up our things and heading down the saddle, we were gutted to find the cloud hadn’t even started to burn off.
There’s a well-known word in the paragliding community called – “Parawaiting.” It’s accepted that if you’re a paraglider, you better enjoy simply being outdoors and waiting as often the wind and weather don’t cooperate with your plans, or for that matter follow the forecast. So my mate Paul and I had some parawaiting to do – not ideal, but we couldn’t have asked for a much better spot wait.
We waited … and waited … and waited. Five hours later, the cloud had lifted but only as far as over us. We were left with no views of Aoraki Mt Cook and no views of the valley below. Absolutely gutted, we packed up our things accepting defeat – realizing we’d just have to come back some other day.
Needless to say, we were bloody stoked to finally walk out of the clouds at Sealy Tarns – out of the clouds, and onto a site in the tussock where we could launch our paragliders from.
How about that view from launch?
Aoraki Mt Cook, Hooker Lake, Mueller Lake & my Wing.
The flight was quick – only about ten minutes or so, but my oh my was it epic. Nerves on launch were higher than normal – in part as we were at a new site, in some seriously imposing country, but also as a crowd of about 20 people had gathered while we were unpacking our gear. It was a truly epic hike-n-fly mission, and one that I’ll try again later on in the year. I understand it’s possible to launch from Mueller Hut when there is snow on the ground – so I reckon a mid-winter mission is in order.
Can you spot me?
Stoked after an epic flight.
If you’re visiting Aoraki Mt Cook and have a good weather window, hiking to Mueller Hut is an absolute must. Some final things to consider:
- You need to pre-book your hut ticket ($39), and you can now do this on the DOC website – DOC.govt.nz.
- Allow about 3-4 hours one-way
- Don’t forget toilet paper
- Or your ear plugs as it’s a big shared bunk room
- Gas is provided in the summer months
- Bring warm clothes and extra food – serious alpine environment where conditions can change without notice
- Mt Cook Village is about a three hour drive from Queenstown