Peak(s):  Mt Cook - 12218
Date Posted:  03/02/2016
Modified:  03/03/2016
Date Climbed:   12/31/2015
Author:  FireOnTheMountain
 Mt. Cook and Other Fine Kiwi Assortments   

The Planning

Well, as most things begin these days, I receive a text from Sarah, "Yo, you want to do Mt. Cook?" (I begin all phrases in my head with "Yo" whether it was actually said or not). Hmmm, as I gaze to the Heavens. Austria!? Well then, good day mate!

Buy an airline ticket, settle on a vague plan: Cook, sport climb, pray that a herd of sheep stop us on a road and a little running, naturally....and boom, its on.

The itinerary called for leaving Denver on Christmas Eve and arriving Christchurch, NZ (south island's main city) and 3 weeks later, departing from Auckland (the capital located in the north of the North Island). Just one of many side notes to crossing the international date line, Sarah and I literally skipped the day of Christmas as NZ is 4 hours ahead of Denver time, but the next day. Furthermore, if you really want to tickle your noodle, given the travel time, we actually arrived in Denver before we left NZ on the way back (!)...but I digress, severely.

The Main Attraction

DEN-LAX-Nadi,Fiji-Christchurch. Feels like 95 degrees with the humidity in this photo as we are about to board in Fiji

Arriving in Christchurch, we rent a compact Nissan Tiida with an unpretentious number of horsies under the bonnet but great MPG (KPL??) and the next day head straight for the Mt Cook village. At 12,218', Aoraki (its native Maori name) is the tallest mountain in the country and is nestled within the Southern Alps range, not far from the Tasman Sea (NZ's western border) and the range's source of a substantial amount of precipitation. Logically, being the tallest mountain, the mountain receives its fair share of traffic and of this traffic, an overwhelming percentage fly onto the glacier whether by ski plane or heli. Being the super badass (aka cheap as hell) Coloradans we are, Sarah and I decide to trudge on in and choose Haast ridge (over Boyes Glacier) as our intended route to reach the summit plateau, nestled cozily nearby the mountain.

At roughly 10mi one way with 6000' gain and 1200' loss, this thing really packs a punch for its modest numbers. We began the hike at noon from the Blue Lakes 2 wheel drive TH (one can drive another ~1.5mi with decent clearance, 4wd) and in an extraordinary display of naivety, thought we could make it to the Haast hut that day but all we manage is making it a little past Ball shelter before realizing, nope.

Tasman Lake

World's only alpine parrot and only found in NZ, the Kea. Wily, curious omnivorous fellas they are

After a very cozy night in the Ball hut, we make our way down onto the moraine and head towards Haast ridge. To clarify, by ridge, what they really mean is a steep moraine wall/slope that eventually becomes ridge-ish. Absolutely no trail and endless rock hopping through the moraine and the "ridge" is just a free for all that begins with crazy steep, ball bearing scree, transitioning to head-high dense shrubs and once over the shrub line (what we call treeline) its just more crappy rock. Needless to say, it's a brutal approach but thankfully early climbers realized just how difficult it was and established a hut, Haast hust at the top of the ridge where we called it good for the night.

Serenity Now - Haast is the Foreground Ridge in the Distance

Look at that Smile, Totally Unphased

A little (more boring) background: the hut system in the Southern Alps (and pretty certain throughout the country) is absolutely stellar. Apart from the obvious awesome shelter they provide with stunning views, each is equipped with a 2-way radio and abundant potable water (from snow melt). During the summer hours, Cook village broadcasts a weather report at precisely 7pm (4:45pm in the winter). Informing the rangers we were going Haast before we departed, one could hear the surprise and joy in the man's voice on the other end of the radio when we chimed in that the "Malone" party was at the Haast Hut. Reason behind the surprise as we were discovering, and would later confirm, few go Haast.

The next day we make the roughly 4 hour last bit to the summit plateau which involves one non trivial section crossing right beneath a glacier dome shooting gallery, before you are home free on the glacier. It appeared that if conditions were favorable, one could top it out but that would mean crossing a bergy on a steep face.

An awesome photo by Sarah before we set off in the morning from Haast

The Shooting Gallery - More Difficult to top out the dome than it appears in this photo....we contemplated it hard

Really liked this photo hung in the plateau hut showing the approaches to the mountain...obviously the most helpful place for such a photo. Lower left "H" is Haast, lower right "C" is the Boyes glacier through the Cinerama col

Good View of the Linda on the Far Right

Wanting to just climb the mountain, Sarah and I decide that the only questionable day of weather within a 2 week high pressure system would do just fine for us, so the day after arriving Plateau hut we begin our climb.

A topo of the Route if you Will. Middle Peak motel is a "real" thing (just a flat spot in the snow with a nice wind break) which we were apprised to by guides after the climb.

Under a clear sky and pretty warm temps, we leave the hut around 3 am and make quick work to the base of the face as the crevasses really aren't too menacing on this side of the glacier (I can already hear the arm chair climbers rustling in their seats). Our first obstacle of the day would be the bergshrund in the middle of the face to gain the ridge. We scout out what looks like the best line through and I just go for it, scanning the half-assed "bridges" from every available angle as I approach them.

The sun begins to poke over the horizon as we crest the ridge.

Views far from the Boulder Shire, where both Sarah and I reside

Mt. Tasman, a peak that definitely caught my eye!

What would lie in store for the remainder of the day is straight forward route finding (its not a very wide ridge) with terrain consisting of sustained steep, hard snow with a couple AI II sections thrown in the mix here and there and also a few short sections of junky rocky. Places to get a good rest are very few and far between so we are left with kicking in our resting spots on 60+ degree slopes. Oh, and the kicker, without exaggerating, 400'+ unrelenting traversy and climby knife edges with huge air on either side. Think a pound of sweet potato fries with some dejon deliciousness, and multiply that by 10! And I'm not talking the frozen ones....that's just how good it was.

Yo, Pass that Grey Poupon

Progressing up the ridge, we get into a delightful rhythm of simuling to add a little safety factor to the equation. Depending on the terrain and features around us, we would either climb as one or wait for the rope to become about taut then go. This precise, in the moment waltz, where words only stifled the flow, I take away as crucial to these big mountain routes where the underlying factor is trust in your partner. And trust in Sarah I have.

But not all is wonderful. The weather seems to be moving in much earlier than expected as we are ever watchful of the clouds filling the sky in front of us over the ridge crest. Sarah also begins to voice that her stomach is upset and I begin to worry when I notice her strength waning noticeably. So with it now snowing on us, we make a decision....we will chip out a flat spot to hunker down. Finding the spot (not a trivial task) and clearing out the ice (an even less trivial task) takes about 2.5 hours and around 7pm we are hunkered down in a space blanket, sitting on packs and ropes.

The last photo either of us take until the next morning....

Freezing our asses off, at about 9pm, as the clouds look to be parting some, we realize the insanity of what we are doing and begin packing up to start moving again. If only I wasn't so miserable, I would have mustered up the little energy needed to get out the camera and take a photo of the sun setting as that image will forever be burned into my brain not only for its magnificence but also the situation in which I was experiencing it in.

And so onwards we go, where we soon find out we were not very far below the Low peak summit and the start of the ~0.75mi traverse to the High true summit and the standard route topout. It is now officially dark, windy and we are traversing more 60+ degree bullet proof snow with a ton of air below our feet! To add to the fun, about half way between Middle peak and the High peak, Sarah's BD Slinger axe leash gate decides to pop open (something that has definitely happened to me at least 3x also.... why don't they make it a locker gate??!! ) and she witnesses her axe go flying down Cook's East face. Balls. I give her my axe and am now traversing using my hybrid in one hand and an ice screw in the other which left a lot to be desired but assuredly better than nothing. Finally, around 2am, I raise my tool to the sky and give a "Woooooo!" back to Sarah atop the climber's summit (folk lore says it is disrespectful to stand atop the true summit).

A wonderful, albeit brief discussion about just how insane that felt takes place once off the summit and now on the much tamer standard route topout

East Ridge in Profile, Bathed in the Morning Sun

As we keep making our way down in the dark, we begin to see headlamps on the Linda as parties are beginning their days. A couple "where the hell is the route" leading to a good 1hr of wasted time and also me falling asleep on some rocks before Sarah making us move again cause its cold and we are on track, somehow still having fun and laughing/joking.

Linda Shelf Seen Below Sarah

The Linda is actually pretty gnar in terms of objective hazards. It feel like its at least 90 degrees with the sun beating down on us and shade is definitely a fantasy. Stuff is cracking and popping all around us and at one point below the shelf, a chunk of ice maybe 15LB but trucking nails me in the arm and upper leg leaving a big welt on both extremities. Had that thing bounced higher and hit me in the face it would have no doubt knocked me off my feet and sent me flying down the slope 500'+!

We arrive back at the hut around 10am and fly out the next day with 3 other guys (was a no brainer to take the flight out as we both had no interest in deproaching, plus we would save time for the rest of the vacation). It costs $700 NZ for a plane ($750 NZ for heli) and you can just fill them up with strangers or friends and split the cost. The radio I mentioned before is used to contact the flights.

Jolly Roger shamelessly added for full effect

Thoughts on the climb/other related topics:

  • Rating - The East ridge of Cook is rated at NZ grade 4 (out of 7). The standard Linda glacier, our descent, is rated 2+. Grade 4 is described as such: Technical climbing. Knowledge of how to place ice and rock gear quickly and efficiently a must. Involves a long day. Pretty vague but as I alluded to, throwing in the pickets quickly while we were simuling was key.
  • Guide Book - Before we left the states, I purchased Alex Palman's guidebook on the Cook range. The book is a little tough to follow with not the best beta, but a good start nonetheless. One can also view a ton of routes on the Climb NZ national route database, free on the internet which I'm pretty certain just copys Palman's description verbatim. So again, a good start.
  • Guides - Mad expensive. Talking to one at the summit plateau hut, I asked what it would take to get guided up for a route such as the east ridge. He told me that for that type of route you would have to somehow prove your skill to them whether by a previous climb or I guess telling them other stuff you've done that's comparable.
  • Summit Plateau Hut - Very nice place. I think it cost 36$ NZ per person per night and at the guide center in town you can see how full it will be for that night. Since most fly in, people were really whipping up some wicked meals which left Sarah and I drooling a little after the climb but everyone was extremely nice and willing to share some food.

Livin' & Lovin' the Kiwi Life

For the remainder of the trip we just drive all around (sorry Earth ) climbing and running/hiking. Sadly, Sarah's toes are pretty badly frost bitten from the climb, but being the trooper she is, is still able to gun me up some routes.

Here's some tunes to pass the time and also an attempt to expose Monster5 to anything with a melody and dannyg23 to as much tool and radiohead as possible, an odd combo, I know.

South Island Goodness:

Roy Peak outside Wanaka, NZ - Doesn't look it from this perspective but that thing is 4k vert. A most enjoyable run.

Cragging views Outside Wanaka

Views on the way to Milford Sound, a place that turned out to be a congested tourist nightmare, IMO

Mitre Peak - A peak I wanted to get but proved to be pretty much impossible without having your own source of flotation

Fleeing the Hell that was Milford Sound, Sarah and I get in an awesome stroll up Gertrude Pass which is on your way to Milford in the Darran Mountains. This range is seriously sweet with vast potential! A shame I didn't know that before leaving.

Don't worry, I totally wussed out jumping into this snow fed alpine pool up on Gertrude

Nice run up to Key summit to finish off the Darran Range day

Views On Our way to Queenstown

Making our way up to the Wye creek crag after climbing around on the stiff Black wall area lower down

When it comes to cragging, Sarah's been around. She claims this view to be one of the best shes seen, right up there with Greece and Thailand

A view of the Misty Mountains and some Sheepies outside the small and cozy Glenoarchy. My personal favorite town of the entire trip.

I pick out a peak and go for it, hard. Turns into a great 6000' outing. Sarah and I chill in Glenorchy before heading back to Queenstown where I hit the Gondola trail right outside the town's only Holiday Park (and a nice one it is)

Couldn't Help but Imagining This Ridge Caked in Snow....

Gosta Wield that Sword When You in Orc Country

Luckily Gandalf Had my Back

North Island Goodness:

My Bunny Rabbit Side Shines at Times

Sarah crushing at the really cool Whereapapa Crag. Some hardman (woman) climbing there for sure. We also crash that night at Bryce's, a local climbing legend who lives in the area and operates a small hotel. Really nice place and awesome dude.

Suprisingly we didn't get much rain on the trip, but rained on us good at Whereapapa

Kawakawa Bay, a 6mi approach (which can be biked!)

Captain Caveman - a must do!

Lookin down the Cave

Led what I thought to be this really fun 50m route over the water, please note Sarah with only one shoe on

Sunset as we get back to the car from Kawakawa

My out and back on the Tongario. Came out to 26miles and 8k. Majority of the people do it as a one way and get shuttled back to the start but that did not appeal to me really

Awkward ass me at the high point on my return during the Tangario Run

Run through and around THE Mt. Doom - Be warned, the amount of people doing this was insane

Some Superb Tufa Climbing at Mangaokewa

Some Cave Touring/Glowworm Observing at Waitomo

Noob Tips for New Zealand and some of my thoughts on the trip as a whole:

  • NZ is a popular destination. The Euros especially love it and Australians regularly vacation there during the summer months (our winter). So definitely expect crowds at the "no-work" required touristy destinations.
  • Holiday Parks - Basically an American version of a campground, at first you will laugh (hard) at the site and atmosphere of these things as we certainly did, but by the end of the trip we learned to deal with them (or just became more tolerant of them). If you want seclusion, go elsewhere but be warned, elsewhere is not easy to find. ~$20 NZ per person (the cheaper ones have crappier accomodations i.e. showers and slow wifi, etc) but who's to say you are a group of more than 1 ;) Also, the "CamperMate" app is a great resource to find these parks around the country.
  • Transportation - A concern of mine, and something I sought information for on the forums before leaving on the trip (thanks KyleS, Polar, Justin S. and Peter B.!). If you want to do and see as much as we did in the amount of time we had, public transportation is just not feasible. And this is coming from someone who shuns vehicles on a daily basis. The innercity buses are nice in the north island, but getting to TH's is just way too difficult relying solely on hitch hiking especially with all the mountaineering crap we had with us.
    We saw a lot of large camper vans everywhere we went and Sarah and I both agreed getting a small compact car seemed way more efficient to us. Better MPG, cheaper to rent per day and its warm out so setting up a tent or open bivying, as I did almost every night, is not as issue. But that's just my opinion.
  • $ - Not exactly a cheap place, but neither is the US. South island seemed more pricy than North for sure probably because less people and harder to get things down there. The fruit was awesome and worth every penny.

Well, hope you enjoyed the read (or scan through), because putting it together was kind of exhausting.

Tread Lightly my Friends

Comments or Questions
Best of 2016
03/02/2016 20:26
Great report Fire! Thanks for posting and report of the year so far!!

Dave B
03/03/2016 07:05
All of the sudden I feel as if I've done something wrong with my life.

That's a fine looking trip.

Oh the Kea
03/03/2016 07:49
How did I forget about the Kea?! When I camped near Castle Hill there was one Kea (or more than one that took turns) that kept coming to my tent every night and peck on my tent stakes. This went on for a whole week. By the third night I was dreaming of catching that little bugger and putting its little head on a stake outside my tent to warn the other Kea...

Looks like an awesome trip, a great read!

Dad Mike
I'm exhausted...
03/03/2016 08:19
just looking at the pictures. Some day I might get around to reading this fine looking report. See you tomorrow.

I Man
My dude!
03/03/2016 08:18
Amazing. Great writing and photos, thank you for sharing. Mt Cook has always looked appealing and now I know for sure that it is.

Well done, sir, well done. Can't wait to see what big trip you got next!

03/03/2016 09:08
But seriously, that music was pretty dull. I gave it a shot, but I think they call it stoner music for a reason. You gotta be stoned to appreciate just how dull it is.

My mountainproject post for NZ partners back in spring was met by crickets. Perhaps I can recruit somebody when I get to be your age.

03/03/2016 09:14
Great report, sweet route, some sketchy moments that you two powered through. very nice!

What a trip!
03/03/2016 09:38
Wow, Abe, wow! Cook is definitely on the Chalk bucket list. Maybe when I'm in my 50s. Way to persevere on that East Ridge, dude. Congrats to you guys!

Right about now
03/03/2016 10:28
We all wish to De-thaw and bask in the sun. This TR sure is a once in a lifetime pursuit of the bold and the cold sprinkled with sweet nothings of warmth and beauty. Really admire how you can simply explain the complexities of succeeding at something this hard. Lotta respect for you. And Sarah is climbing with one shoe b/c her toe is black and blue! Eh, you don't need your big toe to climb. Hardcore. Kept looking for the pictures of the sweet Kiwi ass you mentioned...oh wait I see now all 77 of em.

Dude and Dudette
03/03/2016 13:48
Unreal trip. The knife edge, the steepness, steep traverse. Such Badassness!

Brian Thomas
World’s only alpine parrot
03/03/2016 14:54
I did not know such creatures existed. And your inclusion of it in your TR made it even better.

03/03/2016 16:16
Those keas may be the coolest birds in the world, and so are you two! Friggin awesome TR!

Brian C
No matter what...
03/03/2016 18:50
...I just imagine your trip going like this...

cool, thanks
03/03/2016 21:10
Darin - Still got 9 months, but screw all those other tr's to come
Polar - Funny story man. Castle Hill looks like pretty cool place. Speaking of which, theres too much of that (cool stuff) over there!
Iman - Get it dawg. I'll just keep the expeditions local at the flattys for now
Monster - Like the logic
Brandon - 40, 50 , 60, I'm sure the Chalks will dig NZ at any age
Amy - She is definitely one tough cookie
Crim - Thats just awful dude

Glad the Kea's got a lot of love. They were really neat birds and Sarah and I got to hang with them for a good 15 minutes down at the Ball.

Where's all the top rope?
03/03/2016 22:12
Snuck this one in, and I didn't see it till now. Killer trip dude, but I didn't click on the music cause I already know.

Usually, I don't get too into the non-local TRs cause I simply can't relate, but that's easily the best one I've ever read. Had me dreaming of adventure for sure, buddy.

Boggy B
03/04/2016 07:52
I especially like the photo of you prancing across that snow bridge near the end.

Great photos and route. The knife edge is pretty spectacular, so good in fact it looks farmed. Leave it to the kiwis to farm their knife edges.

i still think that parrott is a monkey
03/04/2016 08:44
This trip report obviously makes you cooler than Marsters. And where did these camera skillz come from? Looks like one hell of a trip Ali and Sarah. Well done!

A TR with a soundtrack!
03/04/2016 11:45
Coming from someone who reads an average of about 1 trip report per year, this was pretty spectacular and the radiohead was a nice touch (surprised you picked something off the free album though)! Beautiful morning shots above the clouds!! Can't believe you fit all of that into a couple weeks! NZ looks like an incredible place. Nice work!

Been waitin on this one...
03/16/2016 11:18
...until I could give it it's proper time to read.

Well done guys. This looks like an a amazing trip. NZ is a special place. My wife and I lived there for a year after we got married. I never forgot the first time I saw Cook. I immediately bucket-listed it. It's just hard to describe what an impressive, awesome peak a 12er can be until you are looking at Cook from below. Congrats on a hard-earned summit.

And great work getting to those other spots as well. I know right now is sorta the gaper season for NZ (hence all the people) but you're right: it's still worth every penny. Way to drive around and get after it.

Thanks for sharing the experience. It was fun to read and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Kick start the homesickness!
01/03/2017 18:38
That was cool read with pictures!

Being from NZ, you definitely got the tips spot on.

Great climbing!

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