Mount Mt. Cook

Sunday, February 11, 2007

It was a long but nice trek to Mt. Cook that was a bit hurried because we had to get there in time for our 3:30 glacier cruise departure. We stopped once en route at Lake Tekapo to check out a beautiful blue mountain lake as well as the church on its banks. Then off to Mt. Cook and our hostel in the village of it, with just enough time to drop off our stuff and change before heading out the door. We loaded on to a bus and drove down to what Brad and I would painfully discover was the Tasman Valley before getting off and hiking to the glacial melt pool. Because of all the limestone and silt, the water looked like milk, literally. It was white and thick and impervious to the sun and prying eyes. Which is too bad, because it is hundreds of feet deep and loaded with icebergs descending to the depths.

The cruise wasn’t what I was expecting – I was thinking a big, slow boat lazily floating to the glacier. Instead, three yellow powerboats sped into the harbour and we boarded them. Our guide was Canadian and from Calgary/Banff and we got right up to and against some of the icebergs, breaking off chunks and sucking on them like some sort of 100-year old candy: slowly, carefully, and making funny faces the whole time. But it was crystal clear. We jumped off the boats and walked around one of the bigger bergs, motored along to a natural ice arch where we used our wake to splash another of the boats, and then headed to the glacier’s tail – an imposing wall of rock and ice. We kept a safe distance from that because the rocks were tumbling into the water rather constantly and occasionally quite loudly.

We parked our boats on a bigger berg and some of the more daring souls took a plunge in the (literally) ice water. I had done this in Scandinavia a few times and that was enough for me to pass on it this time, but sitting in the sun surrounded by ice and water, I was getting hot enough to do it anyway. We rode the boars back, splashing other boats and getting splashed ourselves, occasionally by our guide who’d turn into the wind and hit other wakes. It was actually a lot of fun and far better than I’d hoped.

Before we’d gotten off the bus, a very pretty Australian guide from one of the other groups, Jo, popped on to let us know that the village bar had a Brazilian Carnivale theme going on and guys weren’t going to be admitted without being dressed as girls. So, we scoured clothes off the girls, they did our hair and makeup, and we went out. Us boys had some fun, but the girls were pretty much just sitting there and watching us, and it began to feel like we were trained chimps or something. Still, we didn’t let it slow us down too much. When you look at some of the photos, you’ll think there must’ve been a lot of alcohol involved, and I should probably tell you that there was and we were all drunk beyond recognition, but the reality is that at most we had two beer, and a few of the others also had a cosmo to play the part. And play the part we did, to the point that I was occasionally freaked out by the other guys and also myself when reviewing photos.

The next day was a free day, which some took to day hike (notably Lauren, Chelsea, and Katie), and most took to have a movie marathon in the lounge. Chris wasn’t feeling well and everyone else was wiped out, though from what remains a mystery, so Brad and I rented some brand new bikes (they’d just arrived that day) from the front desk and biked to what we were told were some beautiful blue lakes we could bike and then hike to and go swimming. We set off, being told it would take about 50 mins to get there and maybe 2 hours back since it was uphill. As we were winding down a sharp downhill that was going to be a pain to ascend later, it dawned on us both that we were voyaging to the exact place we’d been yesterday on our glacier cruise, and now we had paid $25 and had to climb this hill. Having gone this far though, we thought maybe it was different lakes we’d not seen and continued on, sure enough, to the place we’d hopped off the bus. We hiked the trails and took a different turn, excited to see the blue lakes.

Finally, we reached a clearing and could see the blue lake. I want you to imagine this scenario. We’d biked a fairly challenging ride (though it only took us 25 mins), and then hiked to come see the blue lakes, and the first one was, literally, a slough. There was nothing blue about it, there were leaves and plants growing in it (I called it an algae bloom), and it was tiny. Brad and I burst out laughing probably the hardest I’d laughed on this entire trip, and there have been plenty of occasions to laugh. Others who’d been likewise misled also found some humour in it and we took a few photos of the first blue lake before being told the other was even “better”. We hiked to it and it was really little more than a particularly dirty puddle. Laughing again and a few photos later, we turned back and rode our bikes to a waterfall I’d suggested we hike to on the way there.

At this point, the laugh alone had been worth the ride, but the hike up the waterfall was fantastic. It was completely untrailed and a bit rocky, but that made it all the more scenic. We hiked up along the stream and water splashing and parting on the rocks, and made our way up as far as we could before the gorge became too narrow. We sat and had some snacks and water then made our way back down. The water was crystal clear and very tempting, but apparently giardia is a big issue here and neither of us was quite up to taking a drink of it. We had come in our trunks to swim the blue lakes and then had hoped to swim in the waterfall pool, but it was both higher (and therefore more powerful) and more inaccessible than we’d guessed, so we swam in one of the small pools below. By swam I mean it took me several attempts just to get my head wet, between which I’d have to run out because my body was numb. It was glacial melt again, so the warmth was not overwhelming.

That night we watched Crocodile Dundee (which was highly overrated in my opinion) and A Clockwork Orange, which was twisted but I actually really enjoyed it. Then some local TV where they took a rugby team of idiots and set them to the task of trying to run a restaurant. It was really, really stupid and ridiculous. At the end they were rated on the evolutionary chain; the worst participant was the frog, the best was prince charming. Fantastically awful.

The next morning we got set to hike up Mt. Cook. We booked ourselves a spot in the Mueller Hut just in time, packed, and set off. The hike is easily the most grueling thing I can remember doing. We split as we climbed, with me falling behind all but two because I’d run off the path and to side paths to get photos. And I’d hurt my knee in a freak red rover incident. And my feet were red and burning with every step for some reason. Oh, and mostly because I’m terrifically out of shape. But we hiked up and up, into the cloud, over rock slides that offered all slip and no grip, an endless stair climb that makes the 1000 steps in Nafplio look like a walk to the corner store, and boulder fields that required bounding and scrambling with our packs. Finally getting to the top, the mist was light and offered glimpses of blue occasionally, and what a welcome sight that was. Then, the red hut appeared around a boulder looking like an oasis.

We were above and surrounded by the clouds and it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t believe there were people in our group (those who are ill excepted) that chose not to do it. Ostensibly because it was $35 for some (to which I call bologne – they spend that much on an average night drinking). Others wanted another lazy day, which at least was honest, but really, it was so worth it. I would easily have paid a couple hundred to have been there that particular day and night. We ate some food (my ham had gone sour and my bagels moldy – oops). I wound up eating an olive sandwich which was better than it sounds and two oranges. The others were offering to share, but I had enough anyway. Some hiked up to the top of Mt. Olivier, which was only 20 mins away but my feet were on fire by this point and we were ostensibly hiking there for sunset anyway. I sat on a big rock overlooking, well, everything but My. Olivier, and chatted with Lauren and then Kate and then Katie for a while.

Later that afternoon, we grabbed some garbage bags and pack liners and headed up the mountain slope to do some sledding. Or bagging. However you prefer. The slope was steep enough and packed enough (with a melt layer on top) that it was really slippery and great for bagging it down. Unfortunately, as I was walking through the snow to the slope along the rocks, I actually fell through a layer of thin snow and my left leg dropped about 3 ft. so that my non-red-rover-injured knee smacked into a rock and was cut. But luckily nothing more than another bruise and a small cut. We made our way up to the top and it was a wild ride. I took some video and photos and was almost run down by Alli, who came barreling at me out of control – I literally jumped over her. It was great fun and worth the hike alone to be sledding up in the clouds among the mountaintops.

A snowball fight erupted and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t exactly do Canada proud. I had some close calls but hardly hit anyone. Lauren mentioned that the sunset was cool over the valley and Brad and I went to check it out and hopefully get some photos. The valley wasn’t spectacular, but the setting sun by Mt. Cook cast the mountain pink and it was quite pretty. We found a narrow gorge with about a 40 ft. drop and took pictures hopping across it and then rejoined the others as they made their way inside. Although there was a moon that night, it hadn’t risen yet, so we had a bit of time with some really spectacular stars. We chatted with an Israeli amateur astronomer and managed to grab a few photos though with my 10MP sensor, they are less than impressive. Still, very beautiful, and you could even see the comet, though only by not looking directly at it. Up there we felt very close to the stars, which is ridiculous but true.

We woke in the morning in time to see the sunrise from our windows, packed up, and set off for the bottom by 7 AM. We had to get there in time for checkout at 10, so there wasn’t much time to dally. Venturing down, the sunrise became even more beautiful, as a blanket of clouds below unveiled itself and the sun shone on us above them in a perfect blue sky. We made our way into the cloud and below, the hike very taxing on our shaking knees (I wound up borrowing an extra walking pole from Alli) and made it back with an hour to spare. Then we set off for Queenstown, losing Katie and her van in the process, which left me as navigator. Everyone but Norm and I slept, it had been a tiring two days, and soon, after a stop at the bungee bridge to view our next challenge, we were rolling into Queenstown, adventure capital of the world and tourist

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