Saturday, March 02, 2013

Better the Second Time Around

Greetings All,
We've spent the last three and a half days hiking around Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.  Aoraki is the Maori name for Mount Cook which at 12,316 feet is the highest mountain in New Zealand. During our first afternoon in the park we hiked up the Hooker Valley towards Mount Cook. The track crosses the Hooker River twice on swing-bridges before reaching its source, the Hooker Glacier terminal lake.

A friendly Kea, a mountain parrot, came to check us out.  It's difficult to photograph birds when they are so elusive!

The weather the next day was glorious, perfect for our longest and toughest hike up to Mueller Hut. Our first objective was Sealy Tarns.  We hiked to them up a steep and eroded trail 26 years ago!  Now there are wooden steps, supposedly 1810, leading to the tarns or small mountain lakes. 

The views of Mt. Sefton and Mt. Cook were spectacular.


We continued the climb up to Mueller Hut on a steep, rocky track.  A saddle at the top of the ridge afforded more incredible views.  

A tiny Rock Wren flitted in the boulders around us.

We rounded a bend and the Mueller Hut came into view.

The present Mueller Hut was opened in 2003 by Sir Edmund Hillary.  The first to summit Everest, Hillary got his start in mountaineering in these mountains.  We had lunch on the front deck savoring the sunny weather and incredible views. 

We headed back down, grateful for the wooden steps, all 1810 of them!

The next morning we decided to take a break from hiking and take a boat trip on the Tasman Glacier terminal lake.  This allowed us to get up close to icebergs that had just calved off the glacier during the early hours of Saturday morning, February, 23. The calving caused the entire 2133 foot-wide front face of the Tasman Glacier to break away into the lake. The ice broke into around 20 huge icebergs, including one described as the largest ever seen on the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. The walls of this iceberg are 130 to 165 feet above the water and 650 to 820 feet below the surface of the lake.  Since the iceberg isn't moving, it must be stuck on the bottom of the lake.  

In the afternoon we hiked up to the Red Tarns.  We sat on a bench for awhile taking in the view of Mt. Cook with the Red Tarns in the foreground.  They owe their coloring to a red pond weed that grows in the water.

Incredibly the great weather held for a fourth day and we were able to get in another hike, this one to Ball Hut.  The route followed an old road built back in 1930 along the moraine of the Tasman Glacier to the hut.   The moraine is a massive pile of dirt and rock that has been gouged out by the glacier as it moves down the valley.  A cairn marked a route up the moraine and we followed it to the top.  We thought the trail would stay on top of the moraine but it was only a viewpoint.  The moraine was too narrow and unstable to walk along.  We were 300 feet above the glacier.  At this point it was covered in gravel so didn't look like a glacier at all.  We could see back to the terminal lake and the giant iceberg we saw up close yesterday.

Global warming is taking its toll on New Zealand glaciers.  The Tasman Glacier,  New Zealand largest, is retreating rapidly.  Now approximately 17 miles long and 1970 feet deep the Tasman Glacier is melting and calving at an exponentially increasing rate resulting in a terminal lake that is rapidly growing in size.  In the early 1970s, there were several small meltwater ponds on the Tasman Glacier.   By 1990, these ponds had merged into Tasman Lake - which means that the lake had not yet formed when we were here 26 years ago!   It is estimated that the entire Tasman Glacier will disappear in 10-19 years!  We went back to the road which led to the top of the moraine with more great views over the glacier and the mountains beyond.

We had to make a large detour around the back of a more recent landslide, cross a boulder field and eventually back to the road.  Orange wands marked the new route.  The road didn't last long before eroding away into the glacier.  We reached the hut, a tiny red structure that sleeps only three.  We had lunch on the edge of the moraine then followed the road a bit further to get a look at the Ball Glacier from the left coming down to join the Tasman Glacier from the right.

We couldn't have asked for better weather.  It was great seeing Mt. Cook and the other mountains and glaciers of the Southern Alps after so many years.  The area is changing fast.  If we want to see the Tasman glacier again, we can't wait another 26 years!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

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