Hiking & Pack-rafting in Mount Cook National Park
There was no better time to book my first trip to Mount Cook Village. At a time when the Hooker and Tasman Valleys would typically be sprawling with tourists from all over the world exploring the majestic lands that lay below Mount Cook – instead, the odd group of New Zealanders (like me) are about, filling up their adventure cup in their homeland. It was hard to see mostly empty cafes, car parks, hotel rooms, and businesses downsized. But I was grateful for the opportunity to explore the true heart of the Southern Alps with its sub-alpine hikes and glacial lakes with my partner Barny Young and a couple of our good friends without competing for a car park, café, track, and viewpoint space. Now knowing how accessible and mind-blowing this place is I can only imagine how busy it must get in peak season when international borders are open.
Arriving In Mount Cook Village
After previously postponing our mid-winter adventure to Mount Cook due to a bad weather outlook, we finally set off from my parent’s house in Wanaka on a crisp mid-July morning, picked up a pair of snow chains, and headed for the mighty land. We knew we had at least one or two days of fine weather before the snow was forecast on our four-day escape. We were fine with this because it meant we would get the best of both worlds; fine sunny days to hike high and Mount Cook village in full snow mode – yes, please!
I used to drive the road between Wanaka and Christchurch a lot but since relocating to Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast over two years ago, this might have been my third trip through the Lindas Pass and boy did it put on a show! Laden with glistening snow, it was a picturesque bluebird day and I knew we were in for a treat. I couldn’t wait to set my eyes on Cook.
We turned off the main highway onto the dead-end and famously photographed road that leads to the base camp of Mount Cook. Finally, I was in my own un-trodden travel zone and it felt good. The road meandered along beside high-country stations with the occasional homestead, woolsheds, shearers, and shepherds houses on one side and Lake Phukaki casting its ice-blue waters up towards the headland on the other – a glorious drive.
Out of nowhere, we pop up and over a rise, and there she goes – you definitely can’t miss it – the sheer magnitude and beauty of Mount Cook are breathtaking. And we were still a fifteen-minute drive from the village, the sense of adventure kicks in.
Hiking The Hooker Valley Track
Our hiking packs are ready to roll - full with our Kokopelli pack-rafts from Packraft New Zealand, extra wool layers, hat, gloves, balaclava, dry-suit, first aid essentials, food, water, life jacket, and of course our four-split Werner paddles. It’s 10 am so our plan is to bee-line for the Hooker Valley car park - hike to Hooker Lake and pack raft with the sleeping monsters (icebergs) or possibly paddle up the lake to the Hooker Glacier terminal.
The track is wide and well-groomed (although it was icy in places) and almost impossible to get lost. I wore my hiking boots but in hindsight wish I opted for my lighter Salomon trail runners - the ground is so even. The track twists and turns and gently undulates. There are three impressive swing bridges to cross – these were track highlights for me!
The rivers flowing underneath are full of energy and excitement because with each one you know you are getting closer to the source. It took 40 minutes to hike in with reasonably heavy packs (allow perhaps one hour). The track reaches a high point just as the full landscape of Hooker Lake comes into focus. The Hooker Glacier can be seen creeping up the mountain in the far distance and the icebergs float effortlessly, dotted randomly around the lake. The mothership that is Mount Cook hovers like a giant.
The moment cultivates a feeling of scared respect for our mountains. The overwhelming size and presence of the surrounding alps as well as the ‘knowing’ of lives lost beyond where we are gives way, to the realization of how vulnerable we are as humans. This is their home, not ours. We just have to hope that when we venture deeper than the well-groomed tracks like Hooker Lake, we are met with favourable conditions.
If you’re looking to access one of the most beautiful, unique, yet isolated places you’ve ever seen on foot with the least amount of physical effort and time investment - the Hooker Valley track is it. To put this into perspective, on the West Coast, it would take an advanced multi-day hiking mission to access an ice lake with similar characteristics.
Pack-rafting On Hooker Lake
Lucky for us, we didn’t have to paddle far off-shore to get a closer look at the seemingly peaceful icebergs. The lake is longer than we imagined so we decide to leave the ‘full length of the lake paddle’ for summer. It’s prudent to have plenty of daylight hours up your sleeve when exploring the full length of the lake. This is because typically ice lakes are lined with unstable moraine walls which can collapse at any moment therefore once you’re in the middle of the lake, to get back to the land you really want to paddle back to the put-in (as opposed to the side which might be the closest option). If a headwind comes up, this may take longer than you planned. In case you’re planning on giving this adventure a go and integrating pack rafting into your Mount Cook trip, I should give you the safety brief.
Hypothermia is likely on the water if you are not prepared with the correct clothing - a dry suit is a must. The water temperature sits around 2 to 3 degrees and if you fall out it's important you know how to self-rescue. There is the risk of ice falling off the glacier terminal at any time which can cause waves down the lake. Similarly, icebergs can roll at any time and cause a huge amount of energy and water forced up from deep under (enough to flip a boat) therefore a safe distance needs to be kept.
Safety brief over.
It’s achievable for anyone with outdoor experience and common sense to explore close-lying bergs from the put-in (just like we did) and oh my, is it worth it. I can’t quite put into words the feeling within when having a close encounter with an iceberg, but I’ll give it a go. Surreal yet grounding. An enlightening and I want to say… almost spiritual experience, one I could not have had if I didn’t have my trusty Kokopelli pack raft to explore at a new level. The perspective from the water of the surrounding nature is outstandingly different than when you are limited to land.
We spent 40 minutes paddling around the icebergs, taking it all in. Barny even run a class III rapid on a river releasing from Hooker Lake. Before long, the sun started to cast shadows so we packed up, hiked out, and checked into Aoraki Court Motel.
Mount Cook Accommodation
Hermitage Hotel Versus Aoraki Court Motel
Accommodation-wise, we wanted a touch of luxury to return to after our daily activities and after reading reviews we narrowed the options down to the Hermitage Hotel or Aoraki Court Motel. The Aoraki Court Motel had better reviews and was better value so we chose that. In doing so we sacrificed views of Mount Cook for views of Mount Sefton and it was worth it. The views were exceptional - it felt like we were the only dwelling in the valley plus we had a bigger room, a full-sized spa tub, and our own kitchen so we could cook - winning!
Pack-rafting On Tasman Lake
That evening we planned to do a sunset paddle on Tasman Lake so we set off at 3 pm. After a 30-minute hike, we arrived with crystal clear reflections and WAY more icebergs than we ever imagined seeing in one body of water in New Zealand. We had heard there had recently been a major glacial carving off of the Tasman terminal face and they had all floated down to the put-in end of the lake. Well, they were right! We spotted a couple of bigger bergs around 1km up the lake so we decided we would venture a little further out than what we did at Hooker.
It was very cold at that time of the day and a layer of ice started to freeze on my pack-raft which was un-nerving however it didn’t lose any inflation (we spent time blowing them up whilst they were in the water to ensure they were at full capacity in the cold environment before paddling off). I was thankful that the water running down my paddle froze before it reached my hands as we floated towards our goal. We worked hard to reach the destination and after 15 minutes we arrived. These icebergs made the ones on Hooker look like popsicles.
It was an incredible experience being out there on sunset. Complete silence, stillness, and peace elude you yet you know that at any moment that could change because of the incredibly unstable environment we are in. The odd crack could be heard and although you would deem an iceberg to be not living, somehow there was life. We are sitting almost in the middle of the lake and as my toes start to go numb - I call it, time to head back to shore.
We spent the evening celebrating our friend’s birthday at the plush Hermitage bar sipping on craft beer and Central Otago Pinot Noir. Five-star!
Hiking The Red Tarns Track
Day two commenced with coffee in bed whilst planning our next adventure. Mueller hut was high on our list but we had lost hope we would get up there due to considerable avalanche risk. It was a windy day with a front moving in. After speaking with a DOC ranger - we settled for the Red Tarns track as it was sheltered from the prevailing winds. I recommend this hike, a steep grunt up to the tarns with exceptional views up a nearby valley to the left and out across the village plains then up towards Hooker Lake.
The tarns are met by vast scree slopes attached to towering jagged peaks. There was a light layer of snow at the top, really beautiful.
We tacked on the Governers Bush Walk on our return and stumbled across a great public cooking shelter (for campers) with amazing views. When we come back in summer, we will probably camp and use this great facility. That evening we indulged in a buffet dinner at the Hermitage, it was delicious and of great value, five-star again!
Hiking Kea Point Track & Blue Lakes
By day three the snow forecast had turned to rain (sad face) so our only option was to complete the final two low-lying tracks in the valley – Kea Point track with views over Mueller Lake and Blue Lakes. Kea Point track is short and worth the visit if you have time. Personally, I wouldn’t bother visiting the Blue Lakes, I found them underwhelming compared to the other destinations on offer. Another great day trip (I’ve heard) is to hike up to Sealy Tarns which is the first section of the track that takes you to Mueller Hut. We decided not to bother because one day we will come back and hike to Muller Hut and do this then.
Hiking & Pack-rafting In Mount Cook Wrap Up
I’m excited to get back to Mount Cook. It is a special place and I hope that every Kiwi and person that visits New Zealand gets to experience what we did. I deem it impossible to make memories at Mount Cook you will forget. I recommend adding the new dimension of an ultra-light pack-raft to experience all the area has to offer from the water-level perspective as well as on land. Waiver; do not attempt this with a $99 rubber ducky from The Warehouse! If you’re thinking about purchasing a pack-raft I highly recommend the Kokopelli Rogue R-Deck from Packraft New Zealand. I love mine and take it on most hiking adventures – it allows me to explore alpine lakes, cross rivers that would otherwise be dangerous on foot, float down chill rivers (after hiking up) – although some of their pack-rafts are rated up to class IV whitewater if that’s more your thing! They even make for a great sleeping mattress!
Adventure is endless in New Zealand when you integrate a pack-raft into your kit.
All images credit to Barny Young