Words and Photos by Tom Beaumont.
Spring is the time for epic adventure skiing. The days are long, the snowpack stabilises and becomes predictable, corn snow puts a smile on the dial, and hard early morning conditions make for fast travel.
Mueller Hut, perched on the North end of the Sealy Range in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, is an ideally located base for long spring days. The Sealy Range is north-south aligned, so gets morning sun on the eastern aspects and afternoon sun on the western aspects – result, lots of aspect options through the melt-freeze cycle. There’s also all sorts of ski options, from shit yourself to pole along flat. Usefully, the range doesn’t have a huge amount of glaciation compared to other areas of the park, so is easier to manage from a crevasse point of view. Mueller Hut itself is a great facility with an amazing view, and is located within walking distance of Mt Cook Village.
The walk up to Mueller Hut, via the Sealy Tarns track, is between 3-4 hours from Mt Cook Village. It isn’t far as the crow flies, but you gain just over 1000m on a track with almost vertical steps – it’s hard yacka.
We headed up the steps in the murk, before breaking out into sunshine just below the snowline, which was sitting at around 1250m. It’s easy to go on about it, but the view really is incredible. You look out to Cook, The Footstool, and Sefton. It’s a dramatic landscape with lofty peaks, huge glaciation, and a constant crashing boom echoing around the valley as avalanches and seracs fall from around Mt Sefton.
The skin up Sealy Tarns isn’t tough, but it gets a lot of sun early in the day and should be treated with caution as the snowpack deteriorates. We observed lots of glide cracking on steeper aspects around rock bands and rollovers. This kind of failure requires smart terrain and solar management.
Opening the doors to Mueller Hut feels a bit like cracking the airlock into a cold war era nuclear bunker, and gives a real sense of confidence – this big red shed will protect you from armageddon. From the sun deck the views only get better, and with a cuppa and Hawkins on the hut’s resident guitar, life seems a whole lot simpler.
Day 2 didn’t have a promising start. The cloud was thick, making navigation difficult. Although it cleared occasionally, we had no idea which way was up most of the time. Notwithstanding, we decided to scope out the terrain between Mueller Hut and the Annette Plateau.
With the help of the force, we picked our way along the western side of the range. Most of the time (as we discovered with retrospect), if you traverse above 1600m, slopes run out into bowls of some description, so the fall consequence isn’t really high. However, in a couple of places, a slide could see you coming to an abrupt stop on the Mueller Glacier. The take home point – it’s crampon and axe territory when conditions are firm.
Reaching the Annette Plateau, we finally pushed above the cloud layer and were treated to a blue-bird day above 2000m. The Annette Plateau is a permanent snowfield at the top of the Sealy Range. It’s a really expansive area, and makes you feel small in its vastness. We skinned across the plateau to ski off Mt Annette, before skinning to the south end of the plateau. Although it isn’t steep, the ski from here back to under Waihi Pass is a long and soulful experience.
With clearing conditions and just enough solar activity to create perfect corn, we had great skiing back along the range to the hut. The evening was spent pouring over maps, planning for the next day.
A poor weather forecast for our exit day forced our hand. To get the line we wanted, Sawyers Stream, we would have to exit a day early. This required an early start, so that we could catch the snow on the eastern aspects before it got unstable with excess heat. Although 4:00am is a hard time to get out of the sleeping bag, it’s all worth it when you get to enjoy the sun coming up in high mountains.
The very firm conditions made for quick cramponing up to the Annette Plateau. We made the top of our line in around 4 hours, right as the snow came online. Without a cloud in the sky, the outlook from the top of the plateau was absolutely stunning.
Normally the Sawyers Stream route is skied with an exit via the saddle below point 1490m on Hoophorn Spur, descending into Hoophorn Stream, before walking to the main highway along Hoophorn Stream. Sawyers Streams ends in severe bluffing and waterfalls. However, there was insufficient snow to traverse to the saddle, and not a lot of snow in the bottom of Hoophorn. So, we decided to mix things up a bit.
The plan: ski (in red) right down Sawyers, walk (in blue) down the stream, ascend up to the terrace under the eastern side of Sebastopol, walk along to Red Tarns, then follow the track from Red Tarns back down into Mt Cook Village.
Reality didn’t quite follow the plan.
The ski descent was amazing. Hands down best run of the season. Perfect, steep, corn skiing for 1100 vertical meters.
Lunch at the end of ski was tasty. Tea, scrog, and cheese and salami; in a killer location by the stream to boot.
The walk down the stream was pleasant. The sun was out and the scrub was mostly only waist high. The fun ended when we got to the start of the scree/scrub slope we planned to ascend to get up under Sebastopol. Ascend is a non-descript term. It might describe a gentle stroll up onto the 9th hole green, clubs in tow. Alternatively, it could suggest a bit of a gut buster. Or, it can mean fighting through head high impenetrable scrub, 25kg + skis on your back, on a 45 degree slope, for three hours. It was a place only Chamois should have been.
After a rather long six hour exit, we made it back to Mt Cook Village, and headed immediately to the Old Mountaineer to debrief over several cold brews. Next time, I’d probably ski Sawyers when the Hoophorn exit is a goer. Or, do the whole thing as a day trip and go fast and light.
Mueller Hut needs to be booked in season, as it gets busy once the snow melts away. However, during the winter it’s not very busy, and doesn’t need to be booked. Hut tickets can be purchased from the DOC centre in the village, and you can fill out your intentions form there also. See you out there!
Words and Photos by Tom Beaumont.
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