Spend the week at Muller Hut as Volunteer DOC Hut Wardens in the Mount Cook National Park
Through a MSC tramping partner (Josh @ Wilderness Magazine) we heard about the volunteer program for Mueller Hut around September 2011. My partner and I decided that a one week stay up a mountain presented a good challenge and goal for us, so signed up, and started to work on getting fit enough to carry everything we would require for one week, up the side of a mountain.
Mueller Hut sits at around 1833m above sea level, and most of the walk up there ‘seems’ to be at around a 45-degree slope. Combine that with my propensity to carry around a pile of heavy camera equipment, and it soon dawned on us, that we needed to get a bit fitter if we wanted to get up there in one piece.
However, we took it on as the challenge it was, and spend the next few months getting out whenever we could, and learning as much as we could about dehydrating foods, trying to reduce our pack weight however we could.
After flying down from Auckland and spending one night in Queenstown, and then another night at Unwin Hut, a well set up ‘Base Camp’ run by the New Zealand Alpine Club, we were picked up by Anthea, a DOC Ranger. She delivered us to the Information Center in the Mt Cook Village, where we went through a thorough induction process. Our role at the hut was to welcome people, make sure they were entered into the Park Intentions System, report back to Base and clean the hut and toilets each day. Critical information, such as the appropriate use of the ‘shit stirring stick’ was passed on. Full of knowledge, we were given a radio, dropped off at the camp ground at the base of the mountains, and wished the best of luck.
Climbing the first part of the track, we discovered that it was mid way through being upgraded with wooden, gravel filled steps, but at that time, sans the gravel. This turned the steps into more of a ladder climb, but we made a slow progression up to our first real stop, the Sealy Tarns.
We stopped here, filled up the water bottles, sterilised them with the SteriPen, had a quick bite to eat, and carried on our way.
From this point, considered around half way, the track stops being a ‘track’ as such, and become a route indicated by regular markers. It also gets steeper, harder going at this point. A combination of bolder scrambling and loose scree provides a challenge for the day walker, let alone someone carrying (as it later turned out) around 30kg on their back.
However, the final challenge presented itself as we reached the ridge, and felt the first of the alpine winds. Enough to blow you right over, these winds have been measured reaching up to 220 kmph, and due to coming straight of the Ice Glaciers, are cold.
Suddenly, the packs seems to serve an extra purpose of providing some extra ballast, so, with Icebreaker Hoodies zipped right up, we carried on. The first sighting of the Hut was extremely welcome. At this point we were both very tired, and ready for a feed and rest.
Mueller Hut itself, is a simple, but well built wooden structure – one that provides gas cookers, solar powered lights, bedding for 28 in two bunk-rooms and a separate wardens quarters. In addition it has a dual ‘long-drop’ toilet, separate from the hut.
Ah, the toilets. DOC has a policy of removing all solid waste from the mountain, this includes human waste. This means the two toilets are feeding into large tanks, and once full, they are helicoptered off the mountain and dumped into the local sewage treatment system. While I fully support this idea, as the notion of everyone crapping wherever they like, and quickly turning the area into a giant toilet-bowl (toilet paper and waste degrades at a much, much slow rate in alpine areas, and really doesn’t belong there in the first place), it has to be said, they stunk, especially when they are getting full. However, really, it is a small price to pay, considering the incredible environment we are trying to protect.
We soon settled into our quarters, and slept very well that first night.
While I could fill pages with things observed or experienced up there, I will restrict it to a few for this post – some highlights included –
John ‘the Viking’ Warden – during our induction, we were advised that the water tanks were getting low, and some serious conservation may be required – or at least, we might have to use snow for our water source for the week. When we were heading up, about half way up the track we met the two outgoing wardens – John and Izzie. It seems John (who was sporting one hell of a beard) spend a large part of the week shovelling snow into the tanks – resulting in us arriving with full water supplies at the hut. If you know how much snow you need to melt into a cup of water, you will appreciate exactly how much of a legend the man is.
The Storm – shortly after getting there, the winds started to kick up, eventually stopping people getting up the mountain, and resulting in us having the Hut to ourselves, and experiencing 140-160 kph winds buffeting the hut. It moves, and creaks and groans – but stays standing. Within a day though, the wind had died right down, and we really only had light breezes for the rest of the week.
Nearly stepping on an Mount Cook Flea, also known at the Alpine Weta. During one of our many daily excursions around the Mountain, Alice suddenly exclaimed ‘STOP! Look down, right by your foot’. Next to my foot – sitting in the vegetation, was a Weta. Slowly, I switched the camera over to the macro lenses, and managed to get a series of shots of the fella, which graciously sat completely still until I had finished shoving a camera in its face.
Getting continually distracted by the view – all you needed to do was look up, and half an hour later you would realise you had been staring out at the mountains. This continued right up until we left – the mountains, the glaciers, the avalanches all serving to provide continuous eye candy.
We were lucky to be able to experience nearly every type of weather while up at the hut – from gale force storms, to hot, windless days sunbathing on the deck, to minimal visibility due to clouds, nature served up a phenomenal experience of spending time in the mountains.
When it was time to head back down, it was with a mix of excitement and sadness. Excitement of being able to have a hot shower, flushing toilets and electricity again, but a sadness of leaving a truly wondrous place, and a simple, soul satisfying way of living for a while. We are are already planning our next trip to the area.
Location: Mueller Hut, Mt Cook
Grade: Harder than indicated, especially if you are planning on taking a full pack. Not technical mountaineering, but a hard climb. Well worth the sweat though.
Distance: 8.9km (there and back)
Time: 1 Week
Party Size: 2-35 (had a couple of nights with a full hut)