Climb Aoraki Mount Cook? What’s so special about that peak?
It’s so close to the ocean. From the summit pretty much half your view is the ocean. To the north-east and south-west all you see is mountains but for all the rest all you see is ocean. That’s very unusual, to be on a big glaciated mountain but on an island.
Aoraki Mount Cook is a demanding climb, a real challenge. It’s definitely not a first summit.
Are there any particular challenges?
Linda Glacier & Shelf
We have to get up the Linda Glacier, which is quite broken and threatened by ice cliffs. That’s the first challenge, to get through there safely, to find a safe line through there. Then we have to get across the Linda Shelf which can have anything from soft snow to blue ice and is up 40o in places. This is quite a dangerous place as the “Gun Barrels” are several hundred meters above you, ready to release an avalanche.
Steep climbing to summit
After that there’s some steep climbing up to the summit rocks, usually 6 to 8 belayed pitches. That’s followed by the summit icecap which can be anything from blue ice to soft snow. The summit ice fields are an awkward angle: a bit steep to stand up and walk, but with an angle that’s too low to be “facing in” comfortably.
Climb Aoraki Mount Cook - how long does it take?
The Aoraki Mount Cook climb is typically a 12 to 16 hour day, although it’s common for parties taking 20 or 24 hours. A huge day, 1700 m vertical. People often underestimate the difficulty if they come from the Alps, because it’s not a 4000 m peak. But 1700 m vertical is a big summit day anywhere in the world. In New Zealand you tend not to be acclimatised. The summit icecap is at 3500 m so it’s hard going and there’s no way really to acclimatise well for that.
How do you approach the Aoraki Mount Cook ascent?
I try to do some warm-up climbing, for example on the Glacier Dome. If there’s no track up the Linda Glacier then on day 1 we would try to put the track in. Having a track to follow in the dark make life much easier. We’re not going up through a maze of crevasses, trying to find our way in the dark.
Like most of the Mt Cook guides I usually start us off at some ungodly hour in the morning. We set out anywhere between 11 pm and 2 am while things freeze. Ideally we want to be on the summit at about eight or nine in the morning. So that means that we’re often doing a lot of the ascent in the dark. If it’s cooler we can leave later.
Of course you need good weather and relatively manageable winds, and no fresh snow. A dump of fresh snow can be a problem. We have to wait until that snow settles to avoid a significant avalanche danger. So it’s important to get the right conditions before an attempt to climb Aoraki Mount Cook. You can get long periods of great conditions while at other times it’s really tough.
Aoraki Mount Cook is different
The weather challenge is why it’s such a classic ascent compared to peaks in Europe or America or the Himalayas. There you usually have a fixed line or a big packed track and you know what conditions will be like. The fact that there are very few or no other climbers on the mountain enhances the experience.
So what do you look for in a client who wants to climb Aoraki Mount Cook?
You need to be strong and fit, quick enough and in good enough condition to get through the first three stages in good time. It’s important to have enough time left to deal with any difficult conditions on the summit icecap and still get back down safely. On the way down we often do ‘lowers’ or rapelles down through the summit rocks. It’s a really challenging climb so if you are not fit enough or fast enough you’ll run out of time.
The hard climbing is at the top
There is 1000 m vertical of relatively easy going before you reach the really serious climbing. The hard climbing is on the top third of the route. It’s almost like climbing Mt Aspiring and then having to do 500 m or so of harder climbing.
Efficiency & experience
Some of the conditions can be challenging. For example, climbing on dry rock with crampons, or small vertical steps of ice. The conditions are mixed. The climber needs to be able to move efficiently on ground steeper than 40°, in crampons, and climbing with two ice-axes. Endurance as well, we need to be able to cope with a 14 hour day, at least.
Not a first summit
Aoraki Mount Cook is definitely not a first summit. There is quite a lot of objective hazard. The stronger the people are, the easier it is to manage that objective hazard, to move quickly through it and minimise the exposure time. That’s where the experience of the Aoraki Mount Cook guides really comes into play.