Day 11 – Higher Ground

Time zones and the International Date Line wreak havoc on international communications. In November when it’s noon in New Zealand, it’s 4:00 pm (the previous day) back home. After losing an entire Saturday somewhere over the Pacific on the way to Auckland, it took awhile to wrap my head around which day of the week it was. Time conversions weren’t much easier. “Do I add four hours or subtract four hours for Mountain Standard Time?”

A funny thing happened while the sixteen of us were sleeping dormitory-style at the shearer’s quarters. I had my phone plugged in to charge it overnight, but I forgot to switch off the ringer. A friend of mine from back home sent me a really sweet text to wish me a belated happy birthday. At 3:50 am! Fortunately I was half awake at the time, staring out the window at billions of stars. I scampered across the room to mute the phone before it ‘dinged’ again. I muttered a couple of apologies at breakfast, but I quietly thought the whole situation was kind of hilarious. A couple of days later, I responded to her text while watching the sun set over Lake Manapouri. That text probably made it home around 2:00 am, proving that the time zone converter in my head isn’t exactly bulletproof, either.

On a bright and sunny morning, we loaded into ‘Frank’ the bus for a scenic one-hour journey around Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook National Park. I had a nice chat with Cathy about hiking, and we compared notes about Yosemite National Park (her backyard) and the Canadian Rockies (my playground). At the foot of several glaciated peaks, our guides gave us a choice of two different day hikes. We could either take on the “relatively tough slog” up to the Sealy Tarns, or opt for the “relatively easy” hike up the Hooker Valley to a glacier. The promise of breathtaking views from Sealy Tarns sounded like my kind of gig, so I opted for the tough slog.

It took about 30 minutes to figure out that this was like no other hike I’ve ever done. Whoever laid out the trail to Sealy Tarns was either:

(a) trying to get up to the viewpoint as quickly as possible, or (more likely):
(b) a sadistic madman.

The first 1.5 km of the trail is a nicely graded climb through the forest. But then the stairs start. Oh god, the stairs! The average grade for the next hour of the hike must have been close to 30 degrees. Staircase after staircase after staircase, interspersed by short but merciful sections of something resembling a real hiking trail. If sixty minutes on a Stairmaster with the resistance cranked up to the “Quadriceps Killer” setting sounds like fun to you, then put the Sealy Tarns hike on your bucket list!

28 of the 1800+ stairs en route to Sealy Tarns

Two dozen of the 1800+ stairs en route to Sealy Tarns

The saving grace of the ‘trail’ is that your views of 3754-metre Aoraki (Mount Cook) and the adjacent peaks improve with every step. I fell into a rhythm of slogging up the stairs for about five minutes, then stopping for a 30 second rest break to check out the view. At every stop, the glaciers and moraines and lakes at the foot of Aoraki became more and more spectacular. I did my best to keep up with Cathy, but this lady speed-walks up the hilly streets of SFO for fun. Realizing that having my heart and lungs explode on Day 2 of the tour would be a terrible idea, I was content to reach the tarns a few minutes later than my new jackrabbit friend. Colin, Sally, Betsy, Bil, Cam, and our guide Natalie soon scrambled up behind us.

There is a picnic table at a gorgeous lookout point near Mount Sealy’s tiny glacial lakes. Most of us crashed at the table for a few minutes for a light lunch and a bottle of water. The picnic table has unobstructed views of the mountains, the glaciers, and the Hooker Valley outwash plain 500 metres below. It was tempting to stay at the table all day, but another challenge awaited us.

Natalie gave us the option of continuing up the mountain towards the Mueller alpine hut. Since it was early summer, she expected that snowfields would eventually block our route. But a few of us hardy (some would say ‘crazy’) souls gave it a go. Colin, Sally, Nat and I negotiated our way up a very rocky trail, marked every 200 metres or so by guideposts. About an hour of scrambling took us above the alpine scrub slope and most of the way across a boulder field. But just like the Tongariro hike, as soon as we encountered waist-deep snow on the trail we elected to turn back. The view of Aoraki and Mount Sefton from the snowline was certainly worth the extra effort, though. Higher ground, indeed.

Mount Sefton (left) and Aoraki (centre-left) from the Mueller Hut hike

Mount Sefton (left) and Aoraki (centre-left) from the Mueller Hut hike

The return hike to the trailhead was almost as challenging as the ascent. In just four kilometres of trail, we shed around 850 metres of elevation. We made it back to Sealy Tarns without any major incidents, but then it was time for the god-forsaken stairs. Descending 1800 stairs in an hour isn’t much of a cardiovascular exercise, but it induces serious levels of speed wobble in your legs. I was so glad to get off the Stairway to Heaven that I elected to hike the wonderfully flat 3 km path into Mount Cook village instead of catching a ride on our bus.

Our group gradually reassembled in the village. We checked out the visitor information centre, which employed some excellent displays to tell the stories of the area’s alpine explorers. We also enjoyed a hard-earned pint (or three) at the local watering hole, comparing notes on what we had experienced on trail.

Dinner that night back at Braemar Station was a lovely baked salmon and kumara dish that paired very nicely with a Marlborough sauvignon blanc that I picked up at Lake Tekapo. We finished off the evening with more stories around the campfire, more stargazing under the cloudless sky, and the sort of slumbers that only come from being completely exhausted. And this time, I double-checked that my phone was switched off 🙂

Song of the Day: “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder

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