Introduction


In July 2013, our family had holidays in the South Island, New Zealand. During our visit to Mt Cook, we were stuck there for two days due to a severe snowstorm: roads were closed, all trails became inaccessible, and we couldn’t do anything.


In Alpine Lodge, I picked up Pat Barrett’s book “True South” and read through it in two days. Eventually, this book gave me completely new insights about New Zealand mountains, especially the Southern Alps, and also significantly revised my photography journey from then.

Pat Barrett's True South

Pat Barrett’s True South


I was fascinated by New Zealand Southern Alps and simply wanted to make mountainous images from there. But I knew this was not simple at all, as I never had any Alps mountaineering experience before. As a starting point, the only way that I can achieve my goal is to learn Alps mountaineering knowledge and skills from very beginning.


During 12 –18 January 2014, I participated in Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Guides’ Mountain Experience Course (MEC). MEC is an introduction course designated for people who want to explore Alps with essential mountaineering skills.


Mueller Hut – MEC training base


The course started in the afternoon of 12 January 2014. In the morning 13 January 2014, we departed from Unwin Hut – New Zealand Alpine Club’s base camp, started to hike towards Mueller Hut.


Mueller Hut is one of the earliest Alpine huts in New Zealand. It has been built 5 times through out the years. The first hut was built in 1914.


At 1800 metres on the Sealy Range (nearly half as high as Aoraki/Mt Cook’s summit), the view from the hut is a 360-degree panorama of glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks. From a tourist viewpoint, it is a great site for hearing and viewing ice falls, alpine sunrises and equally unforgettable sunsets. The climb to the hut through alpine scrub, herb fields and scree slopes is an achievement in itself, or the start of further opportunities for the more experienced.

Sealy Range Topo Map.

Sealy Range Topo Map.


However, from a mountaineering standpoint, Sealy Range, where the Mueller Hut located, has been viewed as a rather risk region like most Alpine areas. Since 1964, 5 people died in this area and the last tragedy happened in 1994 when a 34 yo Japanese woman took a day walk to Mueller Hut but never returned.

Tragedies happened in Sealy Range

Tragedies happened on Sealy Range.


As Mueller Hut is surrounded by Glaciers and various mountain peaks, it has been used as one of the mountaineering training bases operated by the Alpine Guides at Aoraki/Mt Cook.


Our Alpine training then started from Mueller Hut. Our MEC consisted of just three people: our guide Italian mountaineer Alessandro Beber (28 yo), Tom Witt from South Australia (21 yo) and myself (51 yo).


It took us 4 hours from the car park hiking to Mueller Hut, while each of us carried a heavy backpack, including all mountaineering gears (ice axe, crampons, helmet, etc), sleeping bag, 5 days foods, etc.. In addition to these essential stuff, I had to carry extra 3.6 kg for camera, lens, tripod, and batteries in my backpack. This added to 25 kg of my backpack weight, which had exceeded my previous 18 kg backpack record for long distance hiking.

Mueller Hut.

Mueller Hut.


Walking on the Edges


On the first day when we arrived in Mueller Hut, Alessandro took Tom and me to a nearby mountain that one slope was covered by ice. We were trained essential skills such as glacier walking using ice axe, self-arrest, and rope techniques.


The next day we encountered an extremely bad weather that snowstorm came with 80-90 km/h wind speed. Our goal was to get to Mt Annette (2235 m height), for that we had to cross several glacier slopes, which was very challenging for me. Both Tom and I fell down couple of times on glacier slopes, but we were able to stop our falls using self-arrest techniques that we just learnt the day before.

Alessandro and Tom.

Alessandro and Tom.

Heading to the Summit.

Heading to the Summit.


Climbing to the Summits


During our MEC training in Mueller Hut, we had been able to climb three mountain summits: Mount Ollivier (1933 m), Mount Kitchener (2042 m) and Mount Annette (2235 m), while to get to the last two summits, there were involved extensive glacier slope crossing.

Beyond the Plains.

Beyond the Plains.

Yan on the Summit of Mt Kitchener.

Yan on the Summit of Mt Kitchener.


The weather in Alpine regions could change suddenly. On 15 January, on our way back from the summit of Mt Kitchener, we saw a huge lentic cloud was forming. Alessandro told us that strong wind would be coming soon. Indeed, by the time we arrived at Mueller Hut, the weather dramatically changed, the wind speed had increased to almost 100 km/h.

Alessandro and Tom

Alessandro and Tom

Alessandro and Tom

Alessandro and Tom

Lentic cloud was forming.

Lentic cloud was forming.


Some Facts


Mueller Hut is at 1800 m altitude. The elevation gain from Aoraki/Mt Cook Village to Mueller Hut is about 1000 m, while the hiking distance is just about 5 km. So it is a very steep walk. The first part of the route consists of many steep stairs, walking with heavy backpack or/and under strong wind could be difficult. The second part of the route consists of scree, snow ground, etc., no marked trails, only having some poles to indicating the direction. But these poles will become invisible in winter due to thick snow coverage.


Mueller Hut provides rain water and gas for visitors. However, going to Mueller Hut in winter is not generally easy. All trails and marks will be covered by thick layer of snow and avalanche risk does exist. It is recommended that only experienced trampers or with mountain guide companions should go to Mueller Hut in winter.


Due to its Alpine nature, weather around Sealy Range may change dramatically all year around. Wind speed is generally high. Once the wind speed reaches 65 km/h, it is considered to be risk to hike along mountain ridges in this area. During our three-day stay in Mueller Hut, we have witnessed a few sudden changes of the weather, and the wind speed once reached to about 100 km/h.


Final Words

Back to Unwin  - NZ Alpine Club Hut.

Back to Unwin – NZ Alpine Club Hut.


This Mountain Experience Course has provided me important mountaineering knowledge and skills, especially for traveling in the mountains above the snowline. I think I have established essential self confidence for extensively exploring New Zealand in the future: from Sea to Summit. More concrete photography plans targeting New Zealand Southern Alps are being on the way based on this great experience.

Yan's MEC Certificate

Yan’s MEC Certificate.


Check out my photographs from this trip in my website gallery:
New Zealand Southern Alps (2014).