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Surprising Extremes- The Mueller Hut Hike

One of the coolest things about New Zealand- other than the absolutely fantastic geography and wonderful people, is their hut system in the national parks. Huts enable hikers to travel longer distances without carrying tents and cooking gear and make great places to get to know other hikers from around the world.

Tony and I decided to hike to the Mueller Hut in Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. This park is epic. I loved the feeling of standing in the plains of the valley surrounded by towering alpine peaks. 
In New Zealand, you don't have to climb as high as you do in the states to reach "alpine" conditions. The Mueller Hut sits at just 6,000 feet / 1,800 meters, shorter than the tallest mountain in the Appalachians. Don't let the elevation fool you, the hut is definitely in an alpine environment and you should pack in preparation for that. We did, and we were glad for it. 

Preparing for Conditions
We booked our spots ahead to make sure there was room for us. These huts fill up fast in the high season. By the time the day came, we knew that our hike out the next day would be miserable in cold, pouring rain, but the following nights were fully booked so we couldn't change plans for better weather. We decided that the beautiful hike up would be worth the cold, wet hike down. Because the hut is in an alpine setting, and weather in the area is notoriously unpredictable, we packed both rain and snow gear.
On the way up, with a view down the valley
Tony taking a break on the steep stair section
The trail from the valley floor to the treeline consists of a series of incredibly steep steps that zig-zag in switchbacks. Beyond the treeline, the trail traverses a scree-field and a stroll on sturdy rock.The trail itself gains roughly 3,000 ft in 3.23 miles.

The steepness of the route and the stairs themselves were more challenging than I anticipated.

Past the steep scree field, into the big solid rocky section connecting pole to pole. 

As we gained elevation and headed into late afternoon, the weather started to roll in. Once we actually reached the hut, the wind had significantly picked up and the clouds were dense with incredibly low visibility. After sunset, the rain began.

The hut doesn't have individual bunk beds, but instead long platforms to throw your sleeping bag down. I was thankful no one snored loudly.

The next morning, we slept in and waited to head out, hoping the bad weather would cause cancellations that would allow us to stay a second night. Sure enough, by noon there was enough space for us.

Our rainy day was spent reading books, chatting with other hikers and listening to Tony play guitar. I enjoyed snuggling under a sleeping bag in comfy socks, drinking hot cocoa and reading. Tony had fun taking photos of the alpine parrots that are unique to New Zealand.

The hut had a great assortment of climbing magazines and books
There was even a guitar for Tony to play!

Our second night

Every evening the caretaker of the hut turns on the radio to get a weather update and give the ranger station a list of the hikers staying at the hut for the night. The forecast was promising- the rain would continue through the night but would stop in the wee hours of the morning. 

Getting a good night's sleep that night was hard. Avalanches on the surrounding peaks thundered around us almost constantly all night. Inside the hut, it sounded like a stampede of horses stomping their way across the roof.

We peered out the windows the next morning to a world of white. Over a foot of snow had fallen, and the mountains were engulfed in dense white cloud. While I would have loved to see everything glistening in the newly fallen snow, the bright white fog had its own mysterious beauty. What was beyond that white wall?

I was glad we had packed for snow and felt bad for our fellow hikers in sneakers and leggings. At least the trek down goes quickly and they didn't have cold wet feet for too long.

Below the snow line, the fog continued, shrouding the mountains and valley from view. The green slopes were lush in the low light and I was compelled to try to capture the magic.

I think this photo best captures both the severity of the landscape, the lushness of the flora and the mystery of the fog.

By the time we emerged from the fog and into the sunlight, near the valley floor, my legs were screaming soI turned around to descend the steepest stairways like a ladder, giving my knees and thighs some relief.