The highest peak in the Southern Alps and sitting in its own sprawling national park, Aoraki/Mount Cook dominates the centre of New Zealand’s South Island.
Name: Aoraki/ Mount Cook
Height: 3724m, (12,218ft)
Location: Central Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island
First Climbed: Christmas Day (25th December) 1894 by Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham
Climb Time: 16-22 hours from Plateau Hut.
Best Season to Climb: October - January
Introduction to Aoraki / Mount Cook
Despite its modest height, it’s a mountain with a reputation for putting up a difficult challenge to anyone wishing to scale it. Glaciers, fast-moving weather systems, ice, snow and some near vertical drops: Aoraki/ Mount Cook is the epitome of the challenges of mountain adventures. With over forty routes to the summit to choose from, and a rich history in both Māori and mountaineering cultures, this mountain will pierce our interest as well as the clouds.
History of Aoraki/ Mount Cook.
Traditionally known as Aoraki to the Māori, it was named Mount Cook by Captain Stokes of the ship HMS Acheron in 1851 in honour of the English explorer, Captain Cook. Captain Cook had been the first European to circumnavigate and map New Zealand on his ship the Endeavour, between October 1769 and to March 1770.
During this voyage, both hostile and friendly relations were made with different Māori tribes (iwi) and the bays and mountains visible were given their English names. It was towards the end of this adventure that Cook gave the Southern Alps their modern name.
In 1998, the mountain was renamed Aoraki/ Mount Cook to reflect the importance of Māori history to its heritage. This involved the crown, who had assumed possession of the land nearly two centuries ago, handing the naming rights of the mountain back to local Ngai Tahu Māori. They then ceremoniously gifted it back to the crown and the name Aoraki/ Mount Cook was made official.
While other mountains in the Southern Alps and over on the North Island of New Zealand have the Māori name listed alongside the English name, Aoraki/ Mount Cook is the only one to be officially preceded by it.
Below we’ll explore how the mountain was formed geologically. But the Māori have their own legend of Aoraki/Mount Cook came to be. It goes like this:
Aoraki was the son of Rakinui, the Sky Father. He and his three brothers were on an adventure around Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, when their canoe (waka in Māori) got caught on a reef in the ocean. When they climbed on top of their stricken canoe, the cold south wind blew and froze them, turning all of them to stone.
This canoe became New Zealand’s South Island, while Aoraki, as the tallest and oldest of the brothers became the highest peak. Aoraki means ‘cloud piercer’. Given that New Zealand is the land of the long white clouds, this seems totally appropriate!
The Māori consider the summit to be a sacred place or tapu. It holds significant tribal value as the source of the power of life and death which the mountain is believed to possess.
Geography of Aoraki/ Mount Cook.
Aoraki/ Mount Cook stands at 3724m, (12,218ft) and is the tallest peak in Australasia. It also has the 39th highest prominence in the world– the minimum descent required to begin climbing another mountain. It stands a full 250 metres higher than the next tallest mountain in the Southern Alps, (Mount Tasman/ Horo-kōau (3497m/ 11473ft)). It is also surrounded by 23 of the 24 highest peaks in the range, many of which stand in the Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park.
However, pre-1991, Aoraki/ Mount Cook stood 10metres taller. On the 14th December 1991, the top 10 metres of the summit fell off! This sent 10 million cubic metres of snow, ice and rock hurtling down the east face of the mountain, and caused cartographers around the world to have to change their records.
Unlike the even domes of Mount Elbrus or Mount Fuji, Aoraki/ Mount Cook is a very unevenly shaped mountain; it has five sides, six faces and seven main ridges. This might be explained by the young age of the Southern Alps, being only five million years old and so in many ways, still freshly created and not yet smoothed down by erosion.
The Southern Alps have been formed by the collision of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. They continue to rise as rapidly as any other peaks on Earth. This constitutes around 7mm/ year, so it won’t be regaining those 10 metres just yet!
The mountains are also on the move. Over the past 15-20 million years, rocks have been separated by up to 480km. Rocks that were once in the same place now lie in the north-west and south-west corners of the South Island.
Wildlife of Aoraki/ Mount Cook.
Aoraki/ Mount Cook, and its surrounding National Park, are rich in wildlife. Some are rare and some are common, some are active in the daytime and others at night.
Extraordinarily for such a wildlife rich country, New Zealand has only two native land mammals…and they are both bats! These are populous around Aoraki/ Mount Cook. There are two native species: the more common long-tailed bat and the lesser short-tailed bat, both known as pekapeka in Māori. Both live mainly below the tree-line, particularly in pine forests.
The long-tailed bats are harder to spot, feeding mainly on flying insects found by echolocation. The lesser short-tailed bat has a wider omnivorous diet and so is more easily spotted hunting and foraging typically within ten metres of the ground.
In the days, you might spot some Red Deer. They were introduced in 1851 and most widespread of the eight species introduced to New Zealand. The males have huge antlers and are considered one of the finest deer species in the world. This has led them to be hunted for sport year-round in New Zealand.
Aoraki/ Mount Cook boasts 40 species of bird, including the mischievous mountain parrot, the kea. The only true alpine bird found on the mountain is the tiny rock wren/ piwauwau, now considered endangered.
On the higher slopes you might spot falcons/ karearea and black-backed gulls/ karoro and in the nearby riverbeds of Mackenzie Basin you could even glimpse one of NZ’s rarest birds the black stilit/ kakī.
Look closer and you could even see one of New Zealand’s oldest inhabitants, the black alpine wētā, an insect found above the snow line. Many dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths and butterflies also live in the lower regions of National Park.
In New Zealand, 80% of the trees, ferns and flowering plants are endemic. These cover up to 15% of the total land area. It is fair to say that in New Zealand, you will never be far from some interesting foliage, and Aoraki/ Mount Cook is no exception.
Reflective of the difficult challenge of a severe climate found on high mountain slopes, 93% of alpine plants are also endemic. Many of these are thought to be adaptations of lowland species or arrivals from South-east Asia, Tasmania or pre-glacial Antarctica over the past 5million years.
Between 700-1500m (2297-4921ft) in the sub-alpine and alpine herb fields near streams or damp areas you’ll find no challenge in spotting the white and yellow flowers of the Mount Cook lily. Not actually a lily, despite having the typical green leaves of a lily, this Southern Alps signature plant found only on the slopes of Aoraki/ Mount Cook, is actually a buttercup.
In fact, it’s the world’s largest buttercup, hence their nickname ‘giant buttercups’. They can grow to a metre tall and have flowers the size of your hand. The cup-like leaves will often hold water after a rainfall, so keep an eye out for a quick drink on your way!
A more useful plant, Mountain Flax/ wharariki (pronounced far-rar-reekee), is a unique and ancient species. They are used by Māori for clothing, baskets, ropes as well as fishing and hunting nets, and their nectar is used to sweeten foods. Its sap also has some medicinal qualities. This plant supports a large community of animals, acting as both a shelter and food source.
Mountain Flax grows up to 1.6m high with downward hanging seedpods. This is only half the height of the common flax (harakeke) which have upright seedpods and grow in far less severe conditions. Flax flowers vary from yellow to red to orange.
Highest of all are the lichens which have been known to grow on the rocks at the summit of Aoraki/ Mount Cook – making them the highest form of life in New Zealand. These simple beings require only water, air and rocks to survive. They create their own soil by secreting an acid that turns the rock into a primitive type of soil.
Slow-growing, as most cold climate plants are, some lichens can be hundreds and even thousands of years old. So look but don’t touch any you see while out on your adventure!
For further information, there is an in-depth discussion of New Zealand Flora on the New Zealand Geographic.
Description of the first ascent(s).
The first ascent of Aoraki/ Mount Cook was on Christmas Day (25th December) 1894 by three men: Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham. They followed the Hooker route up the North face, less popular these days.
Their achievement was put into context by previous failures. Twelve years earlier, three other men (William Green, Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufmann) had been forced to turn around only 60m from the summit. And in December 1890, Guy Mannering and Marmaduke Dixon had to descend within 90m of the High Peak. Both of these attempts had followed a different route, up along the Linda glacier route which is commonly used now.
In March 1895, Matthias Zurbriggen became the first man to summit the mountain alone, taking yet another different route, up a ridge running to the North-East that was then named after him. On 3rd December 1910, Emmeline Freda Du Faur became the first woman to climb the mountain– doing so in the fastest time to that date.
In 1949 Mount Cook was climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest. Along with Harry Ayres, he made the first ascent up the south ridge on the south peak. They also completed the grand traverse and Sir. Hillary climbed often in these mountains before his successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.
A bronze statue of Sir. Hillary, unveiled in 2003 outside The Hermitage, stands looking up at the mountains he climbed in this range.
Climbing guide for Aoraki/ Mount Cook.
There is no easy route up to the summit of Aoraki/ Mount Cook. There are no walk-up routes and experience in climbing and glacial environments is essential before any challenges for the mountain’s summit.
As the variations in routes of the climbs listed above show, it is a mountain with many faces and many challenges. To reach the summit requires technical expertise in ice, snow and rock climbing. As such, we begin this guide urging anyone considering the ascent to strongly consider going with adventure guides or at least ensuring that your fitness is of a high enough level in advance.
Also, if you do reach the summit, do carefully consider the impact your presence has on local traditions and beliefs. The local Māori view the summit as a sacred place and standing on top of it denigrates this status. As such, many adventure guides will encourage you to stand a few metres below the summit out of respect.
Finally, be aware of New Zealand’s infamous changing weather. As the warm air from Australia and Indonesia sweeps across the Tasman Sea, it meets the cold Antarctic air from the south. And it meets just over the top of this mountain. The instability and unpredictability this causes means that you need to go out prepared for any weather– no matter the time of year you climb.
The most common ascent follows the Linda glacier route, which has a challenging NZ Alpine Grade 3. This adventure begins at Plateau Hut and heads along the Linda glacier, first through the crevasse field of there lower section then up to the head of glacier. Here there is a climb up the challenging steep and icy face of the Linda shelf and then another less steep climb to the top of Zurbriggens Ridge.
From here it is two sections of climbing to the High Peak summit. The first challenge are several pitches up the Summit Rocks and then a section of ice climbing before reaching the summit. The return normally follows the same route, back to Plateau Hut.
There are approximately 40 other routes up the mountain, though not all of them reach the High Peak. Of these the North Ridge is the next most common ascent and was the route taken on the first ascent in 1894. The South Face has the most routes with 13 variations in all.
Attempting any of these climbs is safest between November and early January, as the persistent cold makes the crevasses more stable to navigate.
Info on trekking in the Aoraki/ Mount Cook area.
Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park was established in October 1953 and contains more than 140 peaks that reach over 2,000m (6562ft), including 19 three-thousanders. There are 72 glaciers also slowly making their way through the National Park too, unmissable as they cover some 40% of the region.
At the base of the mountain is the Mount Cook village, sitting 747m (2451ft) above sea level. It is here that accommodation can be found, along with terrific views of the mountain.
The National Park covers almost 707sq km and contains an array of more manageable trekking options.
The Mueller Hut Route is a single-day hike up to 1800m (5906ft) which offers 360 degree panoramas of the surrounding glaciers, ice cliffs and mountains. At 10.4km return, this route follows out of Mount Cook village and climbs the 1000m (3281ft) up through alpine forest, herb fields and scree slopes.
With five valley systems to choose from in the National Park, there are plenty of long valley adventures to try. Some of the more popular trails, both single and multi-day, lie to the north of Lake Tekapo. Some of these are multi-use too, (see the Godley and Macauley tracks), meaning mountain bikes and horses may join you on your walk!
Finally, why not attempt the challenge of the multi-day Ball Pass Crossing. Crossing the Aoraki/ Mount Cook range, this adventure takes you over the Ball Pass (2130m, 6988ft), often including a night spent at Caroline Hut (1830m, 6004ft), in full view of Aoraki/ Mount Cook’s South Face. This adventure offers you the chance to see fantastic views of Aoraki/ Mount Cook, Mount Sefton and the Hooker and Tasman glaciers.