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New Zealand's cloud piercer: Mount Cook

Posted May 8, 2009

Pack your patience when traveling to see Mount Cook in New Zealand.

Odds are, you’ll have to wait for the fog and rain break before you get a glimpse of this glorious mountain.

We waited two days.

I recall springing out of bed and marveling at the pinkish early-morning light caressing the mountain and its surrounding peaks. I snapped a lot of pictures but only a few pleased me. I wish we could have stayed a few more days.

Actually, I first saw Mount Cook on the plane ride down to Queenstown from Auckland. (View an audio slideshow of Bill's New Zealand journey.)

A snowstorm had just coated the Southern Alps with a fresh layer of white. It reminded me of the swooping and snow-swept scenes of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." And upon further study, I learned that this area was indeed used extensively in the filming of the famous cinematic trilogy.

It’s quite easy to reach Mount Cook by car. Just take Highway 80 – and it’s a good road. We did have to dodge a herd of cattle, but that was quite entertaining.

Even when the mountain is shrouded in fog and rain, you can get some interesting pictures.

Mount Cook is a 3-hour 25-minute drive from Queenstown, where we began our Fiordland adventure. In fact, we ran into some of our Milford Track hiking buddies there.

If you really want to do it up right here, you can stay in The Heritage. It’s huge, historic – and somewhat expensive. We saved a sizable sum by staying at the Aoraki/Mount Cook Alpine Lodge, which was quite comfortable and still offered spectacular views.

A lot of folks camp up there, but if you do, be prepared for rain.

We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the new Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre.

Hillary trained at Mount Cook before his conquest of Mount Everest. Cook is about 12,300 feet tall but seems small compared to Everest’s height of more than 29,000 feet.

There’s a statue of Hillary outside the Alpine Centre. There’s also a neat museum with a 3-D theatre and planetarium.

There, we also watched a compelling film about mountain rescues. National park workers double as mountain rescue-crew members.

More than 200 people have died trying to climb New Zealand’s highest mountain. You can take an easy hike to a memorial dedicated to the people who have been killed there.

Keep walking, and you’ll get a good view of glaciers and panoramic mountain scenery. Longer walks are available but recommended only for those with extensive mountaineering experience.

The mountain is also recognized by its Maori name. Aoraki means “cloud piercer.”

Every year, hundreds of people attempt to break through the clouds and climb this monstrous mountain. But it is a formidable ascent due to high winds and rapidly changing weather.

The best time to climb the mountain is between November and April. Remember, we’re talking about the Southern Hemisphere here.

You can always take a plane or helicopter up on top of Mount Cook. Several companies fly there out of Lake Tekapo. But they only fly when the weather’s decent.

Again, pack your patience but the payoff is worth it.

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