Saturday morning started in exactly the same way as the previous two days, with despondent skies and constant rain, but by lunchtime there were signs that the sky might be clearing, so Ben, Mira and I decided to hedge our bets and go off on a short walk up the Hooker Glacier, the one that leads to the foot of Mt Cook. How to describe the views? When the clouds finally cleared, there in front of us was this beast of a mountain, reaching up to an almost-perfect pyramid peak, snow-capped and icing-sugar white. The tranquillity, only broken by the huge glacial river that you cross on two swing bridges, simply has to be experienced; these mountains have been here a lot longer than any of us, and they're quite content just to sit there, minding their own business, like old men on a park bench staring at the world passing by.
It's worth introducing the mountains, even though it's hard to really understand these peaks without seeing them firsthand. Mt Cook is the biggest, of course. It sits at the northern end of the Hooker Glacier, with three main peaks; the one you can see from Mt Cook village is a lovely pyramid shape, but the highest peak is just behind it, which you can only see by viewing the mountain from a different angle. On the western side of the glacier (that's the left as you look at Mt Cook) is Mt Sefton, with the Footstool just to the right of it; Mt Sefton is very snowy and icy, and there are regular booms as the snow avalanches off the slopes. Of course, avalanches happen all the time throughout these mountains, but Mt Cook is much further away than Sefton, so you only really get to hear Sefton's grumbling. Further to the left of Sefton are the Sealy Ranges, with peaks including Mt Ollivier and Mt Kitchener, and the Mt Cook campsite sits at the base of this range. To the east of the glacier (the right) is Mt Wakefield, the first peak in a range that stretches all along the glacier's east side, right up to Mt Cook, and further east still is the Tasman Glacier.
Back to the Hooker Glacier, though. Glaciers are huge 'rivers' of ice that slowly move downhill, carving out valleys and leaving behind rock debris known as the moraine. The Hooker Glacier is a beast indeed, and walking up to it involves following the valley that it has carved over the years – mainly in the Ice Age when it stretched a lot further than it now does – until you reach the terminal lake, which are formed by the melt-waters of the glacier. Cold isn't the word; terminal lakes aren't exactly swimming pools, which is made pretty obvious by the icebergs that float past. In the spirit of adventure, Ben and I scooted up along the moraine shores of the lake, almost to the strangely blue glacial wall, but it was pretty hairy scrambling along slopes that could collapse at any moment, so after a short exploration we headed back to camp to watch the sun set over the mountains.
The sunset was another to add to my ever-growing list of memorable twilights. The orange glow of an iridescent snow peak with clouds swirling round the ranges, moving at breakneck speeds in the savage crosswinds at that altitude, is as unique as any sight you'll see. Mt Cook is 3754m (12,315 ft) high, some 2992m (9815 ft) above the town, which is big in anyone's book. The view from the hills around the campsite was just perfect, and we spent the night celebrating the break in the weather with the Copland Pass group, who were planning to head off in the morning; inspired by all this activity, Ben and I started to concoct our own little plan.