Sunday arrived to clear skies and savage winds. The heavy snowfalls on the mountains were most noticeable on Sefton and the Sealys, but Ben and I were determined; we were going to climb the 1006m (3300 ft) from the campsite to the Mueller Hut, right on top of the Sealy ridge. We packed our backpacks – well, I did, as Ben wanted to travel light, and only took a daypack of clothes and a bit of food – and we set off on the track to the Sealy Tarns, a pleasant set of lakes about halfway up the mountainside and well below the snowline.
Meanwhile we had a serious climb to tackle. The snow had long since obliterated all signs of a track, and we had to make up our route, not so easy as the hut is just over the top of the range and is therefore invisible until you're almost on top of it. The route we chose was straight up to where we believed the hut was, skirting a precarious-looking snow slide and avoiding most of the drifts. The wind was strong, the snow was freezing, and I was glad of the ski pants and gloves I'd borrowed as I climbed a near-vertical snowy moraine on all fours, a full pack on my back. In retrospect we must have been slightly mad; one false step or one slip, both of which were very possible on the loose stones and rocks we were clambering up, and it would be a fall down a few hundred feet into goodness only knows what. To be honest we were both more than a little spooked by the whole thing, but the sight of the dunny roof after hours of sweaty climbing made it all worthwhile, and it wasn't long before we'd made it to the hut.
One of the wonderful things about tramping in New Zealand – or, indeed, mountaineering, which is more what the trip to the Mueller Hut turned out to be, the way we'd gone – is the large selection of huts dotted around the National Parks. Australia doesn't have such a proliferation of huts, which enable you to do long walks without worrying about where to stay, and it's one of the reasons New Zealand is such a walker's paradise. The Mueller Hut, one of the more popular huts in the Mt Cook area, is a cosy little building, sleeping 12 people and containing a kitchen with fuel and water supplies.
It also has what has been described as the best alpine view in the world, looking over the whole Hooker Glacier on one side – with stunning views of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton – and the Mueller Glacier on the other. It's difficult to describe the sheer power of being up in the middle of a serious mountain range; it's a bit like trying to explain to a teetotaller what it feels like to be drunk. In some ways the sight was just as moving as that of Uluru, because these mountains aren't just lumps of rock and ice, they're awesome enough to be almost religiously powerful. It's small wonder that the Maoris regard Mt Cook – which they call Aoraki, or 'Cloud Piercer' – as a sacred place; I spent a lot of the early evening up at Mueller sitting in the freezing wind and just soaking up the whole environment (after having made a snowman, of course).
The whole Mueller experience was pure excellence. The other people in the hut were great company, and we played cards after dark as the wind howled and shook the hut, making it feel like the inside of a combustion engine. The wind has to be felt to be believed; it's constantly gusting and at times blows so hard that you simply can't walk into it, and have to dig your feet into the snow to avoid being blown over. It didn't let up for one minute and blew throughout the night. Still, the bunks were cosy enough, if you could ignore the frosting breath and shaking walls, and soon enough we all woke up, on top of the world, to a crisp but still blustery Monday morning.