The Mueller Hut track is a 6-7 hour (return) hike in New Zealand’s Mount Cook National Park. The trail head is in the DOC’s White Horse Hill campsite. The track leads to the top of a ridge offering stupendous views of Mount Cook, Mueller Lake, Hooker Lake, and surrounding peaks. It is possible to climb to Mueller hut and return the same day, or to stay overnight – in which case booking is required during the popular summer months. Of the four hours required to reach the hut, at least three are spent relentlessly climbing straight up the mountainside.
Location: Mount Cook National Park, South Island
Distance: 5.5 km one way
Camping: Hut or White horse campsite
People seen: Many
Guidebook: Land of Mountains: Hiking and Climbing in NZ
Accommodation: Options in Mount Cook National park
The Mueller hut track is described in Department of Conservation (DOC) literature as a ‘route’ rather than a ‘trail’. This indicates that navigational skills and mountain experience are required to undertake it. This is no mistake: the conditions in these mountains can change very quickly. The second part of the route climbs up loose rock and scree which can still be covered in snow and ice even in December. In high winds the route would quickly become very dangerous.
From the White Horse Hill campsite the Mueller track initially follows the Sealy Tarns track. A long sequence of steps reveals ever-better views over Mueller Lake and the Hooker glacier towards Mount Cook. The views from here are fantastic, but even better vistas wait further up! At the Sealy Tarns viewpoint the ‘tourist’ route finishes. To continue to the ridge line and then Mueller Hut requires continuing your ascent up the steep mountainside, this time over rock debris rather than up steps. The route is only roughly marked with orange poles, and this is avalanche terrain too. Unfortunately, as is often the case on popular hikes, I saw a surprising number of people who seemed unprepared for the conditions, including those carrying possessions in supermarket plastic bags!
Another 90 minutes of climbing over rocky terrain, negotiating the odd snow patch even in summer, leads to a small plateau with almost 360-degree views. This is a great place to take in the landscape and to watch – and listen – for the numerous avalanches that sweep the slopes of Mount Sefton and other mountains on the opposite side of the valley. Unfortunately the Mueller glacier has retreated so far that it is no longer to possible to view it from this point, always being tantilizingly just out of reach.
From this plateau, an easy 20 minute walk, circling anti-clockwise to the Western edge of the ridgeline, brings you to the Mueller Hut. The final ten minutes crosses a wide, flat snow field even in summer. The view from Mueller hut is not quite as spectacular as the previous plateau, but it does offer an opportunity to see further down the valley behind, revealing new peaks and landscape.
Beyond Mueller Hut is Mount Olliver (1933 m / 6342 ft), named after New Zealand mountaineer Arthur Olliver. The route to the summit is a moderate scramble, adding a couple of hours to the overall hike.
Unfortunately the only way to return from Mueller Hut is to return via the same route – and have your knees pay the price!
Maps seem to differ in their inclusion of the Mueller Hut route. The KMZ version I downloaded from NZ Topo Maps for use on my GPS did not include it, while the TIFF version from the same site did. Other paper maps I have seen in New Zealand varied in their inclusion. I’ve also seen at least one version which suggested a different route to the one currently used. As usual, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has excellent information on the track, including any weather warnings.