Changing weather. A lack of equipment. Over-confidence. Any one of those things can spell trouble when you’re spending time in the mountains.
And on my first-ever trek to the Mueller Hut in Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park in New Zealand, I had all three. This is a true story of how I and my friend Jessica got stranded in an alpine hut during a blizzard for three days and had to be rescued by helicopter. And how, were it not for my Induro Tripod, the story might have ended very differently altogether.
Let me start off by saying that hindsight is 20-20, and armchair analysis is easy. You may wish to criticize, but I can assure you that at the time all the decisions we made were within reason and the realm of our capabilities. But thanks to those three factors I mentioned the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
The adventure began toward the end of a 6-week trip I’d done in New Zealand in April and May of 2016. Jessica and I had been traveling together for about three weeks and were lookingto do one last excellent hike before I went home to California. The weather had been thwarting our plans at every turn and it looked like rain and winds were going to keep us confined to the much drier, but also much less rugged, east coast of the South Island. But then, mere days before my flight home a small break appeared in the weather forecast for Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. They were expecting an approximately 24 hour window of relatively decent conditions. And thus we made our decision: we bee-lined in from the coast and headed to the glaciated landscapes surrounding the Southern Alps’ highest peak.
…this is when things began to cascade downward. The winds had not slacked off at all as we were expecting. And while we were fairly well protected while ascending, once we crossed the ridge it was like stepping into a fire hose.
The majestic Aoraki / Mt. Cook under clear skies.
The morning of our hike we first stopped by the visitor center to assess the conditions. And frankly, things looked ok for the hike to Mueller Hut: for 24 hours the rain was meant to subside, the winds were supposed to calm, the avalanche risk was low, and the freezing level was forecast to stay well above the altitude of the hut. Even though at that moment it was still raining we decided that a walk in the rain was better than no walk at all, especially if the weather broke while we were on our way to the hut. And with the 24-hour weather window we thought overnighting in the hut would be a fun final adventure for our trip. So we were both thumbs up, 100% go for the hike.
If you’re wondering what kind of hike Mueller Hut is, it’s a polar opposite from the proverbial walk in the park. It starts with 2000+ wooden steps ascending 500 meters up the flank of a mountain. The path at that point transforms to a rocky, mildly technical route that steeply climbs a further 500 meters up to a thin ridge line. The trail traverses the side of that ridge line another kilometer or so until it reaches the hut. All in all it’s not a long walk, but it is a steep one, with 1000+ meters of elevation change in only a few kilometers of hiking.
And because the trek is physically demanding, and the conditions not exactly summery, we made each other a deal: if at any point either of us felt like turning around, we would. If we saw any indicators of avalanche activity, we would go back. If we got to a point where crampons or ice axes were needed, we would return to the car. In this way we felt we were making conservative, smart decisions.
The hike began fine: stair-mastering uphill with 20-kg packs in the rain. But we were in good spirits and the views were great so on we went. About 1.5 hours in (somewhere in the middle of the rocky, technical section) the ground was suddenly covered with snow, as if someone had drawn a line of winter on the side of the mountain. We debated turning around right then but almost immediately we ran across a Kiwi who was returning from a day hike to the hut. He convinced us that the snow quality was good for hiking all the way to the hut, no crampons were needed anywhere, and there wasn’t any sign of avalanche activity. And since he was doing the hike in shorts and running shoes despite the rain, we figured we would be well sorted in all our Gore-Tex kit.
Now there were 130+ kph gusts that were shaking the entire 28-bunk structure, and the idea of heading back out into the maelstrom was becoming very unappealing.
Conditions were more or less like this during the walk up.
On we went until we gained the ridge at about the 2-hour mark. And this is when things began to cascade downward. The winds had not slacked off at all as we were expecting. And while we were fairly well protected while ascending, once we crossed the ridge it was like stepping into a fire hose. The 100 kph gales were hurling raindrops sideways with a force that left our cheeks stinging, our eyes watering, and our body temperatures dropping. It seemed all the heat we had generated while climbing the mountain was whisked away Instant Knockout as quickly as you could say arctic dragon farts. There was nowhere to hide and put on more clothing without getting drenched in the process, so we had to make a decision: retreat the 2 hours back to the car soaking wet and miserable….or carry on quickly the last kilometer to the hut to get out of the weather, change clothes, brew some hot tea, and eat some food. Yeah, we chose the hut. 20 bone-chilling minutes later we stomped up to the front door, found it locked from the inside, and stomped around to the side door.
Damn it, let me in already!
Once inside we wasted no time getting a pot of water boiling then exploded our backpacks all over the hut interior in order to begin drying our wet gear.
Who says you can’t use a propane cook stove to dry your socks?
Now, I should also say that while the Mueller Hut is large, well-appointed, and has gas cookers, it is NOT heated. Which meant it was right at freezing inside while we ate our lunch of soup and sandwiches.
Honestly one of the best meals ever.
While we were eating the winds continued to scream: now there were 130+ kph gusts that were shaking the entire 28-bunk structure, and the idea of heading back out into the maelstrom was becoming very unappealing. Nevertheless, we realized the safest course might simply be to descend back to the cars. In other words, we thought it might be worth suffering through 2.5 hours of a grim, wet slog for a night in front of the fire in a hotel sipping warm cider.
That fresh ice was also as frictionless as wet teflon. And with the winds still raging that meant on my morning photographic foray I was literally being blown across the landscape like an ice-sailing vessel.
All the alpine huts in Aoraki / Mt. Cook Park are equipped with solar-powered radios, so before we simply booted out into the storm again we called down to the park visitor center to ask for an updated weather forecast. “It looks like the weather break is still coming,” they told us, “just a bit later than expected. It should begin clearing later tonight and the clearing will last through the morning. So if you are prepared to stay the night in the hut, we’d advise doing that.”
We were absolutely prepared to stay the night, with heaps of clothing, a day’s worth of food, and our down sleeping bags in tow. And since walking back out into the face-blistering winds was about as appealing as eating a stink bug, we settled in to read and drink tea as the hut shook and shimmied beneath us.
Sure enough, around 8:20 pm the clouds began to break up so I ventured outside to take a few photos. Even though the rain had stopped, the winds had not, and I struggled to stay upright in the severe gales. Eventually I managed to find a rock sticking up about 1 meter above the snow that provided some protection from the wind. Nevertheless, I drove the legs of my Induro CT113 as deep into the snow as I could, until just the ball head was sticking out. Amazingly it gave me a stable enough platform to shoot this portrait of Aoraki / Mt Cook at 112mm and 154 seconds!
Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 @ 112mm. ISO800, f/5.6, 154 seconds. Induro CT113.
That night we slept as well as we could considering the hut sounded like it was going to be torn off its foundation at any moment. In the morning we awoke nervously, hoping the break in the storm was still in effect. Since the winds had coated most of the hut’s windows with crud I actually had to step outside to assess the conditions.
And let me tell you, they were beautiful! While a thick bank of clouds still loomed over the Southern Alps’ crest there were breaks to east that promised to let in the light of the sunrise. Sure enough, as the sun climbed higher into the sky it began to peek through the clouds, providing a wonderful splash of warmth on the cool snow and ice covering the landscape.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 18-35mm lens @ 18mm. ISO64, f/16, 1/60 sec. Induro CT113.
But in direct contrast to the beauty of the sunrise, a profound problem became immediately apparent to me: during the previous day the wind had compacted the rain, slush, and snow into an extremely dense slab layer. And while the temperatures were above freezing that wasn’t really a problem: as I mentioned I easily drove my tripod legs deep into the snow the night before. But overnight the freezing level, which was previously forecast to stay above roughly 2,500 meters, dropped dramatically to around 1,500 meters, well below the elevation of the hut.
This meant that that dense slush layer froze completely into a slab that was as hard as concrete. I thought perhaps I could kick my way through a top crust into a softer layer beneath, but that turned out to be as fruitless as stopping a bulldozer by blowing bubbles at it. That fresh ice was also as frictionless as wet teflon. And with the winds still raging that meant on my morning photographic foray I was literally being blown across the landscape like an ice-sailing vessel. It is a frightening feeling to have absolutely no control over your movement, and were it not for the metal spiked feet I’d previously installed on my Induro (thank goodness!) I’m not sure how I would’ve made it back to the hut. But I could dig those into the hard ice for a tiny bit of traction.
Mind you, this was essentially zero traction or control on FLAT GROUND. To get back to the car we would need to first traverse along the side of the ridge line, then drop down a 25-30° slope until we reached solid, non-snow-covered ground. But since we hadn’t anticipated the freezing level to drop so low, we had not brought crampons or ice axes. How the hell were we going to traverse 30° ice slopes?? I have a background in engineering and one of the things I’m good at is creative problem solving, so after talking it over with Jessica we decided to improvise some crampons. We cut excess straps from our backpacks and pulled screws from the wall of the hut using a multitool. Drive the screws through the straps, tie the straps tight around our shoes, and boom! Homemade Yak Trax.
We then suited up, donned our packs, and stepped outside. Our jury-rigged crampons worked fantastically well and we were feeling confident for the descent. Up until our first small slope of about 10° when not even the screw tips beneath our feet held in the rock hard ice and we both found ourselves on our asses in uncontrolled slides. Thankfully we fetched up in a shallow gully just below. At that point I loaned Jessica my trekking poles and showed her how to use them to glissade. I pulled out my Induro and once again used the metal feet to assist with walking.
At that point, both us of almost puking from fear (although we didn’t admit that to each other till later), we decided that continuing on would result in almost guaranteed injury or death.
With our small, controlled glissades on point we resumed the descent and things were going well until we came to a 5-meter-wide chute we needed to cross. The chute was at about a 25° angle and heading directly across it on the ice was impossible with our current gear. Instead, we’d need to slowly descend the rocks on one side of the chute, cross in a narrow section, then climb back up the other side.
I went first, sliding on my ass down the chute, digging my tripod legs into the ice as hard as possible, until I fetched up on a tiny ridge of rock sticking up 1 cm out of the snow. Jessica came next, sliding a bit faster because of the flimsier trekking poles, and when she came to the rock I was perched upon her momentum nearly threw us both over it.
In the scuffle of getting us both upright and faced back uphill my water bottle squirreled its way out of my pack and skittered down the ice chute. Before I could blink it was simply gone: racing hundreds of meters down the ice, then disappearing over the cliffs which hang over the Mueller Glacier.
To get a sense of what this terrain was actually like let me show you a self portrait I took from another hike in the park just a few weeks earlier. In this image the ridge we were traversing can be seen in the background, about 1/3 of the way in from the right.
Here’s a zoomed-in view where you can see what’s happening:
Now imagine this entire scene covered with the hardest, most slippery ice you’ve ever set foot on and you’ll get a sense of what we were dealing with. You can see that had we slipped and followed my water bottle down the hill, there was almost nothing to stop us from from going over the cliffs above the glacier.
At that point, both us of almost puking from fear (although we didn’t admit that to each other till later), we decided that continuing on would result in almost guaranteed injury or death. Thus we needed to get back to the hut to wait for a change in conditions.
Easier said than done though. After you’ve slid down an icy chute, how on earth do you get back up without crampons? Our makeshift ones were totally ineffective at the angle we needed to climb, and the rocks in the area were too far apart and too well-covered by ice to allow us to climb them back to the top of chute.
Partly out of frustration and partly out of desperation, Jessica started hammering the ice with the trekking poles. Because I had tried to kick holes in the ice earlier that morning to no avail, I didn’t expect the trekking poles to be able to penetrate. So it was to my grand surprise when after enough pounding the poles nipped away a tiny chink in the ice’s armor.
At that moment, it was like a thunderclap of inspiration came down from the skies. If a 200-gram trekking pole could hew away at the ice, what could I accomplish with my 1.5-kg metal-spiked tripod? I extended all three legs to the same length and began bashing away at the ice. Within 5 or 6 strokes a small step appeared in the slab front of me, just enough to jam my toes and the ball of my foot into. Hallelujah!
I hardly slept at all that night, anxious about what we’d see when dawn arrived.
I stepped up into that tiny crevice and bashed away until another step appeared. Then another, and another. In this way we crawled back up the ice chute and to the relative safety of the flattish land above it. And although we were able to breathe a sigh of relief at that point, we still had a ways to go back to the hut.
In terms of true distance we had to cover only about 300 meters, but the route was gently uphill the whole way and I had to use the metal spikes of my Induro to cut a pocket for every single footstep we took. We could actually see the hut the entire time, teasing us like some mirage.
The final steps to the hut. So close, but still so far.
In the end it took about 30 minutes to cover those 300 meters. Probably the longest 30 minutes of my life. My shoulders and arms were aching from the effort, and the lower leg locks on my tripod seemed all but destroyed from the thousands of hammer blows they’d rained down upon that concrete ice. But we made it, and as we stomped back into the Mueller Hut we began to shake, from relief, from fright, and from the release of a massive amount of adrenaline.
Jessica, far wiser than me, bluntly stated that she was not going outside again period until someone came to rescue us. I originally wanted to make another attempt down once the ice had softened a bit (after all, I had to catch my flight back home to the US the next day!) but she ultimately convinced me of the idiocy of that idea.
At that point we radioed back to the park HQ and advised them of our situation. However, because the weather window was closing again, and because we weren’t injured or technically out of food, there was nothing they could do for us. Instead, we simply had to stay in the hut until another break in the weather opened up in about two days’ time (meaning I’d miss my flight home to the US). Which meant there was literally nothing for us to do except drink hot water, read books, and regard our rapidly dwindling food supply. All while listening to the wind rattle the hut from top to bottom.
Rations for the next two days.
It’s very difficult to give up control in a situation like this and accept the fact that you can’t do anything to get out of the mess you’re in. But once you do it’s kind of a relief, and it allows you to focus on making the current mess as positive as possible. For us that meant keeping busy: we constructed an elaborate fort out of every single mattress in the place, and it turned out to be an amazingly cozy place to sleep.
While the hut temperature hovered just below freezing, inside the mattress cave it was around +5°C.
We also cleaned the entire hut from top to bottom, played Scrabble, and soaked our feet in pans of warm water. In addition I took apart my Induro and discovered that the leg locks weren’t broken at all! They had simply been pushed out of place. But once I reassembled it it was working like new and I’m still using it to this day (that’s six years and counting of some serious abuse for that particular CT113).
And of course we checked in constantly with the park about the weather forecast. Finally, after 36 hours of severe gale winds, thunderclaps so loud they shook the hut and set off avalanches, and 100- meter visibility, we got the news we were waiting for: a calm and clear break in the weather was due to arrive the next morning. And if it did indeed arrive, a helicopter would be on its way first thing to retrieve us.
I hardly slept at all that night, anxious about what we’d see when dawn arrived. However, I needn’t have worried, because when I slipped out of my sleeping bag at 7 am, I slipped out to one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve ever experienced: calm, quiet, and with a sky so clear you could see the distant mountains as sharp as tacks. Plus, over the past days of blizzarding, approximately 1 meter of fresh snow fell and covered the landscape in a series of fluffy white pillows.
Why did we need a helicopter if the weather was so perfect? One word: avalanches. The danger was monumentally high, so flying was the only way off the mountain.
Our first clear view of Mt Sefton. Nikon D810, Nikkor 18-35mm lens @ 18mm, ISO500, f/8, 1/60 sec, Induro CT113
The alpenglow was particularly astonishing, as intense a ruby as I’ve ever seen. And it lit up the atmosphere, the mountains, and a low inversion cloud like a laser beam.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200 f/4 @ 140mm. ISO 320, f/8, 1/60 sec, Induro CT113
Aoraki / Mt.Cook. Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 @ 185mm. ISO64, f/11, 1/60 sec. Induro CT113.
At 9 am sharp the radio chirped and Park HQ advised us a helicopter would be landing in approximately 30 minutes and we were to stay in the hut until the crew came to get us (hence no excellent helicopter snowblowing shots). Why did we need a helicopter if the weather was so perfect? One word: avalanches. The danger was monumentally high, so flying was the only way off the mountain.
And sure enough, at 9:30 am sharp, a heli touched down, the crew grabbed us and our kit, and 5 scant minutes later we were back at Park HQ, debriefing with the duty officer.
In the end we made it out of a potentially disastrous situation a little wiser, a little less over-confident, and a little more equipment and contingency minded. But most of all, we were incredibly thankful to learn profoundly valuable lessons while walking away with all our limbs and lives intact. Thanks in enormous part to one spiky-footed Induro tripod.