Mueller Ridge Hike, Mt Cook National Park
Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut
The Mueller Ridge hike from MT Cook village, up past Sealy Tarns, and finally on to Mueller Hut itself, is one of the most easily accessible and rewarding day hikes in New Zealand. It is hard work at times, climbing steeply from the valley floor, but rewards you with ever-improving views over the Hooker Valley and the Mount Cook Range, with an incredible payoff when you reach the ridge itself, and gain views of Mt Sefton and the Mueller Glacier.
The hike itself can be started from Mount Cook Village, but more often than not, people choose to start from the car park at the White Horse Hill Campground, which is also the starting point for the Kea Point and Hooker Valley hikes. There are toilet facilities at the campsite, as well as a shelter.
From the carpark the track starts off relatively gently, through grassland and scrub. The track splits off at one point - the Kea Point track goes off to the right, but there should be a DOC sign for Mueller Hut. After continuing on a clear trail through scrub, the it then goes along an old streambed for a while - sometimes it's a little tricky to see the trail when it crosses the boulders and gravel, but it's hard to go too far wrong. From here it starts to climb pretty fast up a steep 'gut' in the hillside - for much of the trail from here up to Sealy Tarns, old railway sleepers are used to create steps. At one point the trail passes over a particularly large boulder that just out from the hillside, which is clearly visible from lower down - you can often see people stopping for a rest to catch their breath.
When the trail moves away from the gut, at around 1050m, most of the hardest climbing has been done - there's still a long way to go and it's still all uphill, but the path is slightly more gentle at times as it winds its way up the hillside. From here onwards, there will be awesome views around the neighbouring valleys and the Mount Cook Range, as well as Mt Sefton coming into view again. The path continues steeply through alpine vegetation before traversing a little to the right at around 1250m before the last little climb to Sealy Tarns (1300m). Here, there is a step in the slope of the hillside, and a couple of small, narrow tarns, along with a bench seat on a nearby rise - a very scenic spot indeed. In early summer, this is often as far as you can go, as the snow line will be around this level. For most people it will take around an hour and a half to two hours to reach this point
From Sealy Tarns, the route is not always so obvious - it is considered to be an 'alpine route' rather than a standard DOC trail - but is marked at regular interval by orange DOC poles or metal poles marked with orange triangles. The path underfoot is less defined, a little rocky in places, and as it gets higher and starts to leave the alpine scrub and tussock, it enters boulder fields. The final ascent to the ridgeline is up a steep-ish scree slope, which will often still have tongues of snow on it late into the spring and summer - so take care in these areas, even crossing a short section of a steep snow bank could lead to a long slide with rocks awaiting you at the bottom. When you reach the top of the scree slope, about a 50m ascent, to achieve the ridge at around 1600m, the view opens up to an amazing vista of Mt Sefton, and the Mueller Glacier far below. In spring and summer, the crack of avalanches and sections of ice calving off the glaciers below Mt Sefton can frequently be heard, and you will usually be able to spot snow and ice cascading down the mountainside. At this point there is a little outcrop just down the ridge a bit that makes an excellent viewpoint, and photo opportunity, and for many, a suitable turn-around point - this will probably be about 3-3.5hrs into the hike for most people.
However, for the faster and more keen hikers, the route can be continued up the ridge to Mueller Hut, about a kilometre away, at an altitude just short of 1800m. The route to the hut is still marked by poles, but although these are not always obvious, you are basically just following the ridgeline up towards the hut, though the trail is always on the western side of the ridge ( the Mueller Glacier side). The route is initially uneven, across boulder fields, and requires some confidence rock-hopping, but later on crosses a couple of small basins before reaching the hut. The Mueller Hut is quite large, and is raised above ground level (only noticeable in summer, as in winter the snow level is usually at the level of the outside deck, or higher). The hut is used by climbers as a base for climbing Mount Olivier and other peaks beyond - in fact Mount Olivier was the first peak ever climbed by the young Edmund Hillary! It is also used for ski-touring in winter, though because the snow rarely reaches the valley floor, alpine ski-touring in the area involves quite a lot of hiking with heavy gear before you can put your skis on! You can stay overnight at the hut, but you need to register with DOC at Mount Cook first, and pay your hut fees.
The return route is exactly the way you came, and the descent is usually much quicker, though it can prove painful on the old knees towards the bottom, especially when dropping down on the railroad-sleeper steps.
The Route Map
Weather and Safety
This hike is in the heart of a very mountainous region, and as such, the weather can be extremely changeable. Even on the clearest summer day, you should come prepared for adverse conditions - the ridgeline in particular is very exposed. As with all significant hikes in National Parks, you should register your intentions with the DOC Visitor Centre in Mount Cook village before heading out, and check in on your return. The DOC staff will also be able to give you the latest weather forecast and advise you on track conditions, and in particular, what the current snow level is and whether there are significant snowbanks that may need to be taken into consideration. Whilst on the trail, if at any point you think you have lost the trail, back-track to the last point you saw a trail marker, and start again from there.