On a list of what would seem to be poor choices I have made whilst travelling, visiting Mt Cook for two hours after a eight hour round trip from Queenstown would have to be pretty high up.
Close behind on that list would be the decision to spend the majority of that two hours inside a darkened room rather than getting out and walking around some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. Especially given that it was a perfect blue sky day.
For this, I blame one man: Sir Edmund Hillary.
Mt Cook was where Everest’s first conqueror took his baby steps in the world of mountaineering. Well, I say baby steps, but you’d be hard pushed to get to the top of New Zealand’s highest mountain without some serious training and fancy equipment.
In many ways, Mount Cook is the perfect training ground for bigger peaks, and plenty of mountaineers have used it as such. Nowadays, Mt Cook Village - which sits at the foot of the mountain it is named after – pays tribute to its most famous temporary resident. The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre sits within the Hermitage Hotel, and a large part of it is dedicated to the people who have climbed Mt Cook and worked within the National Park that surrounds it.
Some of the stories are extraordinary. For example, in 1982 Mark Inglis and his climbing partner were trapped in below freezing conditions and without rations on Mt Cook’s Middle Peak. They toughed it out for 13 days before being rescued by a helicopter, and severe frostbite meant that Inglis lost both of his legs.
He then went on to be a cycling medallist at the Paralympics, a wine-maker and a competitive skier before returning to the scene where he nearly died in 2002. Inglis made it to the summit of Mt Cook – a remarkable feat that he topped in 2006 by becoming the first double amputee to successfully scale Mt Everest.
And it’s stories like that that keep you inside.
If it’s stories you want, then Sir Edmund Hillary (or ‘Ed’ to just about everyone) had thousands. This remarkable man – who died in 2008 – did so much more than just climb Everest (as if that wasn’t enough). He led an expedition across the Antarctic, stood at the North Pole and rode a jet boat up the River Ganges in India.
But the most fascinating parts of the centre are devoted to Hillary the man. He was an awkward giant who was, on occasion, cripplingly shy and had to propose to his first wife through her mother.
His life is laid out on video, and it is played on a loop amongst all the mountaineering equipment. I went in for a quick peek and was reluctant to leave again.
There are so many aspects of Hillary’s life that I didn’t know about - from his philanthropic work for the Sherpa people of Nepal to the death of his wife and daughter in a plane crash. They were coming out to meet him while he oversaw the construction of a hospital in the Himalayas.
The whole thing moved and fascinated mean in equal measure. And while it may seem absurd to have barely explored some of New Zealand’s most magnificent scenery whilst I had the opportunity, sometimes it’s worth deviating from the obvious plan.
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