My last overnight hike in New Zealand was to the Mueller Hut, a popular spot 1800 meters up near Mount Cook, NZ’s tallest peak. I knew the hike to Mueller began with over 2000 stairs. What I did not know was that these stairs were narrow, ladder-like protrusions that I climbed on all fours as much as on two legs.
Within the hour I’d reached the cloudline, and thick mist dissolved the path. The stairs were tedious and grueling, and when they finally (finally) ended, the hike was only halfway finished. I began to climb the ridge, over boulders and sloping exposed rock, slipping in loose gravel.
The path dissolved into orange marker poles stuck at intervals, with choose-your-own-adventure footpaths where climbers had either plunged up up on the steepest, most direct routes, or snaked around in search of an easier way.
I don’t generally lose my breath, but there I was, stopping often, trembling, wheezing, counting inhalations. I regretted every pound on my back. I looked below and saw nothing; above and saw only a couple more markers or hikers through mist, impossibly high. How could they be so high?
If you wondered what purgatory was like, this is it: a heavy pack and a vertical climb with no end in sight.
After a few hours, the track leveled out somewhat and I scrambled through an undulating, blasted moonscape of grey boulders, larger outcroppings looming overhead like ghosts.
Mueller Hut finally materialized through the fog. I’d just dropped my stuff, thinking achingly of lunch and setting up my tent, when the hut warden came dashing past. “If you want to see views, you better climb the ridge now! It’s clear up there!” he said, pointing at the towering stack of boulders above us that formed Mount Olliver.
Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. Exhaustion was shoved into a mental corner, because after a hard walk up and nothing to show for it, I was going to see some views.
I scrambled. I climbed. I summitted. The mist was falling away around me, behind me. I was above the cloudline now. There were views.
Were there ever.
The day continued to clear, dissolving into a bright afternoon. By evening, I could see the entire Hooker Valley below, Mount Cook rising above, silent and serene.
I slept under a cloudless sky, the Milky Way luminous and serpentine. Even without a moon, I could see the hut and mountains by starlight. There was the sound of thunder reverberating periodically around the valley: avalanches of ice and snow from the glaciers grinding the mountains under their teeth.
The next morning, I climbed Mount Olliver again for sunrise. The sky stretched and yawned into pink, the mountains became dipped in gold. I looked around, filling my lungs with the blushing air and thought, These peaks have seen more sunrises than I ever will. This is old hat for them. But not for me.
The day was as bright and clear as you could want, and when I began my descent around 12:30 pm, I saw everything I had missed on the way up: Hooker Valley opening before me on every side, Mount Cook towering overhead like a god.
A great professor of mine told me that the best use of the word “sublime” is to describe something that is so monumental, so beautiful and so powerful that you feel small as well as awestruck, overwhelmed, frightened by your own insignificance as much as filled with admiration. While the rock scrambles ripped fresh tears in my muscles and the stairs destroyed my knees, I had only to look around to see what he meant.