I had always wondered why people love climbing mountains so much; it seemed exhausting, unenjoyable and, sometimes, perilous. But there had to be something rewarding, something worth climbing for, and whatever that was, the only way to find out was to go climbing.
From the many countries with spectacular mountains, I chose New Zealand’s South Island as my destination, due to its reputation for glorious untouched nature. I began my road-trip in Christchurch, driving southwest to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park where New Zealand’s highest mountain exists. Along the two-hour drive, I was delighted by the views of endless nature, complete with wide and clear sky that I dreamed of being scooped up by a cloud to hover in it, high, high up. Also, more realistically, that I would reach the mountain peak on this trip!
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
There are six climbing tracks for exploring Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, ranging from the easiest one-hour walk to the experts’ three-day alpine route. Quickly judging myself as a beginner, I chose the moderate Hooker Valley Track which would take about four hours. Starting from DOC Visitor Centre, the track leads up towards the Hooker Valley and then towards Aoraki Mount Cook Mountain. The first phase was quite easy with some up-and-down steps, passing through a field of wildflowers and peculiar bushes.
When I reached the first swing bridge to cross the Hooker River the sun began hiding behind the mountains, and the atmosphere turned more mysterious. The section between the first bridge and the second covered old moraine ridges and humps, where the vegetation under the shadow of Aoraki Mount Cook started to look different. I then crossed the third swing bridge, walked uphill to the East Hooker – the source of the Hooker River – and ended at the glacier lake. There, I found the answer to why people would climb for hours.
Aoraki Mount Cook rises up 3,724 elegant metres beside the enchanting Hooker Glacier, and nestles behind a nearly-frozen lake with a small private pebble beach. I laid myself down at the very edge of the skyward viewpoint and enjoyed the majestic and breath-taking vista, plus cool breeze, for several minutes. The over two-hour trek was quite challenging for me, even though I had tried to toughen myself before the trip with exercise, but when I settled down on the beach, my fatigue was totally forgotten. The scene is stunning and other-worldly, and I was absorbed by it for a long while before I shook myself out of my reverie and started my return, which was along the same path.
After my exhilarating day at Aoraki Mount Cook, I drove southward to the town of Wanaka – the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Apart from seeing its remarkable namesake lake, my goal was to reach the 1,578 metre-high Roy’s Peak. The track is a strenuous hike, taking 6-7 hours along steep ridges without any shelter or water supply, so a good level of fitness and thorough preparation are required. I packed a bottle of water, some snacks and essential items in a backpack, trying to keep it as light as possible.
I started this most challenging mission from Roy’s Peak Track car park, walking up and up along the route, exposed to both warm morning sunlight and strong cold wind. Honestly, after an hour I almost gave up. The higher I went the harder it became to breathe, and at one point I was gasping and my legs were too weary to carry on. I decided to take a break and ponder whether to keep on climbing or return to my car. Finally I asked myself: “Why am I here?” And the question became my decision; I was there to reach Roy’s Peak, and I needed to move on!
The next hours became easier, as my body got used to the weather conditions and my mind became focused on my mission. Sometimes, a sheep or delightful hare would pop up, and seem to cheer me onwards. The blue of Wanaka Lake gradually revealed itself as I moved higher and, finally after four hours from the start of my climb, my efforts were rewarded. Standing on the summit of Roy’s Peak, I grinned broadly to the long range of tussock-covered mountains, the renowned Wanaka Lake with its islands and bays, and the legendary Mount Aspiring.
To celebrate my achievement I drew out a snack from my backpack and sat down, to rest and absorb the sublime vista. By now, I was certain of the answer to my original question. Besides the unforgettable views of nature that can only be seen from a mountain summit, people love climbing because it brings out their strength – both mental and physical – and makes them realize what they are capable of.
It is a lesson that no-one will learn from school or at the office desk – only in the mountains.