In Hillary's Steps

Posted by Roy Sinclair in Central South Island Travel Stories
Wednesday, 3 May 2006
an image Destination Mt Cook Mackenzie

No matter how hard we might dream, few of us who love mountains will emulate the adventures of Sir Edmund Hillary and stand on top of the world. But we can retrace the steps of the ageing adventurer to the summit of Mount Ollivier (1933m), the first mountain he climbed during the 1939/1940 summer.

"I can still remember the intense pleasure of that day," Hillary wrote more than 30 years later.

Mount Ollivier is in the Mount Cook National Park.

The climb does not require any particular alpine skills if made in fine weather, and from about mid November through to the end of April. A principal requirement is to be a reasonably fit tramper, able to walk on steep terrain for eight to 10 hours.

My companion and I and agreed on an early start.

We set off on the well-treaded Kea Point/Sealy Tarns track that starts close to the Mount Cook Visitor Centre, having first acquired a detailed brochure, with map, of our planned trail.

The climb to the Sealy Tarns on a steep stepped track occupied an hour or so. Predictably, the spacing of steps failed to fit our strides. We were amply rewarded as we approached the largest of the tarns filling a small cleft in the mountainside. The breeze was yet to ripple the water.

Sheer ice faces of Mount Sefton were superbly reflected. Aoraki/Mount Cook, showing its three peaks, stood high above the Hooker Valley and rock-strewn Mueller Glacier.

Another two hours, following a marked route rather than a track, led to the Mueller Hut with views from the skyline ridge being amongst the best in the Mount Cook National Park. The route parallels the precarious hanging glaciers and awesome ice shelf of Mount Sefton.


Mueller Hut 1768m offered an idyllic place to stretch out on warm rocks and enjoy a bite of lunch. The present hut was appropriately opened in July 2003 by Sir Edmund Hillary. Trampers spending the night in the hut (it can sleep 28 people) often climb Ollivier next morning to watch the sunrise on Sefton.

Hillary was aged 20 when he first visited Mount Cook National Park. Feeling restless and unhappy in wartime Auckland, he had persuaded his bee-keeping father to give him time off for a short trip to the Southern Alps.

The first night, in the Hermitage, he spotted two fit and tanned young men arriving. He heard the whispers, "they’ve just climbed Mount Cook."

Recalling the event in his autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, Hillary admits to retreating to a corner and reflecting on the dull and mundane nature of his own existence.

The climbers were Stevenson and Dick, a formidable climbing partnership. They had just completed the first Grand Traverse of Mount Cook, north to south.  Later, both climbers were to become New Zealand Alpine Club presidents.

Next morning Hillary set off with a guide to climb his own mountain. The guide had suggested Ollivier, a small peak on the Sealy Range above the Hermitage.

The guide "certainly looked the part with his weather-beaten face and Tyrolean hat, but his mature years and excess weight didn’t give the impression of dash and endurance."

He was also slow, and spent considerable time boiling the billy at the Sealy Tarns with the hope the climb would terminate there. The young Hillary was intent on tackling the "thousand feet of snow that stretched between us and the crest of the range."

Hillary recalls that "this was real mountaineering." The long slope underneath gave an impression of exposure and, despite his eagerness, Hillary followed docilely behind his plodding guide.  The crest eventually rewarded magnificent views of  "great glaciers and fine peaks."

Soon the guide felt the need for a rest, but Hillary scrambled quickly upwards, towards a high rocky outcrop. Within a few minutes he was climbing onto the summit of his first real mountain.

These days Ollivier is a 30 minute rock scramble from the Mueller Hut. A large cairn of rocks marks the generous summit. To go beyond Ollivier will definitely require alpine climbing skills.

During the warmer months Ollivier is unlikely to involve snow, as it did 66 years ago. And, such is the changing climate, one might not see quite the same "great glaciers" Hillary wrote about.

For us, the wearying knee-jarring descent from Ollivier’s summit to the village might have been much like Hillary experienced.  It took the best part of four hours, stopping frequently to enjoy the mountains in the changing afternoon light.

Being autumn we were looking upon crisp peaks of ice and rock, their longer shadows in the late afternoon blending with already darkening valleys.

All those years ago, Hillary returned to the Hermitage from Ollivier, "after the happiest day I had ever spent." Just 13 years later, on May 29 1953, he and sherpa Tenzing Norgay, stood on the summit of Everest.

Hillary thus coined his much celebrated:

"Well, we knocked the bastard off!"

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