I’m sitting in a helicopter that’s circling the Tasman Glacier. There’s low cloud over the mountains, but Mt Cook is peeping through the clouds, as it’s meant to do (Aoraki means “cloud piercer”).
Next minute, I’m standing on the glacier, sinking into soft snow up to my ankles, then my knees, then my thighs.
At 27km, it’s the longest of the 179 glaciers in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. In the middle, it’s 600 metres deep – something I can’t even imagine, but thigh-deep is as far as I’m prepared to go.
Looking up at the mountains on either side, I can see the after-effects of avalanches, the glacier itself like a pristine snow desert. The views over the mountains and Tasman were incredible from the helicopter, but standing on fresh snow on the glacier gives me a better understanding of how many centuries have gone into its formation and just how vast this mass of ice is.
It’s been bigger: 7km longer and there’s a lake at one end that wasn’t there before 1973. If it keeps melting at its current rate, I’ll be standing on an ice cube in about 150 years - this is, of course, not based on scientific calculations but I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably going to take a shorter time to melt than it took to form.
I’m not here to measure the glacier’s retreat, though, but to marvel at the landscape and let my feet sink into the powder snow.
Then it’s time to be whisked back over the mountains to the air strip at Mt Cook. We arrived at Mt Cook Village the afternoon before, after a ridiculously scenic drive from Tekapo. Highway 80 runs along the length of Lake Pukaki, which, like Lake Tekapo, gets its distinctive turquoise colour from sediment in the glacial waters that feed it.
The colour contrasts are one of the really striking things about this landscape; it’s not just the mountains’ majesty, the immenseness of the glaciers or the chocolate-box serenity of the lakes. Coming from a more temperate climate, I’m used to green landscapes; here the closest thing to green in winter is the turquoise of the lakes, the land is various shades of brown, the alps white on grey rock, the glaciers almost a minty hue in places.
Museum of mountaineering
On Sunday morning, after the glacier trip, we visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre next to the Hermitage. There’s a ton of fascinating memorabilia in the centre’s museum: the journals of early 20th century alpine guides, film footage of Hillary, reproductions of travel posters, old mountaineering equipment and vintage cars. Next door we watch a 3D movie about the creation of Mt Cook according to Maori legend, and take a virtual tour of the southern night sky from the edge of the solar system.
There’s nothing like a virtual brush with our solar system to make you feel insignificant. It happened earlier on a smaller scale as we stood on the Tasman, gazing up at the mountains on either side and contemplating the 600m of solid ice under our feet – with no sign of human habitation apart from ourselves and the helicopter. And later, looking at videos of mountain climbers in the Alpine Centre – figures like little dolls perched on narrow, icy mountain ledges.
Flying over the Alps, feeling I’m so close to a mountain I can reach out and touch it, and that momentary, memorable landing on the glacier, has given me some idea of what inspires people to strap on crampons and throw themselves at the mercy of ropes, ice picks and the weather. Not that I’m about to join in – a soft landing on soft snow more than satisfies me.