Hiking through Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, up the Footstool to Sefton Bivvy is a slog – but compared to the crowds you’ll face on Aoraki itself, it’s a more secluded alternative.
The Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park attracts thousands of visitors every summer, with scores arriving to ascend the excessively trodden Mueller Hut and Hooker Valley routes. But what exists for those of us desirous of the solace provided by a less crowded but equally spectacular overnight mountain fix?
Here’s a secret – lace up tight, turn off the Hooker Valley, and tackle the stunning ascent to a room with one of the greatest views.
- A challenging ascent without the full mountaineering commitment
- Distinct lack of trampers, tourists, and travellers
- Expansive NZ mountain vistas
- A night at the historic Sefton Bivouac
- Rare alpine birds
Ascending the Footstool
A mid-morning start amongst the frustrating throng of campervans, tour buses, and rental bombs at White Horse Hill Campground is calmed in the knowledge of the peaceful adventure ahead.
The day starts with us heading up the Hooker Valley track with the hordes. Our loaded packs give the masses a clue as to our more serious intentions than the obligatory track photos of the south faces of Aoraki and Mt Hicks reflected in the terminal lake of the Hooker Glacier.
We cross the bouncing swing bridges over the roaring Mueller and Hooker rivers and find ourselves in the expansive valley. A glance to our left reveals the grandeur of Mt Sefton and The Footstool.
Stocking Stream shelter and the tussock flats signal our moment to jump off the boardwalk and head in their direction. We know Sefton Bivvy is up there somewhere, perched atop a ridge, but the little orange hut cannot yet be seen.
An uneventful but sometimes thorny and stabby kilometre across the tussock field finds us at the base of Stocking Stream, which is fed by the plummeting Tewaewae Glacier still far above.
Progress begins to slow as we ascend the stream on its true right side, alternately looking for the next marker cairn whilst taking in the breathtaking views gradually revealing themselves.
A critical cairn on the grassy slopes to our west signals our moment to depart the stream and find the goat track which will lead us ever higher up the spur. It feels not a moment too soon, as the terminal face of the glacier above begins to shed its ice chunks in the late morning sun.
The goat track grows steeper, zigzagging the slopes as the grass slowly gives way to rocky fields. The air thins slightly, quads are burning, we have this mountain to ourselves.
The peace is briefly punctuated by a helicopter flying down the Hooker Valley returning to Mt Cook Village with a precious load – a full toilet tank from Empress Hut, which is far up below Aoraki. We pray for the integrity of the load cable whilst enjoying lunch.
A precipitous bluff emerges with an obvious orange arrow summoning us to the point where a safe ascent can be made. Beyond this, we emerge atop the boulder field and scree slopes which lead us to our objective across relatively flat terrain.
A New Zealand rock wren scurries out from a crack and curiously observes us from its rocky perch. Almost simultaneously, a kea, the legendary New Zealand alpine parrot, signals its sighting of us with its distinctive call. Moments later we arrive at an empty Sefton Bivvy.
Perhaps the Best View in NZ
The timber-framed, red-painted iron-clad Sefton Bivvy is the oldest hut in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. For over 100 years it has hosted overnighters, day trippers and some of New Zealand’s most renowned mountaineers. It’s seen first ascents, courage and tragedy.
Atop the rocky perch, its walls speak silently of a history of change – glacial, geological, technological. The intentions book records the glories of those who have used it as a mountaineering base.
Its entries include those who departed and did not return, and we are reminded of the violent beauty of the environment we presently exist in. We are at the mercy of the mountains and we must respect the decisions they’ll make on our behalf.
The Footstool and Mt Sefton rising above the Tewaeawae and Eugenie Glaciers is the picture in the frame of the only window in the hut. The bunkless wooden floor, whilst hard, offers a certain warmth to the resident.
The vista out the door is beyond breathtaking. We are in God’s own house tonight as we look far out to the azure glacial blue of Lake Pukaki and beyond.
The glacier just a few hundred metres to the north, cracks threateningly in the late afternoon sun, reminding us that to venture any further beyond the hut is an exclusive invite to only the brave and fully equipped. A rock bivouac behind the hut provides alternate accommodation when the hut, which snugly accommodates four on the floor, is full.
As night closes in, the lights of Mt Cook village far below provide a vertical point of reference, though the billion lights overhead are far more satisfying.
We look across to the Sealy Range where Mueller Hut sits and guess how many inhabitants it has this evening. Probably 30. Tonight, we have Sefton Bivvy to ourselves and we sleep soundly with the spirits of those who came before us.
The return journey the following morning is via our ascent route. A slight foreboding as we approach the crowded boardwalk is tempered by the sense of the spiritual fulfilment of the past 24 hours. Solace was sought and solace was found. We make a rapid departure from the campground carpark as more buses roll in.
- Hiking or climbing boots
- Clothes to prepare for all weather extremes
- A helmet (recommended)
- Enough food and water for the entire journey – assume streams and tank will be dry
- Sleeping bag and bivouac bag (in case hut is full)
- Maps (available from Aoraki visitor centre) and GPS
- A Personal Locator Beacon is a good investment in this terrain
How To Get There
The ascent via the Hooker Valley Track starts from the White Horse Hill campground. This is located at the end of the Hooker Valley Road which is signposted from State Highway 80 just before Mt Cook village.
Anyone attempting this route should complete an intentions card at the Aoraki Visitor Centre in the village.
- Rock scrambling
- Bird watching
This route always has objective hazards including rock falls and exposed sections. Whilst unshown on maps, the goat track is generally well marked with cairns but route-finding experience and research are essential.
In winter, access to Sefton Bivvy is for experienced and equipped mountaineers only. Avalanches can occur at any time of year.
Distance Covered / Elevation Gain / Duration
Day 1 – 10km / 900m / 4-5 hours
Day 2 – 10km / – / 2-3 hours