After several tens of kilometers on one of Canterbury's many bucolic plains, the road ascends and enters the majestic domain of the Southern Alps.
We see the turquoise of Lake Pukaki defy the azure blue and, on the opposite shore, the vision as we travel. A persistent mist stains the backdrop with streaks of white and, from behind, in the style of the Caran d'Ache crayon boxes, the grandiose Aoraki/Monte Cook stands out.
The small village of Twizel appears shortly after and allows us to replenish the car and energy. We enjoy, for a moment, the panorama from a lateral perspective and continue our way towards the high foothills of the mountain range.
Late Arrival at Mount Cook, Povoação
Mount Cook, the village of the same name and the last stop on the route, is confirmed at the end of a vast alluvium painted yellow by a short, soaked hay.
It has welcomed adventurers for decades and proves to be a kind of first achievement for the cycle-tourists we see arriving, exhausted, to the International Youth Hostel .
There were many mountaineers gifted with the comfort of the small chalets installed there, precious moments of encouragement for the same challenge: the conquest of the great mountain.
New Zealand Ceiling's Irresistible Appeal
Since 1882, Mount Cook has attracted climbers. The first expedition was formed by the Irish reverend William Green, the Swiss Emil Boss and the mountain guide also Helvetic Ulrich Kaufman.
Breathed in by a merciful meteorology, this trio climbed the mountain without major hitches and celebrated the feat in the heights, returning to base and for a while longer. Until rivals and supposedly impartial judges confronted them with a cruel reality: they had stayed 50 m from the true summit of the rise.
For several kiwi mountain climbers, news of their humiliation brought relief. Tom Fyfe, George Graham, and Jack Clark had long wanted that triumph.
Eight months later, pressured by rumors of the visit of other reputable European climbers, they hurried to the base of the mountain, conquered the Hooker Glacier, continued along the northern slope and reached the summit on Christmas Day 1884. days now, his feat lies in the shadowy background of memory.
Edmund Hillary's New Zealand Origins
The Hermitage Hotel was installed in Mount Cook in the same year. We pass by its renovated facilities the morning after our arrival and see how Japanese guests – but not only – take pictures, excited, next to a black statue overlooking the mountain.
We soon prove that this is a tribute to Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand beekeeper who overshadowed the fame of his three compatriots and all climbers in the world, by ascending with the sherpa Nepalese Tenzing Norgay, to your roof.
From an early age, Hillary felt attracted by the discovery and achievement of achievements. In secondary school he already dreamed of the Southern Alps. He began to practice what would become his great skill in the mid-30s and conquered the first summit, Monte Ollivier (1933 m), in 1939.
At one point, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and served in World War II as a navigator. This unexpected mission saved him from a summer honey production that he was half fed up with and which was becoming less and less profitable. It gave him access to a real world, of which he had built a vast imagination by reading countless adventure books.
Once he returned home and recovered from a military accident in the Solomon Islands, he again gave in to the mountain's call.
Edmund Hillary and Mount Cook. A Workout for the Ultimate Conquest of Everest
He conquered Mount Cook with such ease that he repeated his ascent the following year as a kind of training for the much more demanding challenges he was about to face.
In 1951, as part of reconnaissance expeditions, he began his mountaineering relationship with the Himalayas. Two years later, he joined a British expedition of over 400 people (including 360 porters and 20 guides sherpa) led by John Hunt.
According to his instructions, Hillary teamed up with the sherpa Tenzing, one of the few who, against the prevailing superstition in the ethnic group, aspired to the same successes as the Western climbers.
Among several mishaps, Hillary and Tenzing were eventually ordered by Hunt to advance to the summit. They reached it with enormous effort, at 11 am on March 29, 1953.
On her return to base, Hillary told her companion George Lowe, the first person she saw: “Well George, we knocked the bastard off".
The Inevitable Consecration of the British Empire's Chief Mountaineer
After three months, he had received several honors and decorations, including those of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
As we travel through New Zealand, we see him every day, looking rude and simple, on the back of five dollar bills.
Edmund Hillary was for many years the only kiwi alive to deserve this distinction. He insisted that the mountain accompanying his profile should be Aoraki/Mount Cook and not Everest, in honor of his passion for the Southern Alps.
The New Zealanders and the people of the Hermitage Hotel repaid him with an Alpine Center and Museum dedicated to him. The same in which we sat in front of a screen, as delighted as dozens of other visitors, reviewing his full life, before heading to the trail that leads to the base of the elevation that inspired him, on a sunny but cold and windy afternoon .
Despite that patriotic attention, Edmund Percival Hillary continued to climb Himalayan mountains, 10 in all. It didn't stop there. Arrived at the South Pole, part of a Trans-Antarctic expedition of the Commonwealth.
Later Ups and Downs in the Life of Edmund Hillary
In 1977, he was not a victim of the TWA 266 air crash because he was late. He returned to dodge fate two years later, when a close friend, Peter Mulgrew, replaced him aboard the Air New Zealand 901 that crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica, killing 257 people on board.
Hillary maintained her passion for discovery and adventure until very late, and only the meritorious and environmental actions in Nepal and other parts of the world competed with this facet. But luck couldn't smile on him forever. In 1988, aged 88, he succumbed to a heart attack.
The Aoraki/Mount Cook of his youth stands on top of an assumed eternity but he also has his setbacks. In 1991, between 12 to 14 million cubic meters of rock and ice fell from the northern peak, reducing it by about 10 meters.
A Long Walk through Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
We leave the comfort of the Hermitage Hotel and step onto the trail that winds along the rocky bed of the Hooker River and crosses it over a suspension bridge. The valley is greenish-yellow, full of succulent vegetation that several herds devour.
As we make our way over the hay or pebbles, we approach the glittering snowy ridge that lurks between the dark v formed by two already-shaded slopes. Forty minutes later, we are much closer to the foothills and the viewing angle is distinct.
It reveals to us an eccentric lenticular cloud that persists over the summit as if registering the tones with which the twilight colors the mountain.
We sit on stones polished by glacial erosion and do the same. Until the night closes and the cold becomes impossible to bear.
Aoraki and the Legend maori that the eternalizes
According to Maori legend, it was the cold that created that same mountain. Aoraki was a young boy son of Rakinui, father Sky. On his journey around Mother Earth, his canoe ran aground and on a reef and overturned. Aoraki and the brothers climbed to the top and avoided sinking.
But the south wind froze them and turned them to stone. The canoe became on New Zealand's South Island, Aoraki, the highest on the eponymous ridge and the brothers on the rest Southern Alps.
For centuries, European settlers have heard us pronounce the word Aorangi – the Ngai Tahu version of the region's Maoris – and have interpreted it as meaning cloud breaker when the indigenous actually referred to a person.
The deviated notion became popular, but despite the misunderstanding, the natives' claim was echoed and Aoraki, in the official New Zealand nomenclature, equated with Mount Cook.
The latter, in turn, was given to the mountain by a Captain John Lort Stokes – an officer who served the HMS Beagle board – who thus decided to honor the most famous of British navigators.