It is cold. It is, quite literally, the end of the road. It is a place to be approached with feelings of fear and trepidation.
On the way there it is easy to be beguiled by the colours of the scenery. For forty kilometers the road follows the edge of a lake which is a bright glacial turquoise. The sky is a cloudless baby-blue. Suddenly, shockingly, the water dries up and there is grey mud where the turquoise water once was. And finally, worse, hiding behind the last bend, is a flat expanse of brown grass-land. It is looks like a badly worn carpet spread up to the very base of Mount Footstool and Mount Sefton.
Although I can see no sign of the town I know it must be up ahead. There, sigh, will be the restaurants and hotels I was promised. As we get closer I have a ridiculous vision of shining white buildings, the kind you might see on a Greek island, perched high above the Mediterranean. Wishful thinking perhaps but the necessity of building into the side of the mountain, or the blue of the lake, has helped create them. By now it seems impossible for the road to go much further but there is no sign of anything man-made. Then fantasy truly takes over and where there is nothing, sparkling green spires of Oz rise magically out of the ground. As we cross the last bridge, Dorothy moves over for Gandalf and the rocky crags above mould themselves into Helm’s Deep; we are now so forbiddingly close to the mountains that only a fortress and the mentality that built it is possible.
And then I see them; flat, square buildings. Their colours are deep green and gray and it is not until we are almost on top of them that I realize I am looking at a small township; a place whose appearance is so self-effacing that it hardly seems to be there at all. It is as different to the mountain as it is possible to be. Here at last is the township at the base of Mount Cook. It is extremely obvious if it weren’t for the mountain there should be nothing here at all. The mountain is everything.
The township nestles at the base of a steeply rising crag, in fact on three sides the town is ringed by high inaccessible terrain and I feel slightly claustrophobic. It is all too apparent that there is only one way in and one way out. Although later I discovered there is another way; if you climb the mountain and fall off you can be airlifted out.
Finally we pull over and we both lean out the windows for our first real sighting of Mount Cook. It is late afternoon so, it and the whole valley, sits forlornly in shadow. Even more disappointing for my partner the mountain’s great height is deceptively made secondary by the proximity of Footstool and Sefton. He determines to walk to the mountain – so as to feel the full impact of the mountain.
On our way to the hotel reception we pass an unassuming statue of Sir Edmund Hilary; he is smiling benignly up at the small mountain; effortlessly conquered he is thinking.
In the last light we did the short walk to Kea Point. There were trampers in the distance; small and dot-like, they were easily seen, walking in pairs as if to the ark or if in group gatherings, like wild animals one might spot whilst on safari. There were many Japanese tourists and rabbits, the former all kept to the path but the illiterate bunnies scampered merrily hither and thither. The unusually large numbers of both added to my sense that something was up.
Once at Kea Point we could see the mountain more closely. Disobedient people foolishly took their large long cameras close to the crumbly edge. We stared at the gray moraine pushed down by the dirty glacier behind, getting closer and closer to the mud lake beneath it. There were one or two other spectators, trampers eating sandwiches at the end of a long day’s walk. All of us turned in unison to the sound of distant thunder, all vainly searching for the far-away avalanche.
This mountain is intimidating. All mountains are intimidating but the isolation of this mountain makes it more so. I could climb the mountain, attack the thing front on, but if I did it would be the last thing I did. I could build a small primitive hut at the bottom and Rousseau-fashion live with it, dealing with it on a daily basis and perhaps that way come to terms with it. But my enthusiasm is permanently stalled when memories of Chinese paintings of old men all alone under the mountain gives me a sense of how this might feel.
And then, surprisingly, the mountain itself gives you some hope. There are huge clumps of ice and snow which defy gravity and are compressed tightly against the rock. I release a small laugh for although the mountain has been here since time immemorial it suddenly looks so precarious; it seems certain that in only a matter of minutes parts of it will drop off. I sat very still, and quiet, and willed the ice to fall.
We had arrived after the sun had left the valley and departed before it rose over the mountain. In the early morning the only sign of its brightness was the orange glow on the snow at the top of the mountain. We were amongst the first to leave for we had a plane to catch in Christchurch. The road out was marked with fresh road kill and giant white gulls pecked at the bloody entrails. Briefly I glanced in the rear-vision mirror and secretly breathed a sigh of relief as Mount Cook rapidly receded into the distance. The valley widened, and soon after crossing Dead Horse Creek I started to talk of taxis, and work. The spell was broken and I remembered life was full of other options and that I had not come there to die after all.
Later, with a new partner by now, I heard the top of Mount Cook had fallen off a few years ago. I could not help feeling a little pleased, it was some small consolation for the night spent in its proximity.