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First climbed in 1894 by New Zealand climbers George Graham, Tom Fyffe and Jack Clarke, Mount Cook or Aoraki which means "cloud piercer" is, at 3754 metres (12,317 feet) the highest mountain in New Zealand. The mountain is situated in the Southern Alps between the Westland/Tai Poutini and the Aoraki/Mount Cook national parks to the south of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. On the southern and eastern sides of the mountain are found the Hooker Galcier and New Zealand's largest, the Tasman Glacier. Spectacular close up views of the ice can be had from relatively easy walks.
Mount Cook Village has a visitor centre which provides detailed information on the area and there are numerous walks of varying difficulty starting from here. The Red Tarns and Kea Point tracks lead easily to viewpoints while longer trails wind into the Hooker Valley. Please note that some of the routes from here such as the Sefton Bivouac and Copland Track venture into mountaineering territory and should only be attempted if you have the relevant experience. The visitor centre will advise on suitability of a route or hiring a mountain guide if necessary. Climbing Mount Cook is a serious mountaineering venture.
Glentanner Park, a few miles down the valley offer other activities such as horse trekking and flights up over the mountains and icefields can be booked here too.
The other side of the peak is cloaked in dense native bush on its lower slopes owing to the much higher rainfall of the west coast. This is in marked contrast to the Mount Cook Village side which is an open alluvial plain surrounded by bare rocky peaks and glaciers. The main centres on the Westland side are Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Both of these are visited more to view close up the glaciers of the same names which extend right down from the Alpine zones into the temperate rain forest. Highly recommended is a flight over these glaciers from Fox or Franz Josef. There's a choice of conventional plane or helicopter and the glacier landings are not to be missed!
As with virtually the whole length of the Southern Alps, there is a marked change in weather and climate between east and west. This is nowhere more pronounced than in the Mount Cook region. To the west is a region - Westland - which has consistently high rainfall and is consequently swathed in temperate rainforest. The east in the rain shadow is much drier - almost arid in places - and the landscape is typified by open grasslands.
It is common for it to be raining at Franz Josef Glacier and sunny at Glentanner or Twizel though the west is spared some of the colder winter temperatures of the eastern valleys. Summer can bring high temperatures to the east. As with any mountain region the altitude determines temperature and the high peaks of Mount Cook and Tasman are almost permanently frozen with virtually all precipitation falling as snow.
The main access to the mountain is from the south via Twizel and Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook Village which is the end of the road. There are spectacular views of the mountain throughout this approach.
There is a Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite in a spectacular location just beyond Mount Cook Village and another with more facilities back down the valley near Glentanner where there is more choice of accommodation than at Mount Cook Village. In Westland, both Fox and Franz Josef have plentiful tourist accommodation including both hotels and campsites. A personal choice was the Rainforest Retreat campsite just outside Franz Josef.
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