Aoraki Mt. Cook is New Zealand's highest peak at approximately 12,218 feet. There are 22 peaks over 10,000 feet in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. According to Māori legend, Aoraki was one of three sons of Rakinui, the sky father. Their canoe caught on a reef and froze, forming the South Island. South Island's oldest name to local Māori is Te Waka O Aoraki (Aoraki's canoe) and the highest peak is their ancestor Aoraki, frozen by the south wind, and turned to stone. The officially recognized names of this mountain and the national park were changed to their original Māori names of Aoraki (Aorangi to North Island Māori) as part of a 1998 settlement between the government and the major South Island Māori tribe, Ngai Tahu. The Māori and Anglo names are used interchangeably or together.
Aoraki was first scaled on Christmas Day 1894 by three New Zealanders—Tom Fyfe, George Graham, and Jack Clarke—just after it was announced that an English climber and an Italian mountain
guide were about to attempt the summit. In the summer of 1991 a chunk of it broke away, but fortunately there were no climbers in the path of the massive avalanches. High Peak, the summit, is now about 66 feet lower, but its altered form makes for a much more difficult ascent.
The 273-square-mile national park surrounds tiny Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, which consists of a visitor center, an airfield, a pub, a little school, and a range of accommodation providers. Walking is always an option, and in winter there's heli-skiing. If the weather is clear, a scenic flight can be the highlight of your stay in New Zealand. Contact the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park Visitor Centre or the weather phone to check conditions before setting out on an unguided excursion. Hiking trails radiate from the visitor center, providing everything from easy walking paths to full-day challenges. Be sure to fill your car's gas tank and purchase essentials before leaving Twizel or Tekapo as services are very limited in the village.
For a unique hands-on educational experience take a half-hour hike to the fast-growing 2-km (1-mile)Terminus Lake of the Tasman Glacier. Fed by the retreating glacier and the Murchison River, the lake was formed only in the past couple of decades. From Terminus Lake you can examine up close the terminal face of the glacier, which is 3 km (2 miles) wide. A trip with Glacier Explorers takes you by boat to explore some of the large floating icebergs that have calved (fallen away) from the glacier. It's an eerie experience skimming across the milky-white water and closing in on icebergs.
From the airfield at Mount Cook Village, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft make spectacular scenic flights across the Southern Alps. One of the most exciting is the one-hour trip aboard the ski planes that touch down on the Tasman Glacier after a gorgeous scenic flight. The 10-minute stop on the glacier doesn't allow time for much more than a snapshot, but the sensation is tremendous. The moving tongue of ice beneath your feet—one of the largest glaciers outside the Himalayas—is 27 km (17 miles) long and up to 2,000 feet thick in places. The intensity of light on the glacier can be dazzling, and sunglasses are a must.