New Zealand's highest mountain, Mount Cook, reaches a height of 12,349 ft above sea level. It lies in the centre of the Mount Cook National Park, between two of New Zealand's largest glaciers, the Hooker to the west and the Tasman to the east. Geologists can offer no particular reason why the mountain should stand nearly 1,000 ft above its highest neighbours, for it is made of the same grey-wacke rock as Mount Dampier, Mount Tasman, and other nearby peaks, and indeed the rock is the same as that of most of New Zealand's backbone ranges. Presumably the height is due chiefly to rapid uplift by earthquake rather than to special hardness and durability of the rock.
Mount Cook differs considerably in aspect according to the viewpoint. From the Hermitage, Hooker Valley, and Lake Pukaki to the south, it presents a rather conventional view of a massive triangular mountain, tapering to a point. The onlooker finds it difficult to realise that he is seeing an end-on view of three peaks spaced along a ridge more than half a mile long. The three peaks are most clearly seen from the western side in the upper Hooker Glacier. The mountain is not picturesque from this viewpoint, presenting a rather shapeless mass, and most of the western face is covered in ice. Various climbing routes pass over the face, of which the favourite is to the south, so that climbers can take in all three peaks and enjoy the wonderful exposed climb along the crest of the ridge. A number of mountaineers have lost their lives on this face, most probably because of avalanches. The northern side facing Mount Dampier (11,200 ft) is very steep and presents an excellent climb, with overhangs on the route. This was the path taken by the Graham party in their first ascent of the mountain in 1894. From the north Mount Cook has a sharply peaked, rather menacing shape. The most common route of ascent lies up the north east slopes to the high peak, although in taking this route climbers must run a certain risk of ice avalanches from the Linda Glacier. It is from the east that Mount Cook is seen at its best, especially when viewed from the Tasman Glacier. Here the mountain truly dominates the scenery and, although not as beautiful as the ice-clad green Mount Tasman, reigns like a king in massive white-locked glory.
The first attempt to climb Cook was made in 1882 by the English climber W. S. Green who, along with Boss and Kaufmann, of Grindelwald, climbed to within 200 ft of the summit by an approach from the Tasman Glacier. The first complete ascent was made in 1894 by three New Zealanders, Fyfe, Clarke, and Graham. They made their climb from the Hooker Glacier, a difficult route. Since then the Mount Cook region has become a popular mountaineering centre with, unfortunately, the inevitable hazards, and over 60 climbers have lost their lives since 1914.
The Maori name for the mountain is Aorangi, usually interpreted as “Cloud Piercer”. The European name, in honour of Captain Cook, was given by Captain J. L. Stokes in the course of the Acheron survey in March 1851.
by Barry Clayton Waterhouse, New Zealand Geological Survey, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Otahuhu, Auckland.