ADVENTURE TRAVEL : Snowcapped Mt. Cook Offers a Peak Experience

<i> Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section</i>

From the window of our ski plane we could see the snow-capped spire of Mt. Cook, at 12,350 feet, the highest mountain in the country.

Below us Tasman Glacier was covered with untracked snow, caught between sentinel peaks and a wild moonscape of sculptured cliffs.

It is autumn in New Zealand, and the snows of April have whitened the Southern Alps in Mt. Cook National Park. Tasman Glacier is nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and, with a length of 18 miles, is the world’s longest glacier outside the polar regions.

Earlier, there had been warnings that we might not be able to fly our ski plane into the Mt. Cook region’s snow-covered crests and crags, where a storm and cloud cover were hovering.

But the weather soon changed, and the sky became a canopy of shining turquoise. Sunlight glinted on the glacier.

Climbing for altitude, our ski plane turned toward a thousand feet of sheer precipice.

The pilot held course until what appeared to be the last possible instant, then banked so sharply and skillfully that the wings were parallel to the cliff.

My wife and I tipped at a right angle and looked straight down at the glacier, seemingly so close to the snow-powdered cliff that we could have touched it.

Our pilot then began the challenge of landing his nine passengers on the glacial snowpack.

The plane glided downward and the pilot used the angle of the slope to slow his landing, then turned the aircraft around and came to a stop.

Ski Season Begins

We deplaned to tramp through fresh snow that sometimes almost reached our knees, yet was so dry that there was no moisture on our hiking pants or stockings.

By the end of May the planes will be bringing in skis and skiers, and winter ski mountaineering will be under way, offering two 7 1/2-mile runs down the mighty Tasman. In addition to skiing, hiking and climbing adventures also are offered.

Both the North and South Islands of New Zealand are steadily gaining recognition as destinations for active travelers. Qantas, for instance, recently started nonstop service between Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand.

Planes to the glacier are operated by Mt. Cook Airline, an extension of flights to Mt. Cook Airport.

Mt. Cook National Park contains 22 of the 27 peaks in New Zealand that are higher than 10,000 feet. Mt. Cook was known by the Maoris as Aoraki . Flanking the glacier and its river are Murchison and Hooker glaciers and their tributaries.

Equipped for Hikers

Mountain huts rim the high country for use by hikers, climbers and skiers. They are equipped with bunks, blankets, water tank, kerosene stoves and lamps, cooking utensils and emergency first-aid supplies.

Mt. Cook has been climbed about 800 times since the first ascent on Christmas Day, 1894. Some mountain hikes follow trails. Others require ice ax and crampons. Bushwalking trails begin at lower levels.

Information about the various hikes and climbs can be obtained in Mt. Cook Village at the Park Headquarters Visitor Center.

When walking or skiing between May and November it is mandatory to check for avalanche warnings before venturing out. Never stop between avalanche warning signs.

Soon after our ski plane landing in the center of the Tasman an avalanche cascaded down a rocky precipice along one side.

A 40-minute ski flight to scout the spectacular scenery and mountains, before landing on the glacier, costs $155 New Zealand (about $104 U.S.). During the height of the ski season from June to October many ski flights and combination packages are available.

A few years ago we drove to Mt. Cook Village in a rental car from Queenstown. This time we flew Mt. Cook Airline from Christchurch, then switched to the small ski plane.

In Mt. Cook Village you’ll find lodges and chalets, a youth hostel with 59 bunks, several restaurants and a coffee shop. The grand dame of luxury accommodations is The Hermitage, operated by the government-owned Tourist Hotel Corp.

Opened in 1884, The Hermitage was rebuilt after destruction by fire in 1957. Rooms in this rambling mountain retreat have fireplaces and picture windows overlooking the alpine splendor. Double rates start at about $200 U.S.

Close to The Hermitage you can get your mountain legs in shape and begin adjusting to the altitude with the hour-long Governor’s Bushwalk, which leads to a camera-clicking view of Mt. Cook.

For more information on travel to New Zealand, contact the New Zealand Tourist and Publicity Office, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1530, Los Angeles 90024, (213) 477-8241.