Aoraki / Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. Its height since 2014 is listed as 3,724 metres (12,218 feet), down from 3,764 m (12,349 ft) before December 1991, due to a rockslide and subsequent erosion.
It lies in the Southern Alps, the mountain range which runs the length of the South Island. A popular tourist destination, it is also a favourite challenge for mountain climbers. Aoraki / Mount Cook consists of three summits, from South to North the Low Peak (3,593 m or 11,788 ft), Middle Peak (3,717 m or 12,195 ft) and High Peak. The summits lie slightly south and east of the main divide of the Southern Alps, with the Tasman Glacier to the east and the Hooker Glacier to the southwest.
There was a large rock fall in 1991 that turned the summit into a knife-edge ridge and reduced the height of the mountain by an estimated 10 m or so at that time. A/MC was measured in 2013 to be 3724 m, which is 30 m down from its pre-1991 rock-fall measurement.
The mountain is in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, in the Canterbury region. The park was established in 1953 and along with Westland National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park forms one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The park contains more than 140 peaks standing over 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) and 72 named glaciers, which cover 40 percent of its 700 square kilometres (170,000 acres).
The peak is located at the northern end of the Kirikirikatata / Mount Cook Range, where it meets with the main spine of the Main Divide, forming a massif between the Hooker Valley to the southwest and the Tasman Valley east of the mountain. These two valleys provide the closest easily accessible view points of Aoraki / Mount Cook. A lookout point at the end of the Hooker Valley Track located only 10 km from the peak offers spectacular views of the entire mountainside.
The settlement of Mount Cook Village, also referred to as „Aoraki / Mount Cook“, is a tourist centre and base camp for the mountain. It is 7 km from the end of the Tasman Glacier and 15 km south of Aoraki / Mount Cook’s summit.
On clear days, Aoraki / Mount Cook is visible from the West Coast as far north as Greymouth, some 150 kilometres away, and from most of State Highway 80 along Lake Pukaki and State Highway 6 south of Lake Pukaki. The near horizontal ridge connecting the mountain’s three summits forms a distinctive blocky shape when viewed from an eastern or western direction. Another popular view point is from Lake Matheson on the West Coast, described as the „view of views“, where on calm days, the peaks of Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mt Tasman are reflected in Lake Matheson.
Naming and European discovery
Aoraki is the name of a person in the traditions of the Ngāi Tahu iwi; an early name for the South Island is Te Waka o Aoraki (Aoraki’s Canoe). In the past many believed it meant „Cloud Piercer“, a romantic rendering of the name’s components: ao (world, daytime, cloud, etc.) and raki or rangi (day, sky, weather, etc.). Historically, the Māori name has been spelt Aorangi, using the standard Māori form.
Aoraki / Mount Cook has been known to Maori since their arrival in New Zealand some time around the 14th Century CE. The first Europeans who may have seen Aoraki / Mount Cook were members of Abel Tasman’s crew, who saw a „large land uplifted high“ (probably some part of the Southern Alps) while off the west coast of the South Island, just north of present-day Greymouth on 13 December 1642 during Tasman’s first Pacific voyage. The English name of Mount Cook was given to the mountain in 1851 by Captain John Lort Stokes to honour Captain James Cook who surveyed and circumnavigated the islands of New Zealand in 1770. Captain Cook did not sight the mountain during his exploration.
Following the settlement between Ngāi Tahu and the Crown in 1998, the name of the mountain was officially changed from Mount Cook to Aoraki / Mount Cook to incorporate its historic Māori name, Aoraki. As part of the settlement, a number of South Island placenames were amended to incorporate their original Māori name. Signifying the importance of Aoraki / Mount Cook, it is the only one of these names where the Māori name precedes the English. Under the settlement the Crown agreed to return title to Aoraki / Mount Cook to Ngāi Tahu, who would then formally gift it back to the nation. Neither transfer has yet occurred; Ngāi Tahu can decide when this will happen.
The Southern Alps on the South Island were formed by tectonic uplifting and pressure as the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates collided along the island’s western coast. The uplifting continues, raising Aoraki / Mount Cook an average of 7 millimetres (0.28 in) each year. However, erosive forces are also powerful shapers of the mountains. The severe weather is due to the mountain’s jutting into powerful westerly winds of the Roaring Forties which run around approximately 45°S latitude, south of both Africa and Australia. The Southern Alps are the first obstacle the winds encounter after South Africa and Australia, having moved east across the Southern Ocean.
The height of Aoraki / Mount Cook was established in 1881 by G. J. Roberts (from the west side) and in 1889 by T. N. Brodrick (from the Canterbury side). Their measurements agreed closely at 12,349 feet (3,764 m). The height was reduced by 10 metres (33 ft) when approximately 12–14 million cubic metres of rock and ice fell off the northern peak on 14 December 1991. Two decades of erosion of the ice cap exposed after this collapse reduced the height by another 30 m to 3724 m, as revealed by new GPS data from a University of Otago climbing expedition in November 2013.
Mt Cook lies in the centre of the distinctive alpine fault, a 650 km long active fault in the Southern Alps. It is responsible for the uplift of Mt Cook and is believed to move every 100 to 300 years. It last moved in 1717.