1. Trek among the Maori gods: Heavy winds and soothing springs on the Copland Pass.
As I scramble toward Copland Pass on a late-summer afternoon, Mount Cook glows a stunning purple-pink across the Hooker Valley—but I'm trying not to look. The wind has built steadily all day, and 50-mile-an-hour gusts are hooking my pack and helmet, threatening to yank me sideways off the arete.
Maori myth has it that Mount Cook is the frozen body of the sky god Aoraki, who wrecked his war canoe while desperately searching for new lands. The canoe became New Zealand's South Island, and Aoraki and his doomed siblings became the Southern Alps. The canoe settled in the band of the South Pacific known as the roaring forties, thus guaranteeing a surfeit of wild weather to harass the stranded gods, as well as the human explorers who now venture to touch their faces.
Although we're climbing at a particularly stable time of year (late March), my guide, Dave McKinley, and I have chosen a vulnerable route famous for volatile weather. Just southwest of Aoraki/Mount Cook, 7,054-foot Copland Pass is often hammered by sudden gales, hard rain, and heavy snows that can pin trampers down for days. "We don't have any snakes or poisonous spiders or stinging plants," McKinley told me as we geared up earlier in the day. "What we have is weather. When people die in the outdoors in New Zealand, the weather is nearly always what gets them."
A few days before leaving for New Zealand, I had called a veteran of the...