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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fiordland in Winter: The Keppler Track

For quite some time a few of us have been keen to do a winter walk in Fiordland, in New Zealand. After checking out the various options it looked liked the Keppler Track was the best bet. It has an amazing alpine ridge which you walk for a day, and is relatively rarely closed in winter unlike some of the others.

Some months ago we got in touch with DOC in NZ, and they said that we should be in touch closer to the time but a July walk was feasible if we were well prepared. Well, we practiced self arrest with an ice axe on the dunes at Cronulla, stocked up on down clothing and prepared for the walk.

We arrived at Te Anau the day before we intended to start. Our last check-in with DOC had been a week before, and they had said there was not much snow on the top, and it was feasible to undertake a full loop.
We got to the DOC station in the evening, and  sad to say it was snowing. But sadder to say the news was not good. It was likely not possible even to get to Luxmore hut (the first hut on the route), which is very unusual. There was snow up to your chin on the tops, and even if were safe there was little hope of getting from hut to hut in one day. We were told not to do it in no uncertain terms. So what to do? We considered other options and turned in for the night.

Arriving at DOC the next day we thought we had a plan; Caples or Hollyford. But the alpine passes were now closed and wouldn't open for days. So no way to get to these! We settled on walking the Keppler clockwise to Iris Burn hut at the beginning of the alpine section, which should be possible, and return. One of the DOC staff tried to talk us out of even that, but the other seemed to think it would be fine.

So we headed out, aiming for Motorau hut the first night. The weather looked as though it was improving, and we saw some mountains out over lake Te Anau for the first time:

Buoyed by this, we headed off. Much of the first part of the walk is along the Waiau River, known to many tourists as the Anduin, since it was there that Peter Jackson's version of the Lord of the Rings filmed its sections in which the party floats down that river.

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Soon we come to Motorau hut, on Lake Manapouri. The weather was closing in, and very soon there was nothing to see.

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The next day the track goes along the now invisible lake, and up to the half way point which is where it begins to get snowy indeed:

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Then it gets thicker and thicker until we reach Iris Burn hut:

While the previous hut had running water and flush toilets, Iris Burn was closed for winter. No liquid water, and there is a long drop loo which is a couple of hundred metres through the blizzard, and there was no kindling for the wood stove. In late afternoon it was 2 degrees in the hut! We were glad of our down clothing. Also we were melting snow for water, so our gas supplies were only just enough.

But we were toasty in our gear and woke up early so as to be able to walk the two huts distance back to the car if we didn't explore further. The snow overnight had really built up, scotching our plan for further exploration. We would have needed snow shoes to make further progress. And what we didn't know was that not much further up there were 200mph winds and many metres of snow.

So as planned we headed to the car. The track really is magical in the snow. We saw Kiwi tracks amongst other things, and a fairly rare native pigeon. There were Keas playing in every avalanche caused clearing:

Much of the track was now a bit harder to navigate because the snow load on the Beech made it overhang:

One part of the track which was a welcome change from the (admittedly lovely) forest was the Big Slip, and area where almost a square km of forest was taken out by a landslip in 1984; for us it was a chance for some more or less off track walking:

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But finally we got back to the car, having had a wonderful trip which whets the appetite for more.  A pity the Alpine part wasn't doable, but it's not going away. And wise of us not to have gone despite the advice: they did close it when we would have been there, and there were gale force winds, avalanches caused by water on snow, and soft snow over the head! The storms we heard on our two nights were doing major things up on the tops.

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