Unlike my last start on the Kepler Track, this one dawned clear and sunny. Tiffany and I had packed our backpacks the night before and gotten to bed at a reasonable hour (I think it was around 10/10:30). We also had stayed at a hotel just a couple miles from the trailhead, so it was pretty easy to get up and out first thing.
After a breakfast of bananas and cereal, we drove to the Kepler Control Gates carpark and parked the car. We had a long hike ahead of us; because Tiffany had only decided for sure to come to New Zealand about 3.5 weeks before, I had not been able to book the Luxmore Hut (the first hut going in a counterclockwise direction). We had decided to go ahead anyway, knowing that it meant nearly 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) of hiking to get to the Iris Burn Hut.
More than the distance, though, was the elevation. We were starting out below 240 meters (787 feet) above sea level and wouldn’t be pausing for lunch until we’d climbed 885 meters (2900 feet) in a relatively short time.
I knew Tiffany, a lifelong runner, consummate hiker, and all-around exercise-in-nature-enthusiast, would have no trouble at all.
The forest climb was mostly quiet and we settled into a comfortable but challenging pace for the upward hike.
A word about packs: we both carried our own sleeping bag and clothing. We split the food between us and both carried enough water for one day of hiking, in bladders. And we each had one hiking pole. Which turned out to be quite important in the alpine section of the trail.
At about 747 meters (2,451 ft) we came to the limestone bluffs; they are visible from the town of Te Anau, and views back down over the lake impressed me with how far we had already come.
Then the uphill walk continued. We passed only a few people coming down, and many of the hikers we passed going up were clearly out on a day hike.
I loved coming out at the tussock topped part of the trail because my first tramp on the Kepler had no visibility for this section of trail… I was lucky if I could see about 10 meters ahead of me. Compare to the clear skies and views Tiffany and I enjoyed!
In good time we made it to Luxmore Hut, where it felt amazing to take off our packs and lighten them a bit by eating lunch.
No matter how simple the fare, I always find that eating a meal outside after some physical exertion makes everything taste amazing! It was even sunny and warm enough to sit outside on the hut deck, which definitely was not the case the last time I had been there.
Before getting back to the trail, we took a short sidetrip to the Luxmore Caves. Although we didn’t venture very far in, it was still cool to see. Then it was time to continue on along the alpine section of the trail, all above the bushline. Which means amazing views but also little protection from wind and the elements.
As we wound our way further up the trail, I layered my warmer clothes back on after having taken them off on our ascent from Brod Bay. There was a definite chill in the air, though it wasn’t as cold as the DOC worker had warned us it would be the day before.
But by the time we reached Luxmore Saddle, the highest point on the trail at 1400 meters (4590 feet), the wind was ripping through the valleys and up over the tops.
We had planned to drop our packs and scramble to the Mt. Luxmore summit, but I chickened out when I felt how intensely strong the wind was (we later found out that it was gusting to over 100km/hour). It just didn’t seem safe to leave the trail to reach for even higher and more exposed heights. That was disappointing, but I think it was the right call. Even my heavy pack, when I propped it against a rock, was blown over by the howling air.
The 14.6 kilometers between Luxmore Hut (where we had lunch) and Iris Burn Hut (where we’d be spending the night) sidle along slopes and cross ridgelines. There are two emergency shelters, and we stopped at both for quick rests and snacks.
A few points along the way I had to really use my hiking pole to stabalize myself against the wind, which was blowing pretty forcefully.
Then it seemed to calm a bit. I noted this out loud.
I shouldn’t have.
The last 45 minutes along the alpine section, the wind gusted and blew against us and clouds blew in from the west and the Tasman Sea. We could see them blowing in toward us, and with their arrival came icy rain drops.
I will never know if they were actually ice/icy, but I do know that my contacts were nearly blown out of my eyes and the precipitation felt like ice pellets repeatedly lashing my face.
It was with great relief that we reached the switchback descent into the Iris Burn Valley. We still had over an hour to go, but at least the winds started to fade as we headed downward and reached bush cover again.
The trees on this side were decorated with silver-green mosses and fungi. Each tree looked like an amalgamation of five or ten different species of shub, tree, fern, moss, flower, and fungus. We started hearing birds again for the first time since our ascent earlier that day; at the alpine section the only birds we heard were kea, the mountain parrots.
It was a long, tiring descent. I personally prefer uphill any day to the relentless downhill of dozens of switchbacks, no matter how beautiful the foliage and birdsong around me. Tiffany and I got pretty quiet at that point, the talk and commentary from earlier long gone.
At just after 5 we walked in to the Iris Burn Hut, where we went for a quick dip in the (freezing cold) river to rinse off and ate a simple dinner (tuna, pasta, and fruit) before calling it a night.
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s:
1160 meters (3806 feet) up from Control Gates to Luxmore Saddle
663 meters (2175 feet) down from Luxmore Saddle to Iris Burn Hut
9.5 hours elapsed between leaving the trailhead and checking into our hut (I did not keep good track of our actual hiking times)