Monday, June 21, 2010

Climbing the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park

Hello again! After spending a couple weeks in Queenstown once I finished the Kepler track, I am now back in Dunedin and enjoying all the sporting events going on at the moment. My Kepler trip was fantastic, and just about tied with my trip up Mt. Doom a few months ago as my favorite adventures so far here in New Zealand.

I timed my Kepler trip really well, as it was sunny with calm winds on the days I really needed it, and never rained the rest of the trip, which is really rare for Fiordland. Sunny can be misleading though, as Te Anau (the sleepy town near the start of the track) is usually covered in low clouds fed by the lake. And despite the clear skies, the tall mountains and far north winter sun left days three and four almost entirely in shade. Still though, perfect weather.

The first day started with a walk along lake Te Anau, and took about 50 minutes before I even reached the official start of the track. I had to cross over the control gates, which is a small dam that maintains the proper lake level and regulates water flow to the underground power station deeper in Fiordland. New Zealand has a unique hydro-electric plant, which is actually several hundred meters underground at the end of one of the lakes. When they were going to build it, there was huge backlash against daming the lakes high enough to make the power station work. So they kept the original lake levels, and buried the power station instead. If I get to visit Doubtful Sound before I leave I'll make sure to check it out.

Once past the gates, the trail meanders through lush forest of beech trees and moss, occasionally giving glimpses of the lake. Most of the trees are likely from North America and Europe, which is unfortunate, but it does give the forest a feel kind of like the Canadian Rockys (I would imagine) instead of the rainforesty fern jungles that cover the rest of the country. While some of these trees were probably intentionally planted at one point, they simply grow faster and better than the local plants, which is why they cover so much of Fiordland. Despite the foreign plants, it still very much felt like wilderness, and clearly had not been logged for 80 or so years.

About three hours into the hike, the trail starts to ascend about a kilometer up the fjord toward Mt. Luxmore. As the lowland forest gave way, the trail climbed through the clouds occasionally switching direction on an otherwise gentle uphill climb. The mid point, and good lunch location, was a wall of limestone bluffs that almost seem out of place. There were icicles dripping from the earlier snow, which were reminders of how close to freezing the rest of the trip would be. By this point, I had already climbed a good 750 meters in elevation, so the second half of the trip was a little easier.

Soon after lunch, the forest changed again, with what looked similar to Spanish Moss covering the most of the trees. For some reason the moss was everywhere near the tree line, but scarce down below. Soon patches of snow started to appear as well, and a couple spots of ice on the trail. While I welcomed the change early on, I'd see plenty more during days 2 and 3, and was glad to be back to more thawed out ground in the end. Day one finished with about an hour of walking above the tree line. The sun was rather low by that point, but the view was spectacular, and the snow covered mountains were glowing in the late afternoon sun.

I reached the Luxmore Hut about an hour before sunset, where about six other travelers had already arrived and were trying to getting the fire going. There were some caves near by, which I checked out before the sun set, but didn't really explore too deeply, since the ground was wet and sloping into black nothingness. After heading back to the hut, cooking some dinner, and setting up my clothes to dry over night, I managed to get some great pictures of the night sky before going to bed. I'm glad I got right on it, as the full moon rose only a couple hours after the sun set. The picture shown here looks like mid day, but was actually a long exposure under moonlight. You can see the stars still in the sky if you click on it, and there's other interesting pictures on my Picasa site.

Day Two was surprisingly warm, thanks to calm winds and not a cloud in the sky. By warm, I mean probably upper 30s, but I was expecting teens. When you are hiking for miles though, the cold is less of a factor, and it's usually best not to wear too many layers. The second day was all in the alpine region, with trails covered in snow and ice, and gorgeous views of jagged peaks, uninhabited dense forests, and low lying lakes usually under a blanket of clouds. I fortunately ran across two of the folks from the Luxmore hut at the fork leading to the summit of Mt. Luxmore, who were kind enough to take this picture for me. Aside from them, and one other hiker going the other direction on the trail, I didn't come across anyone all day which was a nice change.

The trail climbed about half as much as the day before, but also had a big dip in the middle followed by yet another trudge up the saddle. The path was also almost entirely covered in snow and ice, and I was glad to have poles to keep my balance. Generally, the snow was packed down from previous hikers, but there were a few spots with snow drifts about 16 inches deep that were more challenging to climb through with a heavy pack and a steep slope to one side. But the breath taking views, and warm calm sunny day more than made up for any snow inconvenience. This was the perfect time of year to do this hike too. I can't imagine the peaks looking anywhere near as gorgeous without all the snow covering them.

I had lunch later in the day at the final emergency shelter, right before my descent down to the Iris Burn (river). The spot seemed more impressive when looking back to see how high the ridgeline really was, while climbing down the never-ending switch backs. I was ready to be done with the icy paths by now, and I was looking forward to the thawed out trail below the tree line. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I made it through the first two days, compared to my ascent up Ngauruhoe a few months earlier. However, the descent was far worse than I expected. My knees were starting to get really sore, and I could tell I wasn't walking properly as I was leaving the ridgeline. It got much worse as I had to climb down the 50+ switch backs to the river valley floor. I was in a pretty foul mood, and a lot of pain, by the time I made it to the hut. But fortunately, one of the other hikers had a few stretches they suggested might help, which made days 3 and 4 doable. It also helped that the rest of the trail was for the most part level, as it followed two rivers back to Te Anau.

The second hut at Iris Burn was much colder than Luxmore. The sun never reaches the bottom of the valley in the winter, and the valley was covered in thick frost. We managed to get a less than satisfying fire going, since the wood was wet, but our spirits were high all the same and it was time for bed soon enough.

Days 3 and 4 had a very gradual descent as the trail followed the Iris Burn out of the fjords to where it fed Lake Manapouri. Aside from the occasional sound of running water, and a few birds in the distance, it was very quiet and peaceful. My knees were holding out on the flat terrain, but any up hill or down hill parts were slow going and precarious. Despite the gentle ~17k trails, I was very glad to finish up at the third hut, and then back at Te Anau the following day. By day 3 my camera was running out of power too, so I took far fewer pictures on the second half, but that's fine as Day 2 is really the gem of the trip, and pictures of forest typically don't turn out well.

One interesting break from the forest on Day 3 is referred to as the Big Slip, where in 1984 during a heavy rain storm, a landslide sheared off the side of one of the mountains, devastating an area the size of ten football fields (or close to it). While the forest surrounding the area is rather diverse and established, the slip is still covered in shrubs, small trees, and displaced boulders. It was particularly strange that in this area, as well as in any other clearings, the ground was frozen and everything was covered in frost. However, the moment the trail went under tree cover again, the ground thawed and was muddy in spots or otherwise dry. All the same, the Big Slip was huge, very quiet, and allowed time to appreciate just how massive the glacier carved fjords really were (and how destructive nature can be).

The last thing I'll note on this trip was the welcome and surprising sight of a local fisherman once I reached the third and final hut. Where Iris Burn hut had been cold with only the three other hikers for company, Moturau Hut was down right festive, thanks to an incredibly generous Kiwi from near Invercargill, who was fishing on Lake Manapouri for the day and decided to stay at the hut. He brought coal for the fire, beer (!), and even cooked way too much food which he shared with us. It was a welcome change from the hard work of the previous days, and the warm main room was far more enjoyable than the previous night.

Overall the trip was an excellent adventure, and quite a challenge. It took approximately 70 kilometers, with about 1500 meters in elevation changes, given the ups and downs of Day 2. The two high saddles on Day 2 were about 1400 meters above sea level, and both Te Anau and Manapouri are about 200m above. But the trails were never so steep as to be overly difficult to climb. The only down side was not thinking to stretch my quads and hamstrings out properly, which would have prevented my knee problems. It's been three weeks now, and they are just now about back to normal, with only a little soreness here and there. But I'll take the sore knees for an otherwise picture perfect trek through the wilderness.