Trip Report: Milford and Routeburn Tracks Nov 2010

Dec 31st, 2010, 04:09 PM
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We'd been keeping our fingers crossed that Day 2 of the Routeburn would be nice, and waking up that cool morning (Nov 27), it sure appeared that way. We made our lunch, ate a cooked breakfast, posed for a group photo, and hit the trail. As on the Milford, there was a time window for departure - on this day between 8:30 and 9:00. The track started along the southern shore of Lake Mackenzie. Its backdrop, snow-covered Emily Peak, now shone against a brilliant blue sky. At first, the trail ascended through forest. As we climbed, I soon realized I had overdressed and needed to change into shorts. Fortunately, I was well ahead of hikers behind me, sparing them the thrill of seeing me "sans long johns" ;-)

Within a mile or so, the track emerged above timberline as it ascended high above the blue-green lake in the valley below, the first of two long switchbacks that made the way up to Ocean Peak Corner. Rounding this corner, we got our last glimpses Emily Peak and Lake McKenzie and were welcomed with a jaw-dropping vista of the Hollyford Valley below us and Darran Mountains in the distance. On the horizon, we could make out the white summit cone of Mt Tutoku, the highest peak in Fiordland at about 9000 feet above sea level. Accentuating the sensation of altitude were low clouds in the Hollyford Valley below us. These formed a white blanket extending out over the Tasman Sea, which otherwise would have been visible from our high vantage point. In the other direction, we could make out Key Summit, which we had climbed the day before.

After a rest, snack and many pictures, we started along the next section: the Hollyford Face, the most exposed section of the track. Remaining well above timberline, this part of the trail maintained constant altitude with gentle ups and downs as it hugged the mountainside. The fabulous view of the Hollyford Valley and Darran Mts remained our friend for the entirety of this section, on our left. As we had seen on the MacKinnon Pass, Mt Cook Lilies Lilies, Mountain Daisies and Pineapple Scrub lined the path. At the end of Hollyford Face section (a distance of about 3 miles), the track ascended quite steeply to the Harris Saddle, where we enjoyed lunch in the hut of the same name. Later in the season, when avalanche danger is minimal, groups are given the option of the side walk climbing from Harris Saddle to top of the Conical Hill summit. Unfortunately for us at this early point of the season, the Conical Hill track was closed.
RalphR is offline  
Jan 1st, 2011, 08:01 AM
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Conical Hill or no Conical Hill, the Routeburn Track just kept getting better and better! Heading up and over the Harris Saddle we reached the high point on the main track at about 4300 feet (1300 meters). Looking back we got a last look at the Darran Mts now framed by the the saddle in the foreground against the bright blue sky. Then, rounding a corner, a brand new vista suddenly came into view - that of alpine Lake Harris maybe 100 meters directly below us, nestled among mountains adorned with bright patches of snow. If I were given the option to re-live any one moment on the whole adventure, it would be a certainly be difficult choice: MacKinnon Pass, Lake MacKenzie, Ocean Peak Corner would definitely be in the running. Others would probably disagree, but I'd probably pick this section of the walk high up the side of the cliff facing Lake Harris. Utterly incredible scenery. But you couldn't get too caught up in the moment - one slip and you're in the lake down below!

Continuing high up around the lake, the trail now started its descent. At one point Sadao, our Japanese guide stopped the five of us who were now well ahead of the rest of the group. Here we had to take precautions against avalanche - spacing ourselves at 2 minute intervals along the track to minimize the risk of multiple fatalities. We all made it safely and when we got to the safe area, we were given the option of a walk down to the shore of Lake Harris in lieu of the climb up Conical Hill, an option we of course took. Down at the lake we took boots off and tested the water - clear but absolutely frigid. Then we walked around the shore a short distance to the top of a waterfall - the first of a series of waterfalls that tumbled some 2000 feet into the valley below us.

Back on the main track we continued our descent, above timberline the whole way, to Routeburn Falls (part of the waterfall system just mentioned) and the Routeburn Falls Lodge. The going was very easy, but on this north-facing slope with clear blue sky, it got quite hot and the sun was intense. I had forgotten sunscreen on my legs and arms and paid the price. On the way we passed huge boulders that had obviously fallen from way on high. Perhaps a kilometer above the Lodge, while stopped along the cascade to enjoy the view, our guide Gina decided it was time for a swim! One of our fellow hiking ladies then decided to make a go of it, too. Doug and I, not to be outdone by the girls, then jumped in to the frigid water too. It was a quick dip, but very refreshing nonetheless!

The Routeburn Falls Lodge is the newest of the lodges along the Routeburn and Milford Tracks. Again, like Lake MacKenzie, high ceilings and more wood from that old Brisbane bridge. This lodge had a big deck that looked down into to the valley below.

Dinner was fun that evening, the guides putting on a pancake tossing contest before we ate our pancake dessert. The night was clear and cold - my friend Doug, wanting to get a look at the Southern Cross, which we had not yet seen, inquired about sleeping on the deck. This was not a problem so we dragged our mattresses and blankets out for a sleep out under the stars. We woke at about 3 AM, and there, just rising over the mountain above us, was the Southern Cross with its Milky Way backdrop.
RalphR is offline  
Jan 1st, 2011, 08:37 AM
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RalphR - I am always on the lookout for observations such as:

"But you couldn't get too caught up in the moment - one slip and you're in the lake down below!"

Would I arrive at the lake after a gentle roll down a dusty incline or would I perform a full gainer and hit the lake at high speed? I don't mind the former but am not crazy about the latter.
colduphere is offline  
Jan 1st, 2011, 11:12 AM
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More the latter. We were warned about this spot during our slide show briefing the evening before. In dry weather it was perfectly safe, and the track was plenty wide enough.
RalphR is offline  
Jan 1st, 2011, 11:13 AM
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I've uploaded pictures from the Milford:

Routeburn to follow....
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Jan 1st, 2011, 12:10 PM
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Routeburn Day 3. Another gorgeous morning - we had picked the perfect night for sleeping outside. Not terribly cold, and dry enough we didn't end up damp with dew.

Despite the nice weather, this was kind of a sad day because we knew the trip was coming to and end. We made our Last Lunch, ate our Last Breakfast, packed our backpacks for the last time, said goodbye to the friendly permanent staff at the lodge, then headed out, first taking in the lovely view from the edge of the falls. The track descended to Routeburn Flats, which we had been looking down on since the top of the waterfall at Lake Harris. En route, we got got our last great mountain view from an open area created by a giant landslide in 1994. At the picturesque open section along the grassy river flats, we looked up at the snowy peaks from whence we came, wishing we could go back up. We ate lunch on the side of the stream - the Route Burn ("burn" = "stream" in Scottish). The water was cold, but just too inviting, Doug, myself and two co-hikers taking a quick dip to get the blood flowing.

Then it was a pretty easy descent out to the car park at the end of the track. Along the way we could hear and get glimpses of the Route Burn as it cascaded down through a deep gorge - more waterfalls and aqua colored plunge pools. At the end of the track we crossed our last suspension bridge. And then it was back to civilization, the end of a wonderful, wonderful experience.

A bus took us back to Queenstown. En route we stopped at a pub in Glenorchy for beers, certificate presentations and good-byes. The bus ride along Wakatipu was spectacular, especially looking back at the lake and the maze of mountain peaks shining in the bright afternoon sunshine.
RalphR is offline  
Jan 1st, 2011, 03:37 PM
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Beautiful pictures of the Milford Track. Thanks.
KensingtonGirl is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2011, 07:30 AM
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Loved your photos. Your trip was quite a bit warmer, dryer and sunnier than ours, so I'm glad I've now got to see it all in the sun. Rain or shine, it's beautiful.
susncrg is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2011, 07:44 AM
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Thanks K'girl and susncrg:

Here's the link to the Routeburn photos:
RalphR is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2011, 06:39 PM
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Thanks Ralph for your excellent report and maginficent photos. We leave on Saturday and start walking the Friday after..... very excited.
aussiefive is offline  
Nov 24th, 2013, 05:56 PM
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RalphR - great trip report! I'm now debating that maybe I should go with ultimatehikes vs going independent like I originally thought I would do.

I really liked a lot of your photos. I'm a VERY avid amateur and hobby photographer. I will be carrying my canon 6D and tripod for the hike. My question is: did you feel that you had enough time to take/compose the pics you wanted to? Did you ever feel rushed because you were with the group? Do you feel you missed out on doing side trips along the way because of the group? This is a lot of money to spend and it's really important for me to enjoy the hike at my own pace and take the pics I want to take. Can you leave earlier in the morning than the group if you wanted to so you can have more time on the trail? thanks so much in advance for your thoughts! Michelle
mhohol is offline  
Nov 25th, 2013, 09:49 PM
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Michelle: As you may have gathered from the trip report, I really liked the guided walks and the accommodation. We never felt pressured to keep up with the group and there was more than enough time for picture taking. People were allowed to advance at their own pace - one guide stayed with the fast walkers at the front, another guide stayed at the back as a "sweeper" and another 2-3 guides kept to the middle. We ended up being quite spread out, with perhaps a couple of miles between those at the front and those at the back. Much of the time my friend and I were on our own and felt like we had the place to ourselves.

As I recall departure in the AM was between 8:00 and 8:30 or between 8:30 and 9:00. One guide would leave at the earlier time with the others spaced out behind. I dont know if people were allowed to take off ahead of the lead guide - I certainly didn't.

There were not that many opportunities for side trips on either the Milford or Routeburn Tracks. Nonetheless we were allowed time to do most, if not all the side trip options available - minor detours to various waterfalls, and more substantial side trips like Sutherland Falls on the Milford Track and Key Summit on the Routeburn Track.

Hope that helps! Happy to answer any other questions. Would love to do it again!
RalphR is offline  
Nov 27th, 2013, 05:42 AM
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It does! Thanks so much RalphR. I definitely want to see the various waterfalls and side trip to sutherland falls so that's good that you had time to do that too in addition to having time to take pics. thanks again!
mhohol is offline  
Nov 29th, 2013, 04:42 AM
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Michelle - You're welcome! If you have the time, I'd highly recommend doing the Routeburn Track in addition to the Milford. As you may have seen, UltimateHikes offer a combined Milford/Routeburn walk - "The Classic" - total 7 nights, 8 days. The two walks are quite different and complement each other well.
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