The Routeburn Track is all about looking down at epic New Zealand landscapes from the top of the world. But sometimes, the weather does what it wants and cares little for our puny human plans. Rach Dimond still managed to have a cracker time despite sleet, snow and rain. Lots of rain.
A section of the Routeburn Track was, ironically, damaged by flooding in Feb 2020. Currently it can be walked as the Routeburn return, check the DOC website for updates.
- Sweeping mountain views (if you’re lucky)
- Beautiful waterfalls
- Crystal clear rivers
- Alpine meadows
- Winding valleys
- Unpredictable and ever-changing weather
The Routeburn Track
Ever since I first visited New Zealand the Routeburn Track had been on my list; it had everything a mountain loving tragic could ask for. I just needed to find the time (read: get work to approve my leave).
I received a phone call from my girlfriend late one night. She and a couple of friends had booked in and did I want to come? Ahhh, yes! However it wasn’t until 1 week before we were due to start that I got the nod from work. Of course the huts were booked out by this time. ‘It’s fine,’ I thought, ‘I’ll camp.’
So I spent a couple of hours booking flights, bus tickets and campsites and decided to sleep on the floor of my friends’ hotel room.
Day 1 – Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut
Distance/Time Taken: 8.8km / 2.5-4hrs
My friends had been in Queenstown for most of the week and had enjoyed four glorious days of sunshine and wineries. Of course this came to an abrupt end the day we were due to start the hike. The forecast was for three days of heavy and constant rain. Great.
Just as the bus pulled into Glenorchy the rain started coming down. At least it gave us time to acclimate before we started walking the whole Routeburn Track.
Keep Ya Kit On
Day one was a fairly easy ramble with rolling hills as we followed the Routeburn River up the valley. We learned quickly and through wise advice from some trail friends, that even when the rain lets up you keep your waterproofs on in New Zealand. Unless of course you like removing and re-adjusting your pack every 10 minutes.
We arrived at Routeburn Flats Hut and campsite after about two hours of walking; this was where I would be staying the night. We sat under the cover of the hut and ate lunch together and I went to set up my tent before escorting the rest of the girls up to Routeburn Falls Hut where they would stay the night.
All the camping spots were pretty wet, as in they were just puddles. I found a fairly well drained grassy patch near the river and quickly set up my tent between downpours, stashed most of my gear and headed back to the Flats Hut.
When I returned, one of the girls, let’s call her ‘Miss Unprepared’, was freezing and itching to get away after the extended break. It’s worth noting the mercury had dropped to about 5°c by this time and the wind was blowing between 30 and 55km/h, not to mention it was raining. A fellow hiker had just made a big pot of tea and kindly pushed it toward Miss Unprepared, not taking no for an answer. It did the trick and we made our way up to the falls.
Routeburn Falls Hut
The hike between the flats and the falls is only 2.3km but you gain about 300m of elevation. It is a pretty steady climb that took us 45 minutes. The rain was relentless and the cloud was thick, it made for some eerie forest scenes on the ascent but we didn’t even get a glimpse of the valley. By the time we arrived at the Falls Hut it was bucketing down and most of our waterproof gear had failed us.
The girls quickly bagsed their bunks and changed into dry clothes for the night while I got warm tea and coffee happening in the common room. We spent the afternoon chatting amongst ourselves and to other hikers. “How about the weather, eh?” We played cards and we enjoyed the cheese and wine we had indulgently decided to bring with us. We were warm, our bellies were full and we were happy. Then I had to hike back down to the flats.
The Hike Back Down
The rain had eased a little, I even caught a glimpse of my orange tent on the valley floor and the surrounding mountains were starting to poke out from the veil of clouds. It only took me about 30 minutes to descend so when I got to my tent I had plenty of time to potter around, whip up dinner under the shelter provided and make friends with my campsite mates.
The hut warden came around to do a headcount before night fell and gave us the forecast for the following day. It wasn’t good. It was likely that the track would be closed at Harris Saddle, temperatures below freezing and wind gusts up to 100km/h.
I was instructed to leave the campground early, meet my friends at the Falls Hut and take direction from the hut warden there in the morning. I tucked into bed early and listened to the rain on my tent fly until I fell asleep.
Day 2 – Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut
Distance/Time Taken: 11.3km / 4.5-6hrs
I rolled out of bed at about 5:30am and haphazardly moved all my gear under the nearby shelter. I needed to get my tent down while there was a break in the rain; I was almost successful. After a quick coffee I packed up all my gear and made my way up to Routeburn Falls hut to find out whether our hike would be going ahead or not. On my way up I saw the only ray of sunshine all trip, but the break in the clouds was moving in the wrong direction.
After a quick breakfast the hut warden gave us the all-clear to cross the saddle and recommended we make haste. Harris Saddle has an elevation of around 1250m and snow was forecast down to 800m, though the severe gale warning had been lifted.
It still felt pretty gale-like to me to be honest. What followed was the wettest and coldest day of hiking I have ever experienced. When people ask, I describe it as awesomely awful, in the original sense of the word.
Even without a view of the snow-capped mountains looming over us the scenery on this part of the Routeburn Track was amazing. The reflective tarns and alpine meadows captured our eye and if it wasn’t so damn cold it would have been easy to linger. As we crossed the bluffs above Lake Harris snow began to fall and we all squealed in delight. Who doesn’t love a bit of snow? Though we were quickly disappointed as we realised it was going to continue to fall as wet bone chilling slush. And then the wind picked up.
We crossed Harris Saddle and began traversing along the exposed Hollyford Face, the rain alternated between heavy drops and snow slush, the high winds whipped it into to our faces and leeched the warmth from every part of our bodies. After a few hours in the rain my Goretex shell was pretty much wet the whole way through and my hands were so cold that they hurt. Moving my fingers was painful. I cracked it, unzipped my Goretex arm vents and stuffed my hands inside, walking with my arms hugged around myself. It was a bit ungainly but it worked, though it drew concern from some passing guides. I had to explain a few times I just had cold hands and no waterproof gloves.
Miss Unprepared wasn’t doing well in the cold. She didn’t have enough layers on and the cheaper waterproof brand she had opted for was not providing anywhere near adequate protection. We decided to split the group and let her race to the next hut where she could warm up and take shelter from the elements. I stayed at the back with the slower member of our group and sung motivational songs ranging from Grandmaster Flash to the Lord of the Rings theme. Some call it a hike – I call it a four hour concert starring me!
A Bed For The Night
I stopped and chatted to guides and hikers along the track, ‘How about that weather, eh?’ and ‘How long to Lake Mackenzie hut do you reckon?’ And I began to hear rumours. Several groups had elected not to start the hike from the Milford side this morning due to the likelihood of bad weather closing the saddle. There would be some free bunks in the hut…if I could get there fast.
I’d like to say we raced to the hut but we pretty well kept plodding along at the same pace for the next few hours through the whiteout, occasionally stopping and pretending we could make out Lake Mackenzie below. Once we began the descent into the tree-line things went pretty quickly and we were in the hut in no time.
Miss Unprepared had managed to bags us a sweet bunk of four for the night. Now I just had to find the hut warden and beg for mercy. I was not keen on sleeping out in the storm that night, especially after seeing the warm fire in the common room. I found the warden and proffered up the extra cash required; best 40 bucks I’ve ever spent, dead set.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking tea, coffee and wine, eating cheese and freeze-dry meals and trying to replenish all the calories we had burned in the storm during the day. All the hikers crowded the fire and attempted to dry some of the layers they needed for the next day. A few poor souls had wet sleeping bags.
I Heart Merino
We swapped stories of crossing the saddle with other hikers. It seemed we all felt the same. I had never been so thankful for my merino layers. Gosh darn they dry quickly, not to mention I wasn’t slapped in the face with foul body odours while steam rose from my garments.
After the hut warden had given us the lowdown for the following day (basically it was going to snow a lot and the track would be closed over the saddle, anyone going toward Glenorchy would be forced to turn around) we trotted off to bed and were lulled to sleep by the snores of our hut-mates.
Day 3 – Lake Mackenzie Hut to The Divide
Distance/Time Taken: 12km/4-5.5hrs
We woke up to a miserable, cold, rainy morning, but hey, I didn’t have to pack down a tent. We could see the base of the mountains on the edge of Lake Mackenzie and they were dusted with a layer of snow. We set off fairly early, after a big breakfast, and of course the rain picked up. We collectively eye rolled.
As we made our way through the forest the rain started to ease. Maybe we weren’t going to get soaked today? As we reached a break in the trees, I heard the girls at the front start yelling and running in circles and I was concerned hypothermia had finally taken hold. Nah, turns out it was snowing! Big dry puffy snowflakes and the wind had even died down a little.
It was like a beautiful winter wonderland. I mean it was November in the Southern Hemisphere, but whatever. New Zealand eh?
The snow fell pretty hard until we descended below 400m and the novelty did not wear off. After 30 minutes or so it was about an inch deep, sick! For anyone wondering, snow > rain forever.
It got a little dodgy as we crossed in front of Earland Falls. The rocks were iced over and provided a couple of hairy moments and the force of the wind the waterfall produced blew one of the girls’ pack covers off, never to be recovered.
We made really good time to Howden Hut and so had a few hours to kill before our bus would arrive at The Divide, a short 45 minute walk away. It was still bloody cold and rainy so we holed up in the hut, made tea and talked the hut warden in to letting us light a fire. Toasty as bro.
All too quickly it was time to head back out into the cold for the final descent. I want to say we didn’t want to leave but that would be a lie. We were goddamn sick of this shit and we were ready for a real bed and a warm shower. We hopped the first bus out of The Divide and headed back to Queenstown with a quick stop in Te Anau for hot chips and wine.
- Good quality wet weather gear
- Multi-day hiking items
- A sunny disposition
How To Get There
There are multiple bus options servicing either end of the Routeburn Track. We chose to hike from the Routeburn Shelter (Glen Orchy) to The Divide (Milford Highway) and booked with Info & Track who also stored any excess luggage we had on us.
The Department of Conservation New Zealand grades the Routeburn Track as an Intermediate track. As long as you’re prepared for the weather and have a bit of fitness about you, you’ll be right.
Distance Covered/Time Taken
32km one way/3 days and there are few side trips you can take if you fancy.