Kepler Track: Head in the Clouds

The sun rises on Day 3 of my Kepler Track capers and with it begins a new set of worries: the rain still falls steadily and the wind still rages outside the hut. Despite the weather, the sunrise is gorgeous, and in the break between heartier moments of rain and wind, I bravely venture outside the hut to take pictures.

 

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Slowly, the rest of the hut wakes up and the kitchen comes alive with activity once more. At 8:30, as he promised last night, Pat arrives to give the updated weather report for the day. Much to our disappointment, the forecast has changed. The storm was supposed to start earlier last night and blow through by later this morning, but alas, it arrived later than expected and seems content to sit atop the mountain all day. The sooner we get started, the better, in all likelihood: the weather certainly won’t get better, but it just might get worse.

 

Groaning at the prospect of a viewless, stormy, 15 km hike ahead of us, we hurry to finish breakfast and pack up. I bury my camera in my pack under layers of jackets and socks and towels, stretch the rain cover over the bulging mass of my bag, chuck on my rain jacket, and lace up my boots. Lara is already ready to go when I finally get my boots laced up, and together we take a deep breath and hit the trail, following the line of bright rain covers strung out along the trail in the distance. Heeding Pat’s advice, just about everyone has gotten an early start. Lara and I are about middle of the pack as we start off, trudging up the steep slope we’d tasted just a tiny bit of yesterday and hoping aloud that the weather we have now — drizzly, but not too windy and not too cold — will hold up.

 

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It doesn’t take long for the Kepler Track to show us just how little it cares about our hopes and dreams. As soon as we round the bend in the track that drops us onto the side of the mountain range that leads away from Luxmore, the wind picks up to a constant 40 mph with gusts topping 65 mph and the heavy rain starts coming in sideways. Every few minutes, the cover rips from Lara’s pack and threatens to blow away into the fiord below. Not that we can see the fiord of course. No, for us, the fiord has become nothing but an abyss of misty gray cloud cover. Ever the optimists, when we finally reach Luxmore Summit — our failed side trip destination yesterday — we shrug off the knowledge that we’ll definitely see nothing at the top and make for the peak with another hiker from Luxmore. The gusts are so strong I have to pause every so often to make sure I’m placing my footsteps deliberately enough not to be blown off the cliff face. The rain has turned parts of the track into inches-deep pits of mud and, as we climb ever higher, I notice that the only things brave enough to stand atop this peak with us appear to be rocks and lichen.

 

When we reach the peak, it’s much as expected: impenetrable gray clouds surround us on every side. Despite the lack of a view (and the lack of feeling in my fingers and face), I feel accomplished for having been bold, or stupid, enough to make for the peak with Lara and our new friend. We stand up there for as long as we can bear it, still holding out hope for the clouds to clear for even just a split second and reveal the view of the fiord to the left and what we’re told by a hiker on his way down should be some freshwater ponds.

 

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What a view!

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Eventually, the clouds do offer us a small glimpse of the tiniest little patch of fiord and tussock-framed pond, but we hardly have much of an opportunity to enjoy it. The wind is as strong as ever and the rain continues to lash viciously at our faces and hands with each ferocious gust of wind. Grinning at our own brave idiocy, we descend carefully back down the trail, eager to get away from the truly spectacular wind speeds of the peak. Apart from a six-foot patch of trail shielded by some boulders on our way back down to the main trail, we’re faced with pretty similar conditions away from Luxmore Summit as we did at its zenith.

 

Nonetheless, once down to the main trail, Lara and I express (at the top of our lungs thanks to the howling wind) our pride and satisfaction at having done the summit, even if we saw nothing. We do both wish we’d pressed on yesterday, though…

 

We trudge on, the weather worsening with each passing minute. We trade places leading and take breaks only to replace Lara’s pack cover — before we’re even halfway to the first emergency shelter / rest stop of the track, my hands have gotten so cold that even if I tempted fate (and water damage) by taking out my phone to take pictures, I wouldn’t be able to press down the volume button to take the shot. My hands have turned into feeble, powerless claws and my face is so numb with windburn and cold that on the rare occasion Lara and I try to talk to each other as we drag ourselves onward, I can’t properly move my jaws to form words — it’s like my face has been injected with a bajillion shots of botox.

 

About two hours into the hike, we finally round the corner of one of the mountains and a small, squat shelter comes into sight. At this point, my socks are taking on water, everything from head to toe on me is soaked through, my face is an frozen, wind whipped mask, and my hands the color of porcelain and about as mobile. All I’ve been able to think about for the past two hours is the different places I’m going to get pho and ramen when I get back to Brisbane and about the dry, fluffy sweatpants I’m going to put on when we finally reach Iris Burn, our destination for the night. When I see the hut, I’m already ahead of Lara by a bit too much for any good hiking buddy to be, but when I see that hut it’s like the gun’s gone off and I run — thirty-pound pack and all — the last 200 meters to the shelter.

 

When I step inside the hut it’s chock-full of other hikers, many of whom seem just as ready as I to take up permanent residence. Convulsing from the cold, I drop my pack and start trying to remove the cover so I can grab more layers. It takes me a full five minutes to pull the cover off my pack with my cold-corrupted fingers and another full five minutes of bodybuilder-worthy breathing and straining to get my fingers to squeeze the clips of my pack open. By this time — really, truly ten minutes later — Lara has arrived and seems to be in much better spirits than I am. She comments on the craziness of the storm and opens her pack with ease while I look on with shock and envy. In minutes, the bulk of the people who’d been in the hut have cleared up and hit the trail again, and the hut is now drafty and chilly. After five more minutes spent laughing humorlessly at my inability to pry a granola bar out of my bag’s side pocket with my useless excuse for hands, I manage to free my snacks and tear it open with my teeth. The small snack makes me feel slightly better, but my lack of movement for the past almost twenty minutes is making me even colder than I was outside, so after Lara has had some water, a proper adjustment of her rain cover, and a few pieces of chocolate (during which I wrestle the rain cover back onto my pack), we take a deep breath, shoulder our packs, and step back out into the tempest that rages outside the shelter’s door.

 

Despite the chill that seems to have sunk into my very bones, once we’re outside the hut and moving again, I start feeling better. The rain and wind continues with its usual belligerence for the first thirty minutes or so but then, to my overwhelming relief, the clouds and rain start to clear just enough to reveal the fiord below and the tussock-draped ridges up ahead.

 

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It’s no paradise, but I’ll take it.

 

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The further we hike, the more things clear up. The wind is still staggering and the rain is still falling sideways, but there’s less of both of them. The clouds slide sulkily through the valleys below us as we navigate the rocky backbone trail over exposed ridges and saddles. The wind is so intense I feel like I’m watching a time-lapse of the storm rolling through, the clouds move so fast. Eventually, the trail cuts to the left of a mountain rather than the right of it, and we’re finally — for the first time in over four hours — shielded from the wind. Even better? In the words of an old cliche: after the rain comes the rainbow.

 

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Lara and I are both struck dumb by the view we find before us: the rainbow is so vibrant and so clear and, with the thick wisps of clouds snaking through the valley below, the whole sight is ripe with a drama rivaled only by pure fantasy. Together, we drop our packs on the side of the trail and just sit there, watching with a kind of desperate awe as the sun pokes out from behind the clouds for the first time since night fell yesterday, lighting up the raindrops that fly ever sideways through the empty space before us…sparkling like a handful of diamonds thrown to the wind. We sit there for a long time, just taking it all in. Apart from a few quips traded with a group of older folks that pass us, we don’t say a word. No words are adequate to function in this perfect space we’ve found ourselves in. I blink tears from my eyes as I stare at the dramatic slope of the mountains, the swaying ocean of tussock grass, the perfect ribbon of color dancing out of valleys still shrouded in mist. For the first time since setting out this morning, I’m remembering why I do this.

 

Just me, my windburned nose, and my very best oh-right-this-is-why-I-do-this expression

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It’s not until a new wall of clouds floats into the valley that we decide to press on. When we get to the next emergency shelter, though, things have cleared up again and our rainbow is back, as stunning as ever. My fingers still don’t quite function properly, but I’ve at least regained sufficient feeling in them to press the shutter down on my phone and — with the shelter there to protect me in any sudden onslaught of rain — I grab my camera, too. We eat a proper lunch here at this hut (proper meaning two granola bars for me) since it’s become so beautiful outside. We’re joined at the hut by our friends from Paris and the group of older backpackers who passed us earlier on the trial. We laugh and joke and chat and take about a million pictures before finally packing up and heading down what will be our last stretch of the trail. It’s all downhill from here (literally), but it doesn’t take long for us to stop dead to take in the view again.

 

…there’s a rainbow behind those clouds somewhere

Aha! There it is!

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The trail here runs perfectly along the spine of a set of ridges that descend sharply into the bushline below, turning every step into a phenomenally composed piece of astonishing beauty.

 

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Only a few kilometers down the trail from the hut, we reach a sign pointing to a “viewpoint.” The sign says it’s a two minute return trip, so we go for it — after taking on Luxmore Summit this morning, anything at all will manage to exceed expectations. Needless to say, it does.

 

At this rate, we don’t even mind that we’re some of the last groups in the string of hikers heading to Iris Burn. We drop our packs, I wrench out my camera with the help of my now increasingly functional fingers, and we perch ourselves on the rocks that circle our little summit lookout. Lara turns to me: “We’re on top of the world,” she says.

 

I couldn’t agree more.

 

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The rest of the hike down to Iris Burn is beautiful, but pales in comparison to what we’ve left above us. The weather thankfully stays clear and, once we drop below the bushline, the reprieve from the wind almost makes up for us having to say goodbye to our extraordinary view. That’s not to say, though, that the rest of the hike isn’t awesome. The forest we drop into from the mountainside is subtly different than the alpine woods we hiked through yesterday. No, here, the gnarled, twisted trees and moss smothered ground lends the whole landscape an ethereal, magical quality, like we’re traipsing through the set of the live-action Jungle Book.

 

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That said, after a day of brutal weather on an already-brutal piece of the track, Lara and I are ready to get to Iris Burn: we’re still soaked through-and-through from the rain earlier and I don’t know about Lara, but my knees and ankles ache like crazy from trying to stay upright on precarious rock-strewn trails while carrying an impressively un-aerodynamic 30-pound pack through 60 mph winds.

 

Not that I’m so low on energy I can’t stop and snap more and more (and more) photos…

 

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When at long last we make it to Iris Burn, it’s like seeing the Golden Gates. Beaming from ear to ear, Lara and I stomp along the last hundred meters of track to the hut and dump our stuff. I immediately make a break for the bathroom and then get to work hanging up my wet clothes by the fire, but when I stop to take a breath, I notice I haven’t seen Lara in a while. I peek outside — she’s sitting on the bench outside the hut in what appears to be a bit of a happy hiking coma. She eventually disappears upstairs to further wallow in some much-deserved R&R while I stifle a laugh and pop back inside to grab my camera. I’m determined to make up for not having my DSLR with me all day, so I go nuts on the view, which is (like everything here except the weather) gorgeous.

 

 

After my rather unfortunate stay at Brod Bay and a day spent dealing with being the most miserably cold and wet I think I’ve ever been, I have decided that I am not going to sleep outside with — at best — howling wind and pounding rain or — at worst — a Kea putting those hungry mice to shame and completely tearing my tent to shreds while I try to sleep inside. Plus, I would kill for a hot meal tonight rather than a cold peanut butter and chocolate chip tortilla roll alone in my cold, damp tent.

 

Ergo, when the ranger gets into his hut in the early afternoon, I leap up from the bench by the fire, race out of the hut, and ambush him as he walks in. As politely and un-panicked a way as  I can muster, I ask him if I could maybe, possibly (pretty, pretty please?) upgrade from my campsite to the hut for the night.

 

Not all heroes wear capes: Robbie, the aforementioned ambushed ranger laughs and says of course I can upgrade. He invites me into his cozy little ranger hut and we chat as he gets a fire going in his stove and pulls out a receipt notebook.

 

Best $36 I’ve ever spent.

 

The rest of the night flies in a whirlwind of activity. We all make ourselves dinner and huddle in groups, talking loud over the clang of pots and pans and steadily taking off layers as the stoves and heater work their magic. After another delicious rice dinner courtesy of Wendy’s camping pot, the whole gang from last night crowds around a table by the door for another rousing game of Wizard (I only tie for last this time!). The lights shut off earlier here, thanks to the dwindling daily supply of energy for the solar lights in this part of the Track, and after our card game, just about everyone heads to bed. After this second card game embarrassment, however, I feel like actually having a shot at winning a game for once, so I teach Wendy and Lara how to play ERS. It’s a bitter battle of wits and speed, but after nearly an hour, I lose that game too.

 

I should really just stick to hiking.

 

 

 

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