Hiking New Zealand’s Kepler Track, Part 2: Luxmore to Iris Burn

If you haven’t already, make sure to read Part 1 here!

It was only 7pm, but I was so exhausted from the day’s treck I definitely would have been in bed if it wasn’t for the Ranger program. There were around 50 of us in the hut that night, and we gathered in the common area to listen to the Ranger give us a run-down of tomorrow’s walk. We could hear the wind howling outside, but inside the wood stove was doing its job and keeping us all cozy. At 7 on the dot a sprightly, middle-aged man introduced himself as the ranger. We all quieted to listen.

The ranger told us how the trail would rise and then follow the ridgeline of the mountains before finally descending back down into the tree line and the valley where we would find our next night’s bed. He told us there were 2 emergency shelters along the way, each one marking about a third of the trail’s distance. He told us how the walk was beautiful, but exposed.

And then he told us about the weather.

“Right now we’re looking at winds of about 120 kilometers per hour,” he said. He had a bit of a mischievous glean in his eye when he added “So hold on or you might get blown to outer space!” Immediately I thought of the ranger at the visitor center who had told us they would close the trail if winds got above 100kph. But the Luxmore Hut Ranger didn’t talk about closures. He just said he’d give us another weather update in the morning, played us a haunting tune on a homemade flute, and wished us goodnight.

We awoke the next day to the Ranger coming through the dorms, announcing that we had about an hour and a half before heavy rains settled in, so we best get going… or at least that’s what I think he said. It was a groggy wake up for me and Tom didn’t actually hear the announcement at all. Either way we decided it was best to get a move on, so we packed quickly, downed our breakfast, and headed out.

It was windy with a light drizzle when we set off, but the sun was still out, the views were spectacular, and we were feeling good. Early on in our day we even found ourselves walking under a beautiful rainbow.

The mountaintops felt gentler here, tussock-topped and rolling. But after a short time they started to change. They became craggier and more volcanic in appearance, fields of tussock being replaced with black rock and lichen. It was still beautiful, but it seemed that the weather was keeping pace with the geography. As the mountains got sharper the sky grew darker, the clouds moved faster, and the rain began to fall with more force. I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t feel ominous, but I still found myself in awe of it all. The video below captures the last time we would see sunlight that day:

It’s difficult to describe the 5 hours that followed. It was such a rush of adrenaline and mix of emotions. The weather was not kind as we battled our way along the steep ridge line. The terrain would have been difficult on a sunny day, but the wind and rain were unrelenting. At times the rain seemed horizontal, soaking every last inch of us. The wind meanwhile hit us in gusts, cruel strong slaps that threatened to knock us over, over and over again.

It was without a doubt the most grueling walk of my life. And yet, in the moments when I wasn’t clinging to a rock for dear life or convinced I’d never feel warm again, I was totally overcome by a weird euphoria. As harsh as these elements were, they were so stunning. This mean weather was the perfect match to the terrain. I felt so lucky to be experiencing it, so grateful for a body that was strong enough to bring me here, and for the forward-thinking people who built and maintained the path that made it all accessible to me.

My memories of the day come in short flashes intermixed with heightened emotions.

*Looking up to see the rain cover of the woman in front of me’s bag had blown off – attached at one point but doing nothing to protect her pack from the rain. I came up just behind her to ask if I could help but the wind was so loud she couldn’t hear me. I placed my hand on her shoulder and tried to explain her predicament with hand movements. I wasn’t sure she understood what I was saying, but we made eye contact and I felt that she trusted me, so I reached over and started to refasten her cover. Not 3 seconds later did I feel someone grab onto the back of my own pack. I turned around to see a man fixing my rain cover – which had also apparently been blown off. And then behind him, another person, fixing his pack as well. This was one of those euphoric moments. 4 complete strangers trusting each other in this otherworldly scene.

*Tom and I crossing a narrow saddle – a sheer drop on either side of us – as an impressive gust swooped in that was so strong both of us had to drop to the ground to keep from being swept away. Kneeling with my head braced down against the wind, I couldn’t decide if this was the coolest thing I’d ever done or the stupidest.

*A lot of breathtaking vistas. Many moments of intense discomfort. But overriding that this knowledge that there was no stopping or turning back, that the only way to go was onwards. And with this in my head I felt strong. Despite walking for 5 hours in driving cold rain, my body temperature sustained, my legs felt strong under me… honestly, I felt like a freaking superhero.

Until the descent.

So relieved to be back under the cover of the trees… or am I?

Reaching the tree line at first was a huge relief. For the first time all day we weren’t being physically pummeled by wind and rain. But there was still another hour or so of walking and it was all downhill. My body was just done. My knees felt like they might fail at any moment, and my feet were on fire from catching the weight of my body on the downhill over and over and over again. All of the physical sensations that had gone numb during the alpine crossing came back. I suddenly realized that all of my layers were soaked through, my back ached, and there was so much water in my shoes that my steps were announced by loud squishing noises. Later I would find my left big toe had gone purple.

Tom was in similar shape. Walking just in front of me he passed a large sign that said ‘CAREFUL – SLIPPERY ROCKS’. Not two steps later did he loose his footing. Luckily he caught himself before hitting the ground, but I couldn’t keep myself from laughing out loud when he turned around and said to me – still in eyesight of the sign – “Careful, it’s slippery here!” He was so tired he’d never gotten the message.

We made it!

Finally, we came around a corner to find the Iris Burn Hut. It took us some time to peal off our many wet layers and feel human again. After dinner, Tom and I sat on the deck of the hut, staring into the darkness. We were 2 days walk on either side from any services other than the toilets and stoves of Iris Burn. We could hear wild kiwis calling from the forest around us. Our shoes were still wet, and our bodies were exhausted, but as we reflected on the day’s walk, we both concurred:

It was worth it.

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