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A Winter Routeburn Birthday

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Eighteen months into my five week holiday and I found myself having a second birthday in New Zealand. The first one was pretty epic, with a Milford Sound flight and cruise but by this point I'd exhausted my obvious things to do list. The fundamental difference this time around however, was actually having friends on the right side of the planet so I could make it a bit more of a team effort!

Watercolour painting of Routeburn Flats

Routeburn Valley - Winter 2021 - Prints available

I took a friend's recommendation and went with something accessible, involving next to zero planning. I'd find my way to Routeburn Falls Hut for a weekend overnighter and whoever made it out that way to join me would be a happy bonus. The Routeburn Track is one of three of DOC's Great Walks that's within reach of Queenstown. It's widely regarded as one of the most stunning walks you can ever do and everyone around me was slightly horrified that I'd somehow not done it yet. Routeburn Falls was as far as you could hike safely in Winter, before everything became an avalanche death trap. (32 avalanche paths in way less kilometres!)

The week before, things were looking pretty desperate. Weather forecasts implied that it would rain so much we'd need Noah's Ark. Fiordland is not a heap of fun when it's pissing it down with rain all day and I knew most of the people invited had been there already so would likely bail. I desperately tried to find a rainy day plan. Tricky in a town that's completely geared towards outdoor activities!

Much to my relief, come the weekend, the weather gods of Aotearoa were smiling on us. Met Service showed a single patch of sunshine on Saturday, which being British meant I absolutely had to go for a hike. Totally ignoring Sunday, which was predicted to be a wet blizzardy mess.

Friends were mad enough to turn up too! Trying to get everyone together in the morning was like herding cats. Adorable, endearing cats who I love to pieces, but every single one of us was at least an hour late. Which I guess kind of worked out perfectly in it's own special way.

After discovering the cafe meeting point was closed for Winter and a good amount of group faff, we got ourselves in the Glenorchy Hotel for a huge pre-hike fry up. Looking around at the wonderful people who had all gone out of there way to join me on my little soggy adventure, I felt warm and fuzzy, suspecting that this would go well.

We finally got to the trailhead for 1pm. The drive towards the start amping up the excitement as we headed into the realm of towering mountains covered in snow. The fact we could even see them at all was a miracle under the circumstances!

Routeburn Falls is a nice accessible hut. Two hours of flat walking. One hour up. The only thing that remotely stressed me out was hoping that my friends would all get on and have plenty to talk about. Weird that I haven't had to worry about this for the last 18 months as Covid forced me down a solo path. The nerves were unfounded though as exciteable chatter filled the trail. What a relief! It was also barely raining! It had politely decided to snow instead, which meant it didn't break through the tree cover and we all stayed pretty dry.

A personal highlight of the forest section was two tiny Kakariki (rare adorable mini parrots) jumping out of a bush and scaring the living daylights out of Tammy. I'll never forget her scream travelling down the valley and I feel terrible for those little birds who were just minding their own business!

After a surprisingly tiring trudge uphill, we entered the snow line and things started to get rather special. We found ourselves walking through a winter wonderland. White fluffy snow piled up on every tiny branch and leaf, like a giant had gone mad with icing sugar. The forest was silent except seven hikers ogling at the beauty we'd be presented with. I'm used to Summer birthdays. This was Christmas six months early.

We made it to the hut in good time and to our surprise we had the entire 48 bunks to ourselves. Gotta love an off season hike! Something didn't feel right though. There was still plenty of daylight and we knew all of the REALLY pretty bits were just a bit further up the valley...

The Department of Conservation makes it pretty clear that you shouldn't hike beyond Routeburn Falls Hut in Winter unless you're prepared to be murdered by avalanches. Having just done an avalanche awareness course with Basecamp Adventures, this weighed particularly heavily on my mind. Having not been up there before, or in any kind of avalanche terrain, I had no idea what to expect. But after checking avi reports (because I know how to do that now!) and reading some maps I'd convinced myself that we could at least pop to the next bridge in safety. We ditched the heavy bags and excitedly scurried up the track for round two.

Boy am I glad we didn't stop at the hut. Routeburn Falls itself is a stunning point to day hike to, with its multiple waterfalls crashing into a narrow gnarly looking ravine, but nothing could mentally prepare me for the rest of our little walk. After all the avalanche worry, the snow couldn't have looked less threatening if it tried. Having melted all the way to the upper alpine and looking pretty darn consolidated, we quickly decided to wander as far as we felt safe. Over the next rise things got a bit emotional.

The clouds had cleared enough to reveal a wide open river valley. Surrounded on all sides by towering dramatic mountains. Everything. And I mean absolutely everything from the tussock that covered the basin, to the rocks the size of houses left behind by ancient glaciers, to the highest soaring peak was covered in a fine layer of snow or ice. It exaggerated all the tiny details of the vaste scene in front of us and I was totally overwhelmed. Here I was eighteen months into a journey I never planned to be on, having made it through HUGE highs and lows, hiking with a bunch of wonderful friends that I wouldn't have met if I didn't stick my neck out time and time again. I was exhausted. Grateful. And humbled by the scale of the Routeburn.

Being on this track, with these people, seeing what we got to see, was a huge pivalege but it went even deeper than that. I've spent my whole life looking up to travellers, adventurers and mountaineers. People I'd decided were somehow "better" or "braver" than I could ever dream of being. Yet here I was. Doing it. I suddenly realised I WAS that person and I was literally living a dream that I'd had my entire life. In that single moment an avalanche could have taken me out and I would have been content with my life being 100% content. Friends gathered round me for a group hug as water fell out of my face, declaring "I have the best life ever" through happy sobbing.

After calming down and accepting I was now in fact, living my own dream, we got on with the rest of it. Because the snow conditions were surprisingly good, temptation kept getting the better of us. "I'll be happy if I just get to see the lake". "I think it's just over this corner". "Oh but look, we could make it over there fine". All the while, the sun was setting and we were facing a return trip by head torch. We couldn't stop though. The landscape slowly glowed the dull pink of a cloudy sunset and with nothing but 500ml of water and a day old chicken pasty we raced the fading light. Letting curiosity be our guide. The snow got deeper and deeper and with it being Winter, we seemed to be the only ones out there, squeaking fresh footsteps further up the valley.

Safe in knowledge that we had head torches, we made it all the way to Harris Saddle. Pushing on through knee deep snow, I got my first look at the Valley of the Trolls. Top of my future adventures list as soon as the snows melt. The lake looked ominous as it turned inky black and the sunset was replaced but a thin bringht moon.

Sat in the Harris Saddle Emergency shelter, slightly dehydrated, eating a crap chicken pasty that tasted like glue, these are the moments I live for. Taking on an adventure which transforms in to something bigger and wilder than you could ever imagine. I was expecting a quaint wander up to a hut. What I got was a mad dash through some of the most intense beauty I've been in and and deep realisation of who I am. Adventuuuure!

Harris Shelter - Winter 2021 - Prints available

After a careful walk back with headtorches (also magical in the snow) the perfect birthday was signed off with the whole hut of 48 bunks to ourselves, a sleepover around the fire, dinosaur cake, boardgames and the gang chipping in for a "Toms Birthday Fun Gift Voucher". Top work Universe. I don't know why I deserve all this but I'm eternally grateful.


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