Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Key Summit

The beauty of having ten days to explore the Milford Road was that we could pick & choose when to do activities that depended on the weather, in particular having a clear day to enjoy the views. There would be no point whatsoever in expending all that energy climbing the Key Summit on an overcast day & especially if there was low cloud.

So even though the day dawned with our first heavy frost, we knew it was going to be another clear sunny day. A good day to climb Key Summit.

Key Summit is a “small” (for this area) 918m summit, and forms the western end of the “Great Walk”; the Routeburn Track which takes 3 days to complete. A number of years ago we walked to the Routeburn Falls Hut, a day walk in from the eastern end of the track. Maybe one day we’ll be able to join the dots & complete the whole track!

Key Summit is a three hour return journey although it took us much longer to complete as we had lunch and an hour or so exploring the summit itself which is home to tarns and an alpine wetland. It also has glorious 360 degree views of the Darran & Humboldt Mountains & the Hollyford, Greenstone & Eglinton Valleys. And although it says three hours it would have taken us at least four without the exploring, for us it was quite a steep track, the initial 300 metres or so climbed steadily through mossy, silver beech forest on an often rocky & slippery track- not always as bad as shown below.

Occasionally there would be a break in the bush where a slip had happen or a tree fallen over & we would get a partial view of the snow capped mountains that would be awaiting us in all their full splendour at the top. These glimpses also gave us an excuse to pause & get our breath back- usually just as younger, fitter people strode on past.

Finally after an hour or so we arrive at a fork in the track, a signpost indicated the Routeburn Track continued on in one direction & the Key Summit in the other. It was with much consternation that David noted it was still another hour to the top including the Alpine Walk. He wanted to take the shorter 15 minute walk to the Howden Hut (along the Routeburn) but I was having none of it. We had come so far, we weren’t going to abort now. Just after this point we broke out of the bush and into the open & the track zig-zagged back and forward at least a dozen times as it climbed the last section up to the summit. Just when you’d think you’ve walked the last zig or zag another appeared. It was hot & tiring but we got there in the end helped along by the enthusiastic encouragement of people returning down the track, people who would have struggled up this section too- "not long now", "it's worth it" "you're nearly there".

Hollyford Valley
And then finally we were at the top in amongst an alpine tarn high in the Fiordland Mountains. What a fantastic view it was and an amazing wonderland in amongst the bogs & tarns.

Humboldt Mountains
This was the view across to the Darran Mountains and there in centre was the hanging valley with Lake Marian clearing in view. We had visited the Marian Cascade (Waterfall) the day before and now we had no need to walk up the steep & rugged Lake Marian track, we’d seen the lake from across the divide!

There is a lot of different fauna & flora up on the summit in amongst the tarns; tussock and stunted bush including this little tomtit, a very well camouflaged grasshopper & lots of tiny berries & flowers.

Alpine Gentian

But the most beautiful sight of all was the colour & reflections of the mountains in the different tarns dotted around the top. Deep spongy moss and other wetland plants surrounded the little pools and boardwalks protected the fragile environment from foot traffic.

And I'm sorry for the number of photos but they were all so beautiful it was hard to choose.

The stunted beech trees, some thought to be at least 400-500 years old were surrounded in lime green & rust coloured mosses, much like their counterparts back down the mountain, deep in the forest. Their branches & trunks were swathed in thick moss and more moss hung off the branches providing an ideal habitat for the insects and birds.

Before long it was time to retrace our steps with a quick stop at the one & only toilet on the track, tied down to protect it from the ferocious winds that must on occasions whip across this exposed peak.

Time for one last lingering look down the Hollyford Valley and a refill at a crystal clear, very cold trickle of water that was coming out the side of a bank on the edge of the track. Our very own Evian water source. We encouraged a guy walking uphill to put his head under it to cool down, it was a scorcher of an afternoon and many were struggling up the track especially after it broke out of the cool bush.

Evian, France 2006
It was a steady but not rushed walk back down to the carpark and by the end our knees and toes were complaining loudly, they had had enough of being forced downhill. Aside from the little bit of discomfort in the climb and then the sore legs on the return I would highly recommend this walk but the key (no pun intended) is to give yourself plenty of time. There’s no point in rushing up, having a quick look (ticking the box) and then heading home, where’s the joy in that.

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