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August 2015 Issue
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Cold trip to a warm hut

Icicles at Kea Basin Rock Bivouac suggest a cold night ahead. Photo: David Barnes
Total Ascent
Muddy Creek to Earnslaw Hut, 4-4.5hr; Earnslaw Hut to Kea Basin, 20min
Earnslaw Hut, four bunks
From Muddy Creek car park, Rees Valley Rd, 20km from Glenorchy
CA10, CB10
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Earnslaw Hut (gpx, yo 24 KB)
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Earnslaw Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park

Where to go for a winter weekend? We were looking for somewhere not too arduous, not affected by snow – either us wading in it or it falling on us – and we needed a hut with a fire.

“Earnslaw Hut”, said Barry, who then developed a bad case of the lurgy, so we went without him.

A very frosty morning saw us rugged up and heading across Muddy Creek and up the Rees. The vista that opened up, with the sweeping, snow-laden ridgeline of the Forbes Mountains from Mt Head to Mt Clarke, is a favourite of mine and one that pops up on a variety of TV ads. An hour’s walking and a simple crossing of the river saw us finally strike sunlight, but it seemed to lack any vestige of warmth, for no-one stopped to shed layers.

Crossing Lennox Stream was a novel experience. To avoid walking on ice-rimmed rocks, we crossed at a thigh-deep spot that required me to act as an icebreaker and cut a swathe through the thin floating ice. From there, we climbed onto a low terrace and found the DOC sign indicating the start of the bush track.

The track is at a gentle gradient as it zigzags its way up for some 450m, which possibly explains why we found the signposted one hour to be a bit tight. However, we did eventually reach the turn-off to the short side track to Earnslaw Hut. When I’d last been here, more than 30 years ago, Moir’s Guide North noted that the hut was off the track and derelict, so I didn’t visit. A renovation by the late Garth Varcoe and family in the 1980s ensured the hut has survived the intervening years and, while character laden and somewhat draughty, still provides welcoming shelter. Given its chequered history, that’s a minor miracle.

Built around 1900, to accommodate tourists, the hut was demolished by the airblast of an avalanche in 1924. Rebuilt further down the hill as mustering accommodation by Earnslaw Station, it suffered the same fate again in 1936. It was rebuilt once more, even further down the slope and this time in mature beech – the hope being the trees proved the site somewhat avalanche-proof.

Tony, whose last tramping trip was the Milford Track, was a little surprised by the rudimentary state of the accommodation, but we all soon warmed to its charm. We had a bite to eat, and then set off up to Kea Basin. Soft snow made for slow progress as we climbed to the basin’s lip, situated at about 1040m. I recalled the rock bivvy here as being one of the best anywhere, so really doubted my memory when we came across one that was small and airy. Another minute removed the doubt and brought us to the real bivvy – a commodious and well sheltered edifice. However, the two-metre icy stalactites were a reminder that a night there at this time of year would be a bracing affair.

The basin itself, a natural amphitheatre surrounded by cliffs, is a spectacular place and a great spot to camp in summer. We had good views of the East Peak of Mt Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi, and of Lennox Pass, a challenging crossing to the Earnslaw Burn. Across the Rees, we gazed at the sweep of the Richardson Mountains. But before long, the bitter temperature drove us back to the hut and the anticipation of a fire.  

As forecast, the weather turned briefly for the worse overnight, with fresh snow obliterating the detail of our footsteps as we retraced our route into the valley in the morning. The tops were clagged-in but, despite intermittent snowflakes falling as we travelled along the valley floor, we managed a winter weekend without needing our raincoats. Now that’s an achievement.