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Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

San Antonio, Texas
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Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

I might be coming to the South Island for a couple of weeks in November, and the Routeburn definitely looks like it's something that can't be missed. I know there is a chance that sections will be shut down due to avalanche danger, but I'm wondering what those chances usually are. Should I assume it's pretty likely that sections are going to be closed then, or would it just be an unlucky day if I get there and I can't get much farther than the Routeburn Falls hut? Also, does the section up to the Routeburn Flats Hut and then the side trip up the Route Burn North Branch ever get shut down? That looks like a really incredible hike. I'd most likely be looking at starting the track in early November (e.g., sometime in the 1st-10th or so).

Also, the elevation gain doesn't look too crazy. Assuming nothing is shut down, is it reasonable to do a trip along the lines of:

Day 1: Get an early start, go to Routeburn Flats, take the sidetrip up the North Branch, come back to the flats, and hike up to the Routeburn Falls Hut to spend the night.

Day 2: Hike to the Lake McKenzie Hut. Conical Hill would be a no-go without crampons that time of year, correct?

Day 3: Hike down to The Divide. Is Key Summit a reasonable walk-up in November without crampons and an axe?

I'm OK doing 1000 meters elevation gain in a day if the trail is good, especially since the altitude isn't too high there. From videos I have seen Routeburn looks like it's a pretty wide and well-defined trail other than maybe the sidetrips. Is that a fair characterization of the trail? Is there much up and down, or is it pretty consistently up and then consistently down? How difficult are the side-trips up the North Branch, and to Conical Hill and Key Summit (if doable)? Thanks!

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1. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Nov is considered peak season on the Routeburn and you would be unlikely to meet the ice, snow and avalanche conerns you have mentioned. …govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/…

However the weather is extremely fickle in Fiordland and it is better to be safe than sorry. I suggest you contact DOC directly for their expert advice <fiordlandvc@doc.govt.nz>

best of luck :)

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2. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Hi SpursFan,

The Routeburn is graded as an easier tramping track, and in November it will be open and folks of moderate fitness are usually able to walk it without too much difficulty. You might get some snow, but there would be no need for crampons and ice axe, they would close the track in those conditions.

You can still get avalanche risk and potential diversions at that time of year - also closures due to bad weather - but you would be unlucky.

Your proposed routes would be do-able if you are fit and fairly fast hikers, although it might be more normal to take 4-days if you are doing the North branch. I guess one thing in your favour is that the North branch is a return route, so you can always turn around early if you are getting behind schedule.

Re Key summit and conical hill, again you could consider yourself unlucky if you could make the climb up conical hill, I would imagine key summit is OK in all but the very worst weather conditions.

Edited: 7:19 pm, February 27, 2011
San Antonio, Texas
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3. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Thanks! That's great to hear. The DOC website said avalanche danger closures were most likely in early November, but not whether or not they were likely. Routeburn looks like it has some great alpine scenery and that valley up the North Branch looks incredible, so I think I'd enjoy it a little more than the Milford Track (though that looks outstanding too). I saw National Geographic rated Routeburn one of the top 11 hikes in the world; would you all consider it the best nontechnical trip in NZ for alpine views? I'll definitely get at least a day and probably two on Franz Josef or Fox Glacier too.

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4. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

I haven't had the chance to do the North branch - maybe next time. Milford and Routeburn are quite different tramps, Routeburn is predominantly alpine where Milford is predominantly along the valley floor. Of the two, I preferred Routeburn but this was coloured by the fact that we got stunning (cloudless) weather on the Routeburn and snow on the McKinnon pass on the Milford! So I can't really comment on the view from the McKinnon pass, it's supposed to be "the best view in Fiordland" but I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

I'm not 100% certain how they handle avalanche risk on Routeburn, I did not notice any alternate routes. It's obviously going to depend on what the snow conditions are like for that particular season. Mostly, they would expect to be able to open the track OK. We did Milford in November, there were a few side trails closed due to the risk and we had to use the emergency route down from McKinnon pass. I would guess that Milford is the more avalanche prone as there are snow fields above most of the track.

I hope you have a great hike!

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5. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Thanks, WanakaLakes and hikeandive. Another question: what's a reasonable window to lock in reservations at the huts? Would it be ok waiting until April or May to make November reservations, or is that a no-go? I know lots of trips in the US you often have to book your permits within 5 minutes of the time they become available, but I'd rather hold off until I have plane tickets taken care of if it's reasonable. Especially when you factor in the uncertainty in Libya affecting fuel prices; I remember how plane tickets shot through the roof in the summer 2008 orgy of oil speculation.

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6. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Of friends who have tramped both the Routeburn and Milford tracks, they all agree the Routeburn is their favourite.

Late Dec and Jan/Feb usually book up first for the huts. You can keep an eye on the availability page of the DOC site to check it isn't getting booked out for Nov.

I highly recommend you take an emergency locator beacon with you, especially if tramping alone. While the track seems well marked and impossible to miss, some inexperienced and even very experienced hikers have gone off trail to their peril. DOC have beacons to rent for just a few dollars a day and yes, they have saved lives.

safe travels :)

San Antonio, Texas
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7. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Nice. That definitely seems like a worthwhile rental.

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8. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Best to book as early as possible, although Routeburn doesn't fill up anywhere near as fast as Milford. The refund policy DOC runs is quite reasonable, so if you have to change or cancel you won't get penalised if they get plenty of notice. It is all clearly explained on the DOC website.

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9. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

We did the Routeburn early NOV2010 and got helicoptered over Harris Saddle for $75 each. Up to that point the walk was brilliant. The following escorted walk to McKenzie was an absolute pain, though. We were drilled to walk single file always15m apart from each other. No talking allowed! Then we had to stop every 1000m to regroup and wait. It was just plain silly. DOC should keep the path closed if they feel they need to instead of gagging the hikers.

Looks like the same situation applies in NOV2011:

…govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/…routeburn

My advice would be to stay away until the track is fully open. Don't let DOC spoil your experience.

Edited: 10:55 pm, October 30, 2011
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10. Re: Is the Routeburn Track usually doable in early November?

Welcome to the forum JJ :)

While you may think DOC's policy is a bit draconian, it has been formulated only to save lives, not to ruin your fun. Sadly each year people die on our tracks and the majority of deaths are those from overseas with no knowledge of local conditions, including avalanches.

I hope this small inconvenience didn't marr the rest of your visit :)