We walked in in up the Rees valley from the Muddy Creek car park following the obvious and fairly well marked "Rees- Dart Track" for about 5 km before crossing the river to avoid some very boggy ground encountered on the designated track (which is unfortunately shared by cattle in places resulting in bogs which are indescribably fouled with animal urine and faeces). Unfortunately, crossing the river early was pointless as the ground on the other (western) bank was no better.
We realised later that we should have stuck to to the east bank for six km before crossing at the wide braided section just upstream from twenty five mile hut. (This is even more important if the river is high as we discovered on the way home - the river will rise to impassable levels in most places after a day of heavy rain).
Looking out for two marker posts from the "normal" crossing place we moved over to a grassy bench of old moraine which is at the bottom of the trail leading up through the forest. An old Beech tree on top of the bench at the top of the third gully is marked with an orange triangular marker. Looking carefully (it's not obvious at first) straight in towards the forest edge for a second marker just twenty metres or so from the first, we found the start of a surprisingly well defined trail zig zagging up through the forest.
From there it was an easy hike up through the forest to around the 900metre level where we found a "T" intersection in the trail. The right hand trail goes a short distance into the forest to the old Earnslaw hut which is still quite habitable, although a little dark and dingy (the Hilton it ain't) but it has some great history.
Not being certain how to locate the Kea Basin Bivvies, we elected to spend the night in the old hut, especially as we located a clean water source under a bluff just a few dozen metres north of the hut.
Back to the "T" intersection the following morning we set out along the left hand trail and soon came to the bivvies just above the treeline. We needn't have worried - they are not hard to find at all. From the rock bivvies, the trail continues to be quite well marked and generally follows the right hand ridge above Kea Basin. Although the trail does become indistinct in places, minor variations are not important and if you keep an eye out for rock cairns you should be able to regain the trail without difficulty. In our case we easily gained the scree slope above the trail and, continuing to follow the cairns, arrived at the bottom right hand edge of the Birley Glacier.
Not being equipped with crampons, we were relieved to find the surface was soft and grainy ice which we could kick steps into without difficulty. Cutting a path diagonally upwards towards East peak for about an hour brought us to within sight of Wright Col which leads through to Esquilant Bivouac (Actually a Hut) which is the base for most summit climbs.
Regrettably in our case the weather turned dirty at this point and we were driven backwards out of the col by a horizontal blast of rain, sleet, chips of ice and even small rocks. The short distance to the hut was a great temptation to persist forward but would only have resulted in spending the next two days admiring a white-out from inside a hut window - not really gripping entertainment! An added worry was the freezing air level rapidly dropping from 4000 to 2000 metres as the storm grew. Having no crampons to retrace our route back down a soon to be hard frozen surface of the Birley Glacier we opted to retreat to the Kea Basin Bivvy's. A night of heavy rain followed which made the recrossing of the Rees river hazardous and only possible in the "correct" location described earlier. Had this not been possible, we would have been faced with a long hike upstream to the footbridge.
Slogging regretfully back to the car we ruefully had to accept that for now, Mt Earnslaw remained unfinished business.
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