Hiking Franz Josef Glacier
01.12.2007 - 03.12.2007 10 °C
Who’d have thought a lump of ice could immediately launch itself into our Top Five Experiences of the entire trip, but our visit to Franz Josef Glacier on Monday easily qualified. We had arrived in the Park late on Saturday evening and – with the mountains completely socked in with low cloud – decided to postpone our hike onto the glacier pending better weather. It was a risky strategy: we had to leave no later than mid-afternoon on Monday to get back to Christchurch in time for our flight onto Australia. Would the notoriously unpredictable west coast weather – that already upset our Milford Sound visit – give us a break and allow us to walk on the glacier?
On Sunday, we killed the hours by catching up on blog entries, and then hiking for an hour or so from Franz Josef to the face of the glacier. It’s a busy trail that ultimately takes you down a kilometre long valley carved by the glacier in previous phases (as recently as 1867, the glacier filled much of the valley!). But the reason that Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glacier are special – in addition to their relative accessibility – is that they are two of only three glaciers in the world that descend into rainforest. Yup, I said rainforest.
Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glaciers descent into dense, Indiana-Jones type rainforests!
The flat valley floor in front of the advancing glacier tricks the eye in terms of scale, and it’s not until you get to the other end of the valley that the height of the ice-mass becomes apparent. With ice and rock falls a real risk, visitors are discouraged from getting too close, with enter-at-your-own-peril type signs and rope barriers positioned several hundred metres from the front of the glacier. But – fearing the weather wouldn’t allow us an up-close-and-personal, we couldn’t resist venturing in as groups of guided hikers made their way down the melting ice-face using stairs custom-hacked by tanned, shorts-clad young men.
Those coloured ants in the middle of the first picture are people!
Even from the floor of the valley, the glacier is an impressive beast. Rocks in the base of the glacier act as deadly teeth and, strengthened by the immense pressure of ice above, carve valleys, leaving striations in rocks and ripping trees from their roots. It’s a living, breathing machine that demands respect and I felt tiny in its massive presence. Getting onto the ice was a nice-to-do until we saw it up close. At that point, it became an essential experience, and we knew that we’d both be devastated if we didn’t get lucky on our final morning in town.
The suspense was so great that I actually had trouble sleeping on Sunday night. Only Lloyd can tell you how grumpy I was when daylight revealed another dark day, with low cloud once again graying out the valleys. We were becoming expert as reading the conditions appropriate for a helicopter landing on the ice, and our fears were confirmed when we learned that the first helicopter trips of the day had been cancelled.
We reported for the noon flight nonetheless. And were thrilled when staff started to ready us for the hike. It looked like we’d get up on the glacier after all! Booted up, we awaited our final briefing just a few metres from the helipad, with the choppers’ blades screaming. The sky was still white with dense cloud, but – wait – was that a sliver of blue I just saw? I put it down to wishful thinking. Strapped into the helicopter, cars and trees shrunk until they looked like mere toys as we were whisked the few miles towards the glacier.
And then it happened.
Before our eyes, the sky was clearing. Not just slivers of blue, but vast, lush, delicious waves of the richest blue imaginable. My eyes could scarcely comprehend the beauty around me. You could have offered me a million dollars to stop smiling and I wouldn’t have been able to stop. I even forgot to get motion-sick on the helicopter!
Below us, the glacier paraded its white-blue ruffles; a giant waterfall of cracked ice. We would not land on the very top where the ice is moving the most quickly at up to 6 metres per day. As the ice reaches the ridge and starts its journey down into the valley, it is clearly at its most unstable and that is strictly the domain of experienced ice climbers. And so our helicopter followed the glacier’s journey down towards the valley, and prepared to land. Below us, a seemingly fly-sized helicopter paused on the ice to drop the other half of our group, allowing a humbling scale perspective of the monster looming beneath.
Spot the landing helicopter....
The clear day was transformed into a mild snow storm as the helicopter left us on the ice. Above us, clear blue sky. Behind us, thick grey clouds disguised the valley below. Though relatively low in terms of elevation, it felt like we were on top of the world! Once fitted with crampons, the ice was remarkably easy to walk on and – under the watchful eye of our guide – we were allowed to clamber about, posing with our ice picks and pretending we were real ice mountaineers.
Lloyd and I simply couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we managed to get on the ice, but for the first time in days the sky had cleared as if on cue for our arrival. For just over an hour, we explored our tiny piece of Franz Josef, from small ice caves and crevasses to crystal clear glacial ponds and streams formed by the melting beast. Towards the floor of the valley, it’s actually pretty warm – certainly well above freezing – so the advancing ice needs to outpace the inevitable melting at the front end. It’s a battle the glacier is winning right now, and Franz Josef has been advancing for the last decade or so.
Click above for our Glacier Video Diary!
As we climbed up the glacier, it was clear that the break in the weather was going to be little more than temporary. Thick cloud was closing in around us, and – after about an hour and a half - our hike was abruptly cancelled for safety reasons: if the cloud closed in the helicopter landing area then we could very well be stranded on the ice. Our guide skillfully rushed us back to the makeshift helipad formed by a stone circle on the ice, and we returned without incident to Franz Josef Village.
"Did anyone see where our blue sky went?"
We both longed to stay on the glacier, but we couldn’t be disappointed with the experience at all. For me at least, it was one of the most poignant moments of the entire trip, overwhelmed as I was by the glacier’s beauty, power and longevity. Landscapes are shaped by so many different forces, but here was one that I could touch and really feel. I was truly humbled.
Now, it was my first glacier and I am sure there are many at least as impressive as Franz Josef out there (and you can bet Alaska will make a strong appearance in my next ‘Places to Visit’ list), but if you have the opportunity to experience Franz Josef the way we did – by helicopter and a walk on the ice (aka ‘Heli-Hike) – then just do it. It’s pricey, so be prepared for that. But don’t even contemplate missing it.
We left Franz Josef just elated from our Heli-Hike which was probably a good thing as we (well, technically, Lloyd) had another long drive ahead of us. We were about six hours from Christchurch, and we wanted to get at least halfway there before finding a place to overnight.