After my two-day stint in Greymouth, the Magic Bus transported me to Franz Josef, a quaint little town in the middle of a mountainous rainforest. The village itself would be unremarkable and, likely, unworthy of a stop save for its proximity to a huge glacier just a few kilometers away which shares the same name.
Back in Greymouth, I’d booked a full-day glacier hike because…. Well… why not? It sounded pretty cool, and since I’d hiked a volcano in Guatemala earlier this year, I figured I might as well balance it out with a glacier trek.
After getting checked into a hostel, I found my way to the Franz-Josef Glacier Guides office, which is just around the corner – well, honestly, everything is around the corner in Franz Josef. The town is only about 600 souls strong, so you’d pretty much have to try to get lost.
My hike wasn’t scheduled until the next day, but I wanted to make sure of a couple things. First, that my reservation indeed did make it through. You never know with some of these folks. Second, I wanted to see if they had boots and crampons big enough for my sasquatch-esqe feet. Much to my surprise, an affirmative was given to both inquiries by a pleasant girl behind the front desk - who happens to be the Irish equivalent of a good friend of mine’s wife. Andrea, if you want to find your Irish twin, she’s in New Zealand.
The next day, I got up relatively early (6:30) and checked in for my hike. After waiting in a bit of a queue, I was pleased to find that the Irish-Andrea actually had my boots and crampons set aside behind the counter. Good service, that.
I followed the procession and received the rest of my gear – a thin stocking hat and some wool mittens. Who uses mittens? Especially on a freakin’ glacier hike? Anyway, I opted out of the over-trousers, as they were certainly not going to fit, and they looked ridiculous. I also declined the waterproof jacket, figuring my trusty North Face jacket would be just dandy.
53 fellow adventurers headed out to an old flat-faced red bus and piled in, one on top of the other. Future applicants to the Darwin Awards were rebuked by our driver for putting their super-sharp heavy metal crampons in the loose, open cargo racks above their heads. I think she should have let them be and seen what would have happened.
Once a couple more red-jacketed guides boarded our already overloaded bus, our driver hit the gas. I was near the front of the bus and, unfortunately, close enough to hear the banter between our two “expert” guides. The driver, a late-20’s something gal with long-ish brown hair in a ponytail and sunglasses too big for her face was yapping with a younger Canadian-turned-Kiwi dude with a tanned face. They were firing around thinly-veiled condescension about the tourists on the bus, their bosses, other guides, etc. Your typical puffed-up a-holes who have done this trip a few too many times and forget why they’re out here.
Once we made it to the car park and got out of the bus, we walked along a worn trail leading through some beautiful vegetation, and emerged onto a very wide, stony riverbed with a small but fast stream running through the middle. To our right, about two kilometers away stood a dark, stony wall of mountains parted down the middle by a thick, white tongue of ice. It was stunning. A grey ceiling was forming above us, but you could still see nearly to top – a bright white field pouring a curving stream down towards us. As it descended, the white dulled to grey and ended in a dark, dirty face which looked like rock itself.
After a few under-the-breath condescending remarks about people posing for pictures, our “experts” gathered us together. They worked to break 53 of us in to five groups, which turned out to be a complete cluster. In the end, my group consisted of two guys and two girls from Japan, three young-ish Dutch guys, two mildly attractive German girls, and one gal from Canada. Fairly diverse for a glacier hike in New Zealand I think.
About 20 to 30 minutes later, we sat down in front of the wall of dirty ice to put on our crampons. If you’ve never had them on before (like me), it’s quite the experience. You’re basically strapping two inches of sharp metal to the bottom of your feet. It’s pretty awkward to walk at first – especially over loose stones and rock. And, as an obvious side-effect, it made me another two inches tall, which was great.
It was at this point that our groups all split off from one another. There’s plenty of space on the glacier, and it made the going a lot easier. Fortunately, the two a-hole “experts” took two other groups, and left us with a Kiwi-guy named Matt. Aside from the kick-ass name, he was a pretty cool guy. He was younger – probably in his early twenties, but knowledgeable about pretty much everything related to the glacier – and a hell of a lot more sociable and honest than his counterparts.
We started our ascent – using stairs cut into the ice by “slaves” who get out to the glacier early in the morning to use pick-axes to cut steps. As you might be thinking, the answer is yes – that job would suck. Every so often we’d reach a point where some poor dude or gal was wailing away with a pick axe on some ice – carving out little steps about a foot high and a foot across. And, they have to stay out there all day, retracing their steps over and over. Combined with tourist traffic, there’s just enough sun and warmth to melt the ice to a point where streams of water trickle down and erode the steps.
It was a pretty strange sensation to be climbing a mountain of ice. It felt as solid as rock – our guide said it’s ten times harder than the ice you’d find in your freezer. Early on, the ice even looked like rock. All the dirt and rocks it has pushed along cling to the face, making it grey and drab. Once you get high enough though, you’re kicking your spikes into sparkling white – which is really cool.
While the ice itself was quite the sight, the views of the mountains on either side of us were breathtaking. Long, thin waterfalls streamed down from the rock walls – one set Matt told us was almost 200 meters high.
Unfortunately those views weren’t meant to last, as it wasn’t a particularly nice day; the clouds had now descended even lower, boxing us in. An annoying spit of rain pestered us all afternoon. But as this is one of only three glaciers in the world that descend into a rainforest, it’s to be expected.
Besides, the ice was the real focus. The colors along the way were fantastic – deep blacks, brilliant whites, turquoise blues, slate grays… At times it seemed we were walking through corridors of diamonds. It was amazing.
A couple hours in, we reached a relatively flat point where we stopped for a bit of a rest and to eat lunch, consisting of a quick couple of granola bars and some water.
We saddled up again, and after another 50-75 meters or so, we came to a noticeable “bending” point in the glacier. Matt said to imagine a candy bar – like a snickers or something – and then imagine it slowly bending – the cracks and striations that appear in the surface of the chocolate are the same as what we are going through now. And, you could see it – great crevasses opened up before us, revealing towering walls of beautiful blue ice.
It was at this point where the scale of the glacier came to bear. I could see a couple of groups in front of us – ones that must have started a few hours earlier than us – they looked like black specks on the ocean of ice. And to think that this is the narrow part of the ice. Matt informed us that the neve, the start of the glacier where the real snowfall occurs and the real pressure is applied, is a snowfield over 36 kilometers square.
The next few hours were spent on another world. Blue walls extending 20 feet over our heads. Huge blocks of crystal clear ice with frozen air bubbles trapped inside. Streams of water rushing past us in self-made canals which eventually dropped into deep holes leading to the bottom of the glacier.
We zig-zagged through canyons of ice, ascending on makeshift stairs at certain points, and on our hands and knees at others. We ended up hooking up with another of our groups, and took turns leading each other. Our guides did a good job of finding some sweet formations – narrow chasms of blue ice requiring us to squeeze through sideways. Low tunnels which had us on our bellies. Narrow walkways that had us hugging the ice. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before. We all got very wet – but it was worth it.
At around 4:00 we started our descent, which was obviously a hell of a lot faster than the way up. But, we took a different route, which exposed us to another side of the ice. Fortunately the rain had lifted a bit, and views of the mountains came back to us. We all took a look back down the glacier and onto the river bed and valley in front of us. Amazing to think this glacier once filled this entire space – and apparently hundreds of years ago, reached all the way to the ocean, a little over 30 Kilometers away.
Once at the bottom, we all unwound the crampons and hiked back to the bus. It was actually really nice to be walking on the soles of my feet again. I took one last look at the huge white beast before heading back into the forest. I’d always wondered what it would have been like to walk on those glaciers we saw in Antarctica. Now I know.