Heli-Hiking the Glacier

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May 10th 2014
Published: July 5th 2014
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Franz Joseph is a tiny little town that’s sprung up to cater for tourists visiting the nearby glacier of the same name, though the ice is now retreating and according to most estimates will be gone within 30 years. Given that it’s been there for tens of thousands, this is a genuinely alarming thought. I had a moment of panicky leftwing guilt at the realisation that I’d just flown, and then driven, a very long way to see a glacier that I am now appalled is retreating due to global warming. I resolved that I was going change plans and do the regular glacier hike instead of the helicopter hike, because using an extravagantly fuel inefficient mode of transportation to go look at a disappearing glacier seems faintly ridiculous. Unfortunately it turned out that the bottom of the glacier is now too unstable to cross on foot, so all of the hiking options involve at least a short hop in the helicopter in order to gain access.

There are two options available, and I don’t think the glacier guides explain them very well before you book, so I will attempt to do so now. The Scenic Helihike, which involves most
time in the helicopter, is more for the middle aged American tourist who just wants to pose for photos on the ice, waddle about a bit and then get back in the chopper. The Ice Explorer is more of a hike which just happens to include a helicopter drop off. This is the fun one where you get to haul yourself up on ropes, squeeze into holes and actually cover a bit of distance. I booked the second option for my first full day in Franz, along with Ceri and Shawn-Ellis, my hot tub buddies from the night before.

As we were getting changed into our ice boots and jackets, one of the other hikers casually commented that since I’m an Emergency Department doctor I probably get to go in helicopters all the time, right? Wrong. I was once allowed to stand next to an air ambulance, so long as I promised not to touch anything. You can also see half of the back of my head in an episode of Helicopter Heroes, as I help unload a stretcher on my hospital’s helipad (and by helipad I mean the park across the road from the Emergency Department… we had
no helipad). That is the extent of my experience. It is however a long term goal of mine to do pre-hospital helicopter retrieval some day, so I was excited about the helicopter in a deeply nerdy way. We all piled in, far more of us than seemed physically sensible, and put on earphones so we could hear the pilot’s instructions above the white noise. As he was chatting to us the helicopter took off imperceptibly, so gently I didn’t even notice. Looking out of the window, it felt as if the earth was drifting away beneath us while we remained stationary. Just like when you’re on a train next to another train in a station, and you can’t work out whether it’s them or you that’s moving. Suddenly we swung around to head towards the mountains and I got that rollercoaster feeling, then it became apparent who was moving. It felt really different to any other kind of flying I’ve done before. Soon the glacier slithered into view between the mountains, and we settled gently on the ice.

I was one of the last out of the helicopter, and for some reason decided that unlike every single person ahead
of me I did not need to take the guide’s hand and would instead be making my own way down unassisted. Obviously I fell flat on my face. He looked unimpressed. “Everyone else let me help them, why you gotta be difficult?”. I wish I knew. We didn’t have our crampons strapped to our boots yet, so we skidded with as much co-ordination and dignity as we could muster (which was very little) safely out of the way of the landing zone. It’s pretty easy to get used to walking on ice. Each step is just a slightly exaggerated stomp, a satisfying crunch as your spikes bite in. Our guide went ahead, setting up ropes and hacking away with an ice-pick, spraying us with showers of chipped ice. They follow roughly the same route every day, but it changes constantly as structures melt and re-form. The ice creates a bizarre landscape of every conceivable configuration, from vast flattened expanses to sheer cliffs, abstract sculptures, deep fissures, smooth polished caves and rows of jagged spikes. It was basically a giant icey playpark of frozen obstacles for us to climb on, squeeze in and slide down, with the added thrill of being
potentially incredibly dangerous. We made our way past several terrifying, seemingly bottomless ice holes. Our guide briefed us about these before we started. They’re roughly the width of a person and can be 50m deep. The thought of falling headfirst into one of those bastards is profoundly terrifying on a very primeval level. Guaranteed icey horror-movie style doom. Everyone who dared to creep close and peer down into one shuddered instinctively.

So here’s a top tip for anyone considering doing this. If you book the first trip of the day (as we did) the sun will not be on the glacier until half way through your hike. This means it will be colder, and the ice loses some of its colour and sparkle in the shade. It probably makes more sense to go for a midday trip. Throughout the first half of our hike we watched the shadows changing size, waiting for the moment light would spill over the mountain tops and hit the glacier. When it finally happened the ice lit up blue, seemingly illuminated from within, like switching on a lightbulb buried deep inside. The best comparison I can think to make for the colour is “like
a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin”, which probably says more about me than it does about the glacier. Just as beautiful as the large scale vistas were the little details in the ice. Bubbles and frantic frozen insects. The tiny melted patterns and faces. About half way through we squeezed into a long canyon several stories high and trekked along the bottom for a while. The experience suddenly felt reminiscent of scuba diving, with the shafts of light and the towering blue. Where the sun fell on the ice, everything became covered in a thin film of waterfall. At one point the guide caught me licking the glacier. There’s no way I wasn’t going to lick the glacier. You would have licked it. Of course you would.

Our three hours on the ice passed incredibly quickly, but it was definitely worth the cost to experience a completely different environment to anything I’ve come across before. We had time to pose for a few silly photos while we were waiting for the heicopter to come and whisk us away back to the real world.

Later the same day I went off in search of a different view of the
glacier along with Thomas, a French photographer from the hostel. We parked his car as close as we were allowed, then wandered along the carefully marked path through the valley. This was punctuated at regular intervals with signs promising a swift and painful death to anyone who dares to deviate from the route, complete with cartoons of terrified stick men fleeing falls rocks and laminated newspaper stories about tragically crushed tourists. Usually when travelling I choose to interpret warning signs more as helpful suggestions than definitive orders. In this case, I decided they were not to be fucked with. We were nowhere near the unstable glacial ice, but the slopes of the mountains showed evidence of recent movement. The path was surrounded by massive boulders, casually scattered like marbles, hinting at the huge forces involved. This was quite visibly a dangerous landscape. We'd witnessed a minor landslide while out on the glacier that morning. A boulder bounced down the rock face like a dropped rubber ball, setting off secondary showers of what looked like pebbles but were in reality probably rocks the side of my head. Everything seemed to vibrate for a second, and we all paused to see what
would happen next. The whole landscape gave off the impression of being very finely balanced, poised, a line of dominoes or a house of cards. Eventually we reached the end of the path. We were still a long way from the ice, but ropes and hysterical warning signs prevented us approaching any closer. Looking at the glacier from this angle was strange, knowing each little scar and wrinkle on it's surface was a crevasse deep and wide enough for a line of people to walk through. A dirty river burst out of the terminal face, spanned by a grand arching bridge of ice. The water looked like filthy dishwater mixed with glitter. Huge blue ice cubes the size of cars were crumbling from the glacier somewhere deep inside, tumbling down the river, finding temporary resting places and then moving on.

After we'd had enough glacier viewing we went for a walk around beautiful Lake Matheson, to try and catch the reflection of the sunset in the water. This looked amazing on Thomas' fancy professional camera, but frustratingly average on mine. Strolling through the leafy green, almost rainforest like woodland felt bizarre after spending all day on the ice. As
I was playing with my camera, I heard something jump out of the water in the bushes just beside me. Having spent 6 months of the year in East Africa and the rest in Australia, I assumed it could only be an alligator or possibly hippopotamus, so my natural response was obviously to jump up a set of wooden steps and flee in terror.

It was a duck.

A really loud, scary sounding duck.

The evening was spent with the Ceri and Shawn-Ellis, smuggling wine into the hot pools at the beautiful outdoor spa. Entry was a freebie as part of our glacier hike ticket so I was fully expecting it to be rubbish, but it was gorgeous, surrounded by lush jungly gardens. If you go here go at night, when it's softly lit and almost completely deserted. Plus obviously it’s easier to smuggle wine in the dark.

Additional photos below
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5th July 2014

Yep..I wouldve licked the glacier too.
Sometimes, being difficult is absolutely the best course of action..often not, but sometimes. I found the road signs in NZ also to be pretty high on the not a guide but NTBF with list. Keep the blogs coming :)
6th July 2014

excellent blog
Excellent , detailed blog with extraordinary pictures.
7th July 2014

These are the moments in life when you have to smile to yourself and pinch yourself because you were wise enough to make the decision to travel! What a life. What an experience. Life is good and we are eager to read more of your blogs.

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