Down the West Coast of New Zealand along the Tasman Sea we arrive in the village of Franz Josef, the starting point for glacier walks on the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are also located at a spot greatly affected by the shifting of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, so these glaciers generally shift anywhere from one to five meters per day. The way the Southern Alps and mountains are formed in this area, coupled with forceful winds coming off the nearby Tasman Sea, also contribute to the formation of the glaciers, which, oddly enough, are within walking distance of lush, rainforest vegetation.
Get ready, get set, get up on that glacier
Professional guides lead the glacier walks. At the Franz Josef Glacier Guides check-in, you get a little drawstring knapsack, a raincoat, a pair of thick, woolly socks, and a pair of glacier boots (with ice grips) in your size. A group of 35 or so gets split up into three smaller groups at the base of the glacier: slow, slower and slowest. We each pull up a rock and switch into our woolly socks and glacier boots. The rain starts again so we don our generic blue raincoats with the big FJGG letters on the back.
A bus takes us within a few kilometers of the base of the Franz Josef Glacier. From there we begin our hike over glacial debris (lots of rocks) to get to the base. A glacier is basically formed when heavy snowfall occurs and the snowfall exceeds the summer melting. The snow turns into ice, and as more snow falls and builds up again the ice shifts down (advancing glacier), and more and more layers build up, ultimately forming thick blue ice.
Now when they say glacier “walks” I have this picture in mind of just getting up there on that glacier and walking around. WRONG. When we finally do reach the base, I look up at this monstrous mass of ice and snow and realize we’re gonna be climbing. I opt into the “slow” group, feeling reasonably fit and thinking, how hard could it be? Our guide soon takes off, hacking away at the ice steps, which have to be maintained every day with an ice axe. Each step requires a steep haul, starting with your boot (always stepping on the ball, not on the heel of your foot) about the height of your knee, so every step involves pushing from your butt and quads all the way down to your toes.
The going gets tough—and we’re just getting started
Some minutes later we are already looking far down below and behind us yet I realize we’ve barely started. The so-called walk is about three hours long. We pass little freezing pools of water and icy caves that we tunnel through. Soon we round a bend to see the entourage in front preparing to climb a ladder straight up a wall of ice from a ledge bordering a scary ravine.
“Don’t stand there mesmerized by what the person in front of you is doing,” says the guide. “As soon as one person goes, the next one goes.” He didn’t mention that it’s probably a very bad idea to look down as you’re placing each clunky boot on each metal rung, hands gripping tightly, eyes focused on the boots above you, wondering how you could’ve misinterpreted the word “walk.”
From time to time, the guide stops to allow everyone to catch up, encouraging us to stick close together and not get too far behind. The reason being, if you miss seeing where the person ahead placed their feet, you don’t know where to step for sure footing.
Somewhere along the way we pass a wooden box of ice poles (walking sticks with metal spikes on the bottom). We each grab one and keep going up. We are fully on the glacier now, and it is BIG, I mean massive, and we’re still going up, hopping across deep crevasses that drop down into nowhere, taking timid steps on ice shelves which barely fit my boot, shuffling left to right in a passage formed by two big ice walls, up and up and up, and all I can think about is the fact I’m gonna have to go down again.
By TedPNYC at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper., Public Domain
What goes up the glacier must come down
We’re all wearing shorts, by the way, recommended for less restrictive movement, and it’s not alarmingly cold, though with the rain and the disappearance of any afternoon sun, my skin begins to turn red and raw as cold droplets of rain drip down my legs. The climb takes us a tiny fraction of the way up the glacier, but looking down the glacier at the tiny figures making their way up from below, it’s unfathomable that there are still huge ridges further up. The glacier actually widens above and beyond our own view from here. On this trek, we’re only going as high as the first ridge and we soon catch up to the guide and rest of the group, just in time to take a quick look around before being led back down a parallel route.
If you’ve ever been on a horse, tripping and stumbling downhill, you know that feeling of powerlessness when any sudden lurch makes you feel as though you’re going to go tumbling down over his head. Only on the glacier, there’s no horse, just you and your equilibrium and a stick. More than a few times I lost track of the person’s steps in front of me and found myself standing helplessly, staring down at a maze of icy bumps and impressions. One set slants downward toward a crevasse. On the other side of it across from where I stand, the muddy tracks of the other hikers seem to come up out of nowhere. The girl in front of me is standing at a higher elevation and points out where she has just stepped. The man behind suggests another good option from the side where we are standing.
And down I go, having to deal with all those nasty steep steps again. Most every time my foot sets down I take a leap of faith, as it never feels quite like I’ve got my footing and balance. In the middle of one steep descent, I have just taken two big steps and am about to take the third, most daunting one, but my pole keeps sinking through soft snow and into air. As I make the step, I slip and fall rear first right down to the bottom, providing a fine example of another, less desirable way of getting down.
After a few more tricky descents, all I can think of is getting off the damn glacier, the end of which looks tauntingly near. If we were walking on a flat surface it’d take less than five minutes. But we’ve still got to ditch the poles in the box and climb backwards down that ladder on the edge next to the ravine.
Eventually, our drawstring knapsacks with our own shoes and dry socks are in sight at the bottom. Hopping down the last few steps, my feet hit solid ground again and I am thankful for the woodstove and hot shower waiting for me back at our chalet. At the finale of our glacier walk, we each receive a certificate of achievement. Though it’s just a piece of paper, it feels justly earned and well deserved--a reminder of a not-so-small victory.