Climbing a Glacier in Franz Josef

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New Zealand really is a land of contrasts, and few places illustrate this better than the tiny mountain town of Franz Josef. I can imagine few places on earth where you can be standing atop a freezing cold glacier and yet still be within a few hundred metres of steamy temperate rain-forest, yet I did exactly that two days before Christmas. It’s an entirely surreal experience to be standing astride one of these ancient relics of the Ice Age and realizing just how few people can say they’ve done the same thing in their lifetime.

Fallon and I arrived in Franz Josef after an entirely unpleasant seven hour bus ride from Queenstown. With a ticket costing only $45 we probably shouldn’t have expected a great deal from Naked Buses, but the complete lack of suspension in the bus made an already winding trip into a particularly bumpy one as well. Suffice to say we arrived in very wet Franz Josef having managed to snatch no more than a few minutes sleep here and there. To compound our barrel of woes, Franz Josef had also been plunged into a black-out by the storm and so we were basically limited to sitting in our hostel and waiting for the power to come back on.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. For one, the Chateau Franz Josef has the distinction of being the nicest place we’ve stayed during our whistlestop tour of New Zealand. Large rooms with heaters, a comfortable sitting area, very cozy beds, free soup every night, and the overall look and feel of how you might imagine a medieval tavern might have felt. I’m new to backpacking and the hostel life, but it was nice to feel that sense of a shared living space rather than separate compartments for different traveling groups.

Our evening was made even better by the arrival of Jay and Jon to our room. We’d not had the best of luck with room-mates thus far (most had been either mute or just rude, with the exception of a pair of naked Scandinavians we shared our first room with), but we immediately hit it off with a fellow traveling couple. With no sign of electricity on the horizon and only a few places in town possessing generators or gas stoves, we made our way to the Monsoon Bar and were pleasantly surprised to find it well stocked with cool beer and gas cooked food. Fallon and I split a massive serve of fish and chips and washed it all down with an icy cold Tui beer. Not a bad welcome to the city.

By the time we’d done a bit of shopping and returned to the hostel the power had returned, so we settled in for an evening of Phase 10 and far too much snacking. After basically keeping our own company through Christchurch and Queenstown, it was good to have a bit of variety to our conversation. I’m also pleased to announce that Fallon has graciously offered me her Phase 10 deck, so it will continue to unite travelers across the world as I try to make not having a real job my career.

The following day dawn surprisingly bright and clear – a far cry from the wind and driving rain that had forced us to turn on both heaters in our room the previous night. The whole place had a smell of damp to it as the combined laundry of two couples struggled to dry on our makeshift drying racks and clotheslines. The power hadn’t been on long enough the previous night to allow us both a wash and a dry for our clothes.

As fate would have it both Fallon & I and Jon & Jay were scheduled for the full day glacier walk, but we had a slightly earlier starting time and ventured off on our own. The process of getting ready for the hike is a simple one: Sign a disclaimer, put on a pair of over-trousers, grab some boots and crampons, and take a jacket and some gloves if you deem it necessary. Before too long all 44 of our party were crammed into a bus and on our way out to the glacier. As we crossed swollen rivers and pushed through wet rainforest, I was beginning to wonder just how far we’d have to travel to see the glacier. I was expecting a winding trip up into snow-capped mountains, but the first fifteen minutes of walking after our stop wound through fern choked dirt tracks and over small bubbling streams. A fary cry from what I’d expected.

But soon we emerged from the forest and out onto a rock strewn river-bed. In the distance we could see the majesty of the Franz Josef Glacier, frozen in the process of winding its way down from the mountains and out toward the sea.

“How far do you think it is to the glacier?” the guides asked us. Various answers were fired back, but none were close. Despite appearing just a few hundred metres away – it was a full 2.2km trek along the river-bed before we’d feel the chill emanating from the glacier. We were divided up into four groups of eleven and began the walk toward the glacier, with our guides explaining that the glacier had once been where we stood but had retreated a good distance in the past one hundred years. We passed innumerable waterfalls and even forded a fast flowing stream on our way to the terminal face (the front of the glacier). The white waters of the Waiho River churn out from this point, and with the overnight rainfall it looked a particularly dangerous body of water.

This is the site of a man delirious with happiness.

Fallon and I had opted to join the slowest of the four groups and had to wait for the other three to ascend before it was our turn to tackle the moraine. Moraine is the unattached sediment and rock that builds up at the face of a glacier, and in this case it formed a sizable mountain that we weaved our way up with the help of our guides Justin and Alex. To be honest, this uphill slog up the rocks and sometimes loose soil was about the most testing portion of the entire day – but all told we would burn over 2000 calories each during our eight hours of activity.

Once atop the moraine it was time to attach our crampons and venture out onto the ice. With the sun hanging high overhead and shining brightly, we got a stunning view of the contrast between blue ice and the less solid white that is perhaps more visible from a distance. Those first few steps onto the glacier are akin to a child’s first, but soon we were moving along with confidence and taking in the stunning vista around us. Up ahead the glacier stretched up into the misty mountains, behind the Waiho River boiled through a rocky plain, and to our left and right waterfalls plumetted down sheer cliff faces past determined trees and shrubs holding on desperately.

Just awe inspiring really
Standing in the river valley with the majestic glacier behind me
Fallon and I posing in an ice tunnel

I’ll admit to actually being moved by the first few moments on the ice, and almost got teary eyed as I slid through a narrow alley of ice and admired the brilliant blue of it. I would have thought that six hours on the ice would have grown dull – but I was still just as fascinated with my final steps as I was with my first. Over the course of that six hours we squeezed through temporary tunnels, clambered up stairs cut into the ice by industrious guides, and even stopped for a picnic at one picturesque spot. It was an entirely otherworldly experience, and one I’ll be forever grateful for.

In all we spent eight hours out and about. Between the glacier and the moraine and the river valley below, we were thoroughly tired by the time we returned to our rooms and slumped onto our beds for a bit of rest time. Fallon and I would finish our time in Franz Josef with a delicious (and exhorbitant) dinner at the Speight’s Landing and a bit more Phase 10 with our newfound friends, who would be accompanying us to Nelson by some twist of lucky happenstance. But that’s another story.

This tunnel was a tight squeeze. I dubbed it my polar birth

A full day hike on the Franz Josef Glacier weighs in at $180 per person – and includes rental of all required equipment as well as transport to and from the glacier. You can also arrange a half day trek for $123, but with just two hours on the glacier instead of six – it’s really worth the extra $67 to just go the whole hog.

The guys and girls at Franz Josef Glacier Guides know their stuff and they seem to genuinely enjoy every hike up there. It’s an ever changing and unstable landscape, so no two treks will be the same. I for one would definitely give it another go if I make it back to NZ again.

All photos by Fallon Fehringer at Fallon’s Healthy Life

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