“What has been the single greatest experience you’ve had while traveling?”
I get asked this question – or some form of it – more often than I care to count. I mean, how do you select just one of the many life altering experiences that you’re treated to on the road and elevate it above all the others?
I’ve listened to the Titanic theme being hummed in a cave lit only by the glow worms overhead in Waitomo, said goodbye to the then love of my life on the beaches of Fiji, zombie walked on two different continents, scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef, had a sniper take aim at my head while visiting the Demilitarized zone between South & North Korea, participated in the debauched orgy that is South Korea’s mud festival, and experienced the majestic beauty of the Karakorum Highway as it winds its way from China into Pakistan.
But when asked to select the experience that most stands out when I recollect my time on the road, I invariably return to my day climbing Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s south island.
Climbing Franz Josef Glacier
It was December 2010 and I was on my break-up tour through New Zealand and Fiji. Our travels so far had included a visit to beautiful Christchurch and being awestruck by Milford Sound, but I remember stepping onto the packed bus with no real enthusiasm for the day that lay ahead. Climbing the glacier had been Fallon’s pet project and – truth be told – I had fought tooth and nail to stay in the hostel and get my sleep on.
In my long and storied history of stubbornly refusing to do what is best for me, missing out on climbing Franz Josef Glacier would have been the one that took the prize. Thank God for persistent partners who know you better than you think.
But when we stepped off of the crowded bus and out into the steamy heat of subtropical jungle, I was a little dubious. Where was the glacier we were supposed to be climbing? I had expected a long and winding drive through snow capped peaks, yet we’d be on the road all of fifteen minutes and it had been mostly farmland and scrub.
Our fifteen minutes of walking wound through fern choked dirt tracks and over small bubbling streams. Sweat beaded first on my brow and then pretty much everywhere else. I mean, we were dressed for a day on a glacier! The weather called for t-shirts and shorts and I was rocking more layers than a parfait.
We soon emerged from the forest and out onto a rock strewn river-bed. The distant, churning waters of the river and the low whistle of the wind as it traversed the valley made for a haunting symphony. 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.
The forty four of us are quickly divided up into four groups of eleven and begin the walk toward Franz Josef glacier. Our guides explain that the glacier had once been where we stood but had retreated a good distance in the past one hundred years. Global warming? What’s that?
The uneven, rocky ground made mountain goats of us all as we picked our way across the lunar-like river bed and approached the glacier’s terminal face. This is the name given to the ‘front’ of a glacier. It is from underneath the terminal face that the milky white waters of the Waiho River spew forth and overnight rain had caused the river to swell to a raging torrent.
The steep valley walls were home to innumerable waterfalls of all shapes and sizes. Vegetation stained cliff-faces shed their tears as they looked down at we tiny ants preparing to clamber all too eagerly onto one of nature’s most unpredictable terrains.
Once our group had regathered themselves it was time to tackle the moraine: the clutter of broken rocks and sediment that collect at the front of a glacier as it bulls its way down from its lofty birthplace. A series of narrow switch-back paths lead us up the front of the mini mountain and, brutal truth, this climb was probably more tiring than anything else we did on the day. I doubt there was a one of us who wasn’t breathing a little heavy by the time we reached the top.
Until you’ve seen a glacier up close, you really don’t realise how beautiful they are. The ice, blue in some places and white elsewhere, catches the sunlight and throws it up in the air. It’s like the entire glacier wears the subtlest of halos. Little rivulets of water trickle along merrily while large, ominous crevasse in the ice are a stern reminder to pay attention as we walk.
The cold coming off of the thing was fantastic. Even on a hot day here in China, I can still feel the way the entire glacier seemed to breathe the icy cool.
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 were 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.
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.
There was a moment of absolute clarity at which point I stopped atop the glacier and realised that I was going to be okay. Much as I had felt clarity in the Yellow Sea years earlier when dealing with my first case of heart-break, I knew then atop that ancient and icy thing that I would be sad when my relationship with Fallon ended – but that I would emerge from the other side of it and be okay.
The world holds such beauty and such magnificence that it’s impossible for me to imagine staying sad for long over something as trivial as a broken heart. When I find myself slipping into old negative habits and chatting with the black dog, I think back to those moments of clarity and remind myself that I’ll know those again someday – with or without a girl at my side.
Make it Happen
If you’re planning your New Zealand itinerary and find yourself struggling to come up with things to do, I urge you to include the climb up Franz Josef Glacier. Spend a day on the ice and you’ll not only be amazed by its beauty, but also amazed by the sheer power of Mother Nature.
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.
It might be worth looking into winter sports insurance for your trek as well. The guys and girls at Franz Josef Glacier Guides know their stuff, but this is a slow moving mountain of ice dotted with crevasses. It’s not a playground.
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.