#72 Walk on a Glacier: Part 2

This bucket list item was completed on 2nd January 2018 in Franz Josef, New Zealand.

In my previous post, #72 Walk on a Glacier: Part 1, I told the stories of the two attempts that preceded my third, and final, attempt at walking on a glacier. This item took me nearly four and a half years to complete it but, on 2nd January 2018, I was successful.

Attempt #3

In December 2017, my mum came to visit me in New Zealand and I wanted to take her to the West Coast. She and my dad had travelled the South Island in 2015 but skipped the West Coast due to bad weather. I thought this was a good chance to get her to the West Coast and, with any luck, perhaps we would be able to go on the Franz Josef Glacier together.

We travelled down the east coast of the South Island, through Wanaka and then arrived at our accommodation in the town of Fox Glacier on the West Coast on 1st January 2018. Accommodation on the West Coast during the holidays is scarce and we were not able to find anything in Franz Josef but Fox Glacier is only 30 minutes down the road so it was manageable. We checked in at a nice holiday park, which would be our home base for the next two nights.

glacier

We arrived in mid-afternoon and there were some low lying clouds and a general feeling of gloomy weather. After checking in at the holiday park, I called the tour company and asked them how their tours operated that day. The lady informed me that the morning tours were completed before the weather changed but the afternoon tours were cancelled. Considering we had an afternoon tour booked for the following day I was not convinced we were in the clear.

glacier

As we unpacked our bags the weather slowly began to clear and brought hope that the worst had passed and we were in for good weather the following day. The evening filled us with hope as the sun went down, illuminating the scattered clouds in a pink and orange hue. This was followed by a full moon rising over the hills in a night sky that was almost free from clouds. We sat out on the chairs outside our cabin until late in the evening, admiring the full moon and spotting constellations, all the while wondering what we were in for in the morning.

We woke the next day only to find that the coast was covered in an ominous grey cloud, which did not look conducive for Heli tours. Our tour was not until mid-day so we decided to check out Lake Matheson after breakfast. The lake is quite picturesque as it has Mount Tasman and Mount Cook as the backdrop. During our walk around the edge of the lake, the clouds began to clear and blue skies emerged. Eventually we were able to see the peak of Mount Cook with blue skies in the background. I figured this meant we were in the clear for our Heli hike.

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Lake Matheson
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Mount Cook poking out of the clouds

Upon checking in with our tour company, Franz Josef Glacier Guides, they informed us that the weather was good but was looking changeable. We were kitted out with waterproof pants, a waterproof jacket, boots and crampons for our adventure. After the whole team was dressed in matching blue jackets, with black pants, we were ushered to the helipad. They piled six of us into a helicopter and flew us up to their landing point, part way up the glacier. For efficiency, as soon as we were helped out of the helicopter and onto the glacier, the morning tour was helped onto the helicopter to return to home base.

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Morning crew leaving

Once we stepped onto the glacier, we were introduced to our guide, Lawrence (AKA Griz – short for Grizzly Bear). He was a true kiwi and had a big bushy beard, hence the nickname. Griz helped us put on our crampons and led the way as we moved through the many crevasses on the glacier. He was very knowledgeable and explained the two types of crevasses on the glacier: transverse (perpendicular to the length of the glacier) and longitudinal (parallel to the length of the glacier).

glacier
glacier
Walking through a transverse crevasse
glacier
glacier

As we continued on our tour, Griz continued to fill us with more information regarding the glacier. When I go on adventures tours it is typically because I want to experience the particular adventure, such as walking on a glacier. However, over the years I have noticed that the tour guide influences how much I enjoy the tour. If they can offer a thorough level of knowledge, beyond what I thought I was going to be offered, it makes the trip much more enjoyable for me. Well, Griz did just that.

He went into detail regarding the original Maori name, Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (The Tears of Hine Hukatere), and told the story of its origins. Also, when the English settled in New Zealand, they named it the Victoria Glacier. However, due to the speedy paperwork of a German explorer, Julius Von Haast, the glacier was named after Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.

glacier
glacier

For any of you budding glaciologist, this trip is for you! Griz continued to describe the features that are found on the glacier such as moulins (vertical shafts in the glacier, into which water flows), seracs (ice columns formed when crevasses intersect) and three different types of moraines (a build-up of debris pushed by the glacier). Although glaciers, are not a particular interest of mine, the information was quite fascinating.

After about 30 minutes into our tour, Griz pointed at the clouds and told us that there was potential for things to pack in and if they did we would have to take fast action. It was taken as one of those “cross that bridge when we get there” statements.

At one point he led us to a small trickle of water that was cutting its way through the vast ice sheet. The water flowed over blue ice and fell down a small drop, forming a miniature waterfall. Griz encouraged us to cup it in our hands and have a drink. He mentioned that the water was so pure that it didn’t have the minerals or nutrients needed by our bodies. For someone like him, who spent every day on the glacier, it was important that he only had a small amount each day. For me though, it was no problem, so I had a few decent sips. It honestly tasted incredibly pure and was extremely cold. Delicious.

glacier
glacier
glacier
glacier

We continued up the glacier and stopped at a few formations and good photo opportunities. One stop was just below the highest point that are tour was set to take us. As we climbed up the stairs, to the highest point, we were about to stop at another photo spot when “the big boss” came over the radio and told Griz they had made the call to evacuate the glacier as bad weather was moving in fast. At this point there were nine tour groups on the glacier, which totaled more than 100 people.

As Griz had warned us, it was time to take fast action. There were two other guides without a tour group that took off ahead of us and began to cut steps along our escape route. This ensured that we could continue walking without waiting for Griz to cut them for us. The two guides moved quickly and cleared a path for us and the eight other groups behind us.

The slow, leisurely pace with intermittent photo stops that we had experienced on the way up was done. We were now in evacuation mode and there was no time for photo stops.

Griz led the group and I ended up in the back with my mum. He would usually stop at the end of blind sections to make sure everyone made it through but my vantage point at the back allowed me to see the people he could not. As we went through blind sections I began to give him a thumbs up, indicating that I could see the rest of the group and all was well. After a couple of sections he began to trust me and resorted to a quick turn of the head to look for my signal, which allowed us to maintain a steady pace.

Walking downhill in crampons is quite a bit different from walking in regular hiking boots. You lead with a flat foot instead of driving your heel into the ground. This also made the evacuation a bit more interesting. We hurried down the glacier and wound our way through the crevasses, eventually reaching the landing area shortly after the helicopter had touched down. By this time the weather was closing in quickly and the pilots we flying on the borderline of the legal cloud limits.

When we were all safely packed into the helicopter, the pilot gained a few meters of elevation before aiming the nose of the helicopter down the glacier. He flew quickly as we buzzed over the large crevasses, heading back toward the Franz Josef Township. The glacier disappeared below us and the river bed came into sight. The pilot hooked a left turn and began to fly in low, toward one side of the river bed.

The evacuation protocol involved dropping all passengers on the river bed, near the tourist lookout, as it was a shorter helicopter trip. Once all passengers were off the glacier, they were shuttled back to town.

As we landed on the river bed, we were usher over to the bank near the tree line. In our case, after six helicopter loads of passengers were dropped off, we were guided through the bush and back out to the car park. A big red bus was waiting to pick us up and take us back to town.

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Landing on the river bed
glacier
glacier
Weather packing in over the glacier
glacier
Helicopter returning for the other groups

After four and half years, and three attempts, I had finally completed #72. The feeling of finally completing this item was great and I think the fact that it took me so long to complete, made it even more worthwhile in the end. I guess I really feel like I worked hard to make this one happen. There are many others on the list that will be difficult to achieve and I imagine the harder they are, the more I will enjoy them.

Have you walked on a glacier before? Have you ever had a goal that has taken you several years to complete? Let me know in the comments below.

Make sure to check back for my next post, which will discuss the lesson learned by completing this item. Want to be notified when new blog posts are uploaded? Subscribe below.

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