I ended the year 2012 by climbing up a glacier. What better way to celebrate the midpoint of a trip I’ve dreamed of for years, than to challenge myself to go a little further? It was difficult, and it rained almost the whole time, and it was amazing.
There are many glaciers on the west coast of New Zealand, and two of them are easy to visit–Franz Josef and Fox. When Liz and I booked accommodation, we thought we’d check out the Franz Josef glacier, so we reserved a hostel in that town. But when we read up on the glaciers, we found that the walk to the base of the glacier at Fox is shorter, cheaper, and less steep. So we ended up staying in Franz Josef, and driving the short but treacherous road to Fox the next morning for our climb.
There’s only one game in town, Fox Glacier Guides. When we showed up at the shop at 8am, the place was buzzing. Climbers ordered breakfast, shrugged into raincoats, tugged on boots. Employees checked names off lists and called out instructions. Liz and I wandered around in a daze, picking up rain clothes and boots and crampons, signing waiver forms (“We don’t blame the company if we die on this sheet of ice”), and stuffing snacks and cameras into Liz’s backpack.
By the time we were on the bus, listening to our guide’s description of the glacier and surrounding rainforest in prehistoric times, I was geared up but nervous. The fitness level for this hike is moderate, which is a term you would use to describe me only if you were feeling particularly generous with its definition. Everyone in our group seemed to be fit and ready to go, including a 10-year-old boy clearly used to adventuring with his family. I didn’t want to hold the group back.
Of course, I was the slowest person in the group, but they only ever had to wait a few minutes while I caught up. Since our guide only gave us two short breaks to take photos and the rest of the time we had to squeeze them in as best we could on the walk, I think the group treated the delays as photo ops. (My photos aren’t so awesome on this post because I took the less good camera due to rain, and also the rain and brief stops made it hard to get good shots.)
It rained for almost the whole three hours we hiked, so while the coat and pants kept the rain off my arms and legs, my hands and face were completely soaked. Loui, our guide, pointed out that the rain washed away the dirt that accumulates on the glacier, so it looked cleaner and whiter than if it hadn’t rained. Also, the little streams that trickle down the mountain had turned into rivers, which were fun to straddle as we clomped over the ice. So although it wasn’t the most comfortable I’ve ever been, and my glasses were constantly fogged, it wasn’t too bad. Also, it rains more than it doesn’t, out there, so it’s not exactly surprising that it wasn’t a clear day.
Our path was fairly narrow for much of the way: down on a boardwalk along the river, then a strenuous climb up and over some boulders, a stop to put on crampons and grab some alpines, then up the ice on stairs that employees dug out just steps ahead of us. We mostly walked single file, and stopped occasionally to learn about the ancient geographical wonder we walked on.
My favorite thing to learn was how often and how quickly the ice moved. I mean, I know that glaciers are always on the move, but the shifts here are incredible. It advances and retreats at a rate of a meter a week, and it changes so quickly that from year to year the features of the glacier face can change. Loui pointed out a spot that until a year or two ago was the main trail, until the ice shifted and made it impassable.
It’s not just the ice that moves; avalanches and what Loui called “treevalanches” are possible too. We saw a rock the size of a mobile home that had roared down the hill just the year before, and a few sections of pine trees with bites taken out of them, their green needles spit out in the river below.
Now, unlike Mary Musgrove, I’m not a terribly good walker; I’m always tripping over pebbles and spraining my ankles (yes, both, multiple times). This lack of natural grace was another reason I was nervous about the walk, but my exaggerated caution up and over the boulders kept me safe, and I found walking on the ice more fun than scary. The way to walk in crampons is to stomp. None of this civilized heel-to-toe action we practice on normal surfaces; it’s far too easy to slip that way. Just go all Abominable Snowman on the ice and firmly plant your foot with each step. A little roaring and waving of arms may or may not be appreciated by your fellow tourists.
We stomped around the ice just behind men in red jackets, employees of Fox Glacier Guides who used ice picks to hack out uneven stairs for us to climb up and down again. What a job! Seeing them up there in their broad-brimmed hats, swinging their ice picks up in the air and back down in a broad arc, I was reminded of sepia daguerreotypes of men building the railroad through the Rockies. It’s still a wild and rugged world, in some places.
We were on the ice for what felt like far too short a time, briefly admiring the sheer cliff in the distance, the craggy rocks on either side, the swollen river below. It was raw and beautiful up there. As we started down again, slipping a little on the rain-slicked ice and scrambling through a crevasse, I felt absolutely thrilled.
I’d strapped metal spikes to my feet and teetered out onto a glacier. I’d walked three hours in the rain and could feel every muscle in my legs. I’d nudged myself out of my comfort zone, and enjoyed it. I’d seen a spectacular natural wonder up close, and marveled at its beauty. I’d sipped cold water from a river flowing down the face of a glacier, and I’d touched the smooth ice with my bare hand. I’ve done a lot of things on this trip that I’d never done before, but this was one of the biggest and the best. It was a very happy end to 2012.