Big Question Marks

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Icing on our New Zealand Cake: Franz Josef Glacier

[Oct 12 & 13, 3011] When we booked ourselves in for a full-day hike up Franz Josef Glacier, we had a good feeling it would be a pretty exciting day. We actually extended our trip for it, as it sounded like an absolute must-do, but still we cursed the seemingly endless five-hour drive from Queenstown, through low clouds and driving rain (the west coast of the South Island is notoriously rainy, which is actually how the glaciers continue to replenish themselves), along dangerous winding roads and mountain passes. We arrived at Franz Josef Village, a tiny little settlement no more than two streets wide and two streets long, on the rainy evening of October 12, ate a quick dinner in our hostel's kitchen, and went to bed early, hoping the next day would turn out a little nicer.

Lucky for us, it was blue skies over Franz Josef Village the next morning. We headed over to Franz Josef Glacier Guides for our guided hike at 9:15am and they bundled us up in a lot of wintry waterproof gear that seemed pretty unnecessary on this sunny and springlike morning. Goretex jacket, rain paints, well-loved boots (Dayle opted for her own hiking boots after sticking a foot in and feeling a 'squish'), crampons, and a fanny pack to carry them in. Apparently the weather changes fast, and the guides said it would likely rain by the afternoon. The whole operation had the air of going out on a scuba dive. Soon we were on a converted school bus (that smelled like wet winter boots) with our guides George and Jess to take us the short drive to the base of the valley, where we would start the trek in the rainforest. Now, normally we don't take the organized tour route, but in this case we decided that it was better to see the glacier with someone who understands the ice, and to help us get high up into all that pretty blue ice that there are in fact, no trails to, and is off-limits to independent hikers. And were we ever glad, it turned out, to be with someone who knew what they were doing up on the mountain!

The group split into two once we reached the flat, rocky floor of the valley, and we chose to join "faster" group with George, an impish bearded Kiwi guy who'd been leading hikes up the ice for four years already and said "Sweet as!" a lot (a unique Kiwi expression translating to "Awesome!"). George had a plan to dash with us up the glacier to pass the group that had embarked at 8:15am, and then to head up as high as we could. Our group of about 11 twenty and thirty-somethings were keen to make the most of our day, and George made sure we worked for it, while teaching us all about the geology and weather conditions that created such a crazy piece of landscape. First came the steep zigzagging climb up atop layers of loose rock covering the glacier ice, and it was nearly an hour before we reached the start of the bare ice. A quick lesson on how to put on our crampons -- spiked metal "shoes" that reminded me of mini bear traps -- over our boots, and another lesson on how to walk with crampons on-- "like John Wayne", with feet slightly apart, so as not to tangle oneself up, and with bent knees for stability-- and we were off. It was surprisingly warm under the sun, and soon we were carrying more clothing layers than we were wearing. The clouds started to roll in eventually from the ocean, as our guides predicted, and by the time we stopped for lunch, it had gotten quite chilly and overcast.

John Wayne!
We climbing through the light rain that rolled off our Goretex jackets and rain pants, and would look down every so often and realize how much distance we'd covered. You lose total perspective on distance while climbing glaciers (or mountains), and George would point out waterfalls falling down the cliffs beside us that were hundreds of metres high (perhaps thousands?). There was a snowy part we could see at the top of the glacier that we were positive we'd reach in no time at all, but apparently it was too far for any climber to reach in a day. The ice formations we walked through and over were ever-changing and incredible, and no matter how tired our legs got, we all were happy to keep going.

Misty glacier
George and a cool ice tunnel
Finally, around 3pm, it was time to turn around and start the trek back down. George radioed back and forth with his fellow guides scattered around the glacier to try and figure out the best way down, and we were just getting ready to set off when we heard a rumbling and a huge crash.... we looked to our right (in the direction of the valley) and watched as a MASSIVE chunk of rock/dirt/trees/grass detached itself from the cliff face around Roberts Point and fell into the valley below-- the place where we were meant to trek down through to get back to Franz Josef Village.

Now, all day, there had been "little" rocks breaking off and falling down the cliffside around Roberts Point (little probably being the size of a car, but looking much, much smaller in the immense landscape) and while us hikers were like "Whoa! That's crazy!" George would respond, "Come on, that's not very impressive," and crack a joke (perhaps not really joking) that the mountain could do much better than that.

A little dash of excitement
So how else does a glacier guide and his merry band of hikers respond? Well, a round of high fives was in order. There we all were, high-fiving and "whoa"-ing and cheering when ANOTHER chunk of the mountain, this time even bigger, falls off in what felt like slow motion, and the valley below is a giant dust cloud that's going nowhere. And that's when George says, "I think we might have to call a helicopter..."


And that was when the group went from high-fiving to air guitaring and jumping up and down and shrieking, and various other gestures of joy. I don't know if the actual danger of the situation (which may have been over anyway) actually ever registered with any of us, for the excitement of getting a free helicopter ride far overshadowed any kind of fear one could possibly have.

So while George and Jess got out their ice picks and carved a big flat landing pad on the ice, there wasn't much we could do, except try and not fall over, as we'd been told to remove our crampons and suddenly it was incredibly hard to stand up (especially while jumping around in excitement). We were divided up into groups of six, given some instructions for boarding, and waited until a tiny speck hovered up out of nowhere (remember that scene in Cliffhanger? Yup.) and landed on the glacier. The first group was off and a moment later, another helicopter appeared to take our group.... and with so much excitement for the way-too-short ride down (which I remember as being really loud, and a really strange feeling in flight) I probably didn't take it in as much as I would've liked to. But we landed, safe and sound, with tired legs (but not as exhausted as if we had to walk all the way back down!) and with stories to tell in the sunshine that had re-emerged. That night we'd meet other people from our group in town, or in the Glacier Hot Pools (a lovely man-made maze of pools where you can sit in steaming water under lush rainforest ferns) and we'd try again and again to process what an insane day it was. [We learned later on that the rocks loosen up in the springtime melt, but no group had been airlifted out for at least three years or more, that being when there was a flash flood]



***


From there, our trip went on for a few more days, driving back to Queenstown at warp speed, in order to get the rental car back in time; a few nights at a very comfy hotel with a mountain/lakeview balcony and a "pillow menu" (and it was a steal on Wotif.com); more rugby on TV; more awesome food; and gave paragliding a try.... after our original outing was cancelled due to winds the Tuesday before, we just had to wait out a brief snow flurry before we could run off a cliff and float into the valley near Queenstown -- something that was at least as much fun (if not more?) as a helicopter ride, and lasted a lot longer in the open air. 

If you've read all of these blogs about our New Zealand adventures, you'll probably start to get what we're really trying to say: it's an amazing place. So get over there, post haste, before the rest of the world figures that out. And if you're still needing a little more inspiration, feel free to check out our many photos and videos. Sweet as!
***

6 comments:

Winda Tiodang said...

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Winda Tiodang said...

i am a new fashion blogger from indonesia living in singapore :) i really like your blog. i will really appreciate & it will be an honor to have u as my blog member.

and of course i will folback!:D also, u can mention me anytime on twitter @tiodang if you want me to check out your latest post & leave a comment ^^ ,please list me on twitter, so i will know u're my follower!! ;)

i've just recommend your post to google!u can check it! that's what u got if you keep in touch with my blog too!! hope u will do the same ^^
(u can add me on facebook and contact me at : cheeringwinda@yahoo.com)

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys
Thanks for the blog on Franz Josef Glacier - you were certainly up there on an interesting day. Amazing that you got to see the rock fall, which (on this scale) is pretty unusual.
Great to get a free heli ride too - this has to be one of the most amazing features to fly over!
Safe travels
Kerry, Franz Josef Glacier Guides

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