[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.
|George and a cool ice tunnel|
|A little dash of excitement|
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.