Just Walk in My Boots – Glacier Hiking on Franz Josef
By Hayden Swift
Expectation was high as the bus bounced along the unsealed pot-holed road for all of ten minutes, it’s occupants a range of nationalities; some Scottish lassies, an Aussie couple, some English travellers wearing soccer jerseys, two Canadians and a few Americans wondering what they had got themselves into.
The day was overcast, turning gossamer-grey, and the air had a whiff of snow in it. Our guide had proudly proclaimed the night before that it hardly ever snowed at this time of year on the glacier – yeah right, we thought. Franz Josef Glacier is considered the most spectacular commercially-guided glacier in New Zealand, the more dramatic terrain a direct result of its rugged gradient. The company operating trips here combines traditional guiding techniques unique to New Zealand with modern innovations, and they are therefore able to access glacier terrain normally only seen by experienced mountaineers.
From its origins high in the Southern Alps, the Franz Josef Glacier descends deep into the lush rainforest of Westland’s National Park, from a height of 2,700m above sea level to only 240m, in as little as 11 km, making it the world’s steepest and fastest flowing commercially-guided glacier.
Victorian mountaineers like Alex and Peter Graham and Jack Clarke began guiding tourists to the Franz Josef in the Southern Alps as far back as 1903. Nowadays, hikers are a more adventurous bunch than those early visitors. In this spectacular glacial-world, hikers squeeze bodies between ice gullies, cross crevasses on metal ladders, stoop in and out of small caves, and slide on wet backsides through ice burrows.
Before reaching the terminal face, there is a brisk 50-minute hike along a forest-fringed valley divided in half by the Waiho River, a glacial current of fast moving water the colour of frosted glass. On reaching the glacier, I noticed that the ice appeared much dirtier than I was expecting it to be, finely coated with wind-blown dust and debris. It was here that we attached our specially made Talonz to our thermal-lined Glacier Boots, boots that are designed to keep your feet warm and dry throughout the day and protect them from blisters.
We began tracing our way up the glacier, one boot in front of the other, crunching our way along with stops for explanations from the guides and to let stragglers catch up. After another hour of gentle ascent and a few mild adventures en-route, we began crossing melted water channels, areas that have been known to collapse.
At a higher level, we encountered ice crevasses – chasms and clefts in the glacier made when the ice flows over rough rocks and ledges. Here, aluminium- ladders with horizontal wooden planks made simple yet effective bridges. But this was not a place to hang about in. The glacier is constantly moving, like a giant conveyor belt, changing shape by the hour. With our guide’s knowledge and his industrious way of cutting new steps, he kept our party moving upward, and into the safety zone.
Blue ice is a major highlight of any glacier trip, but you really have a much greater chance of seeing blue ice on the full day glacier adventure, as the higher you go on the glacier the bluer the ice becomes.
On either side of this spectacular ice wonder, giant cliffs rose as though part of the virtual ramparts from the Lord of the Rings movies. At each side of the glacier, small moraines of crushed rock were being pushed outward, while over at the base of the cliffs, talus scree and broken boulders the size of cement trucks had been deposited from high above.
In all there are over 360 named glaciers in the Southern Alps. Yet the two largest glaciers in New Zealand drain on the western side of the Alps, Franz Josef at about 11km long and Fox Glacier at about 13.5km long, although they have shown a marked retreat over the last few decades.
As we began our descent, the snow began to fall. In no time at all the dirty ice was sparkling with a new coating of white powder. Our group didn’t care about the cold weather – some of the English lads cracked jokes about it being a summer’s day. We huddled in a translucent ice cave and ate a lunch of homemade sandwiches, bottled drinks and bars of chocolate – before exploring more terrain and another icefall on the return journey as the weather started to clear. It had been a heck of a day’s adventure, an experience worth the effort, and then some. At the car park by the river the bus was waiting for us – a very warm bus at that, and extremely welcome after all that ice and snow.
Half Day Hikes: A 3km walk to the glacier, followed by a 1.5 hour hike over pre-formed tracks on the lower reaches of the glacier. 4.5 hours. Departs 8.45am, 10.30am, 12.30pm (also 3pm in summer). Adult $105.00 / Child (8-16yrs) $88.00
Full Day Hikes: the world famous all-day option is an adventurous trip climbing through some of the most spectacular glacier terrain imaginable. 8 hours. Departs 8.15am and 9.15am. Adult $160.00 / Child (12-16) $130.00
Heli Hiking: A short scenic flight and glacier hike combined. 3 hours. Departs summer: 9.15am, 11.45am, 2.15pm; winter: 10:15am, 12:45pm. Adult $390.00 / Child (8-16 yrs) $370.00. 10:15am, 12:45pm. Adult $390.00 / Child (8-16 yrs) $370.00.
Ice Climbing:Vertical climbing of the icefall walls using technical equipment. 7-8 hours.Departs 7.45am. $250 per person.
Guided Valley Walks: A highly informative, personalised tour to the dramatic terminal face of the glacier, including a bonus mountains to the sea DvD. 3 hours. 10.15am and 2.15pm. Adult $65.00 / Child (6-16yrs) $50.00.??note:?• Heli-Hike flights provided by Heliservices based out of the Alpine Centre. All bookings are done through Franz Josef glacier guides.?• Prices are in New Zealand dollars and include g.s.t.?• the Franz Josef glacier is a rapidly changing feature. Franz Josef glacier guides reserves the right to change trip times, descriptions and prices, in response to changing conditions.?• minimum age is at guide’s discretion and subject to change.?• minimum numbers are required for each scheduled trip.