After visiting the Marlborough wine region, I travelled South from Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island, past stunning forest, a beautiful coastline and some pristine, warm lakes. It was impossible not to stop every 2 minutes and take photos.
After passing the Franz Josef glacier, I finally arrived at the Fox Glacier. I unpacked, got changed into my hiking gear, and had a quick cup of tea before the briefing.
We were given our own backpacks, hiking boots, socks, an introduction to the glacier, a safety briefing, and then we had our crampons fitted.
Fox Guides are awesome. They offer half-day and full-day guided walks, as well as guided heli-hikes for those who want to splash out. I choose the full-day hike to allow me to explore more of the glacier, and really get deep into the blue-and-white ice.
A quick toilet stop, water and lunch fill up, then we packed our bags and boarded the bus for the short trip to the bottom of the Fox Glacier. I was in a group of 12. We all had different fitness levels, but the walk is not too strenuous, and there were plenty of stops.
As we started hiking up the valley, we immediately got a sense of how unique this glacier really was. The mountainsides were steeped in rainforest, and the sun and clouds were soaring high above us. The guide pointed out a stop where Fox Guides used to enter onto the glacier. It was very high up the mountainside, almost next to the top of the ridge. From here, we could start to get a perspective of just how much the glacier has been retreating over the last 100 years or so, carving out more of the valley as it moves.
We start hiking on Fox Guides’ own secret path, heading high into the rainforest. There are a couple of precarious points and rivers to cross, but that simply adds to the excitement. As we head higher, the glacier is still out of view, but we can see the glacial river and get some fantastic views of the rainforest.
Around ten minutes later, we stepped round the corner and got our first glimpse of the glacier. It looked small from the distance, and I had a feeling we couldn't really get a true understanding of the perspective size.
What we do know is that the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are very unique in that they begin high in the mountains and fall steeply - over 13km - to finish in lush rainforest - the only glaciers in the world to do so.
As the guide told us stories and stats, our minds conjured up images of the size and shape of the glacier, no more than fifty years ago. The sheer size of the glacier, and how much it had melted (or ‘retreated’) was incredible.
As we kept one eye on the ground and the other on the increasingly close glacier, the guide pointed out the tree line on the mountainside. “That tree line you can see shows where the glacier was around 30 years ago”. Only thirty years?!
Our guide then told us regular visitors to the glacier on always on the look-out for Tom Christie, a guide who fell into a crevasse high up on the glacier in 1935, and whose body was never been seen since. Apparently he's expected to make an appearance at the bottom of the ice flow sometime soon. I’m not one for understanding how bodies decay, but I’d imagine he’ll be pretty well preserved.
I learnt a lot about glacial movement at school, and it’s mind-boggling to think that glacial compaction is pushing and moving the ice downwards, but at the same time the glacier is retreating and getting smaller. Not only that, the glacier can retreat in winter and grow in summer - it’s movement is not seasonal. I should have brought a hip flask to calm the info overload.
We carry on hiking, and eventually get level to the foot of the glacier. At the point we’re high above it, looking at the cracks in the ice where the pressure builds up. We began to get a true perspective as we looked down at people on the main path, way below. This glacier was HUGE.
|The foot of the Fox glacier, creating ants out of people|
We hiked up the side of the glacier, and eventually worked our way down the entrance point, where we would step on the glacier for the first time. The glacier is solid ice, so it was time to unleash the crampons.
Sexy crampons on, we stepped onto the ice, one by one. We followed in single file as our guide as he cut ice steps with his pickaxe, moving slowly to the top of the glacier.
We eventually reached the top and looked around in both directions. Up the glacier we saw rugged, compact, angry looking ice caves and crevasses, and down the glacier, we looked towards the glacial river and the valley we had ascended. It was stunning.
|Looking down towards the foot of the Fox glacier|
|Looking up towards the rugged ice crevasses of the Fox Glacier|
Lunch finished, we hike further up the glacier, the crevasses getting deeper, and ice more rugged. We learnt the glacier melts by 10 - 20 cm per day, and is always creeping, just very slowly. Eventually we ended up in the centre of the glacier, with crevssases almost three times as big as our bodies.
The light inside the ice creavasses is eerie-blue, and it was very cold, but it was simply incredible to experience.
It was now about 2pm, so we started making our way back to the point where we stepped onto the ice. We took a slightly different route back, looking at water holes deep in the ice, and exploring mini ice caves as we went.
I looked up at one point on the return journey and saw the jagged ice against the rugged mountain backdrop. It’s as if someone had frozen Mordor and thrown it into Jurassic Park.
It's another world up there on the glacier. Squeezing through the ice crevasses is thrilling, and so is climbing steps cut into near-vertical walls of ice. Whilst the whole day was great fun, and a great experience, it’s not until you’re actually standing on top of the glacier that you get a sense of the sheer size of it. I'm glad I got the chance to experience it :)