Tramping Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Village, New Zealand

This area is notorious for having some of the rainiest, most variable, weather in all of New Zealand. The “southerlies” — those winds coming from the Arctic — hit the country and the Southern Alps, trapping precipitation on the West Coast.

Yet, the Maori Gods were looking down on us this morning. Not a cloud was in the sky as Franz Josef Glacier sat majestically in the distance.

After Sarah McLaughlin serenaded our hot eggs breakfasts, we made the quick drive into the village for our full day adventure with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The trip included boots, jackets, hats and gloves. Having learned my lesson in Argentina earlier this year, however, we came fully prepared — and only needed the crampons.

It was a 10-minute ride to the car park and then a short walk to Franz Josef, which is 23 kilometers long. Flowing from the Southern Alps, it is unique in that it descends to less than 300 meters above sea level. Strangely enough, this has created a green and lush surrounding temperate rain forest that abuts the glacier.

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We walked the 2 kilometers to the glacier’s edge, stepping past the menacing warning signs and strapping the crampons to our boots.

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Earlier this year, in El Calafate, Argentina, I’d gone on a similar glacier trip on Perito Moreno. We had walked along the moraine before climbing onto the largely flat ice and spending the day exploring the surface. This New Zealand experience, we learned, would be much more extreme.

We approached the glacier directly, climbing the steep ice “waves” — literally, walls of ice — as our guide used a pick ax to cut a navigable path. Ice screws and ropes were used for support.

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We pushed deeper toward Franz Josef’s center, closely following advance groups that scouted ahead for safe routes to take.

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At one point, we followed our guide, Rob, into a steep melting glacial cave. The immense pressure had turned the ice into a dark blue color.

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While Rob was off helping another group, he put me in charge of the ax which was aimlessly and pointlessly hacked into the ice several times by yours truly.

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Walking back after 14 kilometers to reach the glacier’s mid section, it was easy to see how easily perspectives could be distorted. Glaciers are just so huge that everything around them starts to look small. But all it takes is a reference point — in this case, people — to get a better sense.

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It was an eerily silent ride back on the bus as we all rubbed our feet and tried to decompress. Two Japanese tourists sitting next to me managed to fall asleep. It was clear that we would all be paying for this day’s excursion at some point.

If not now, then soon.

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