We took a morning off from cycling, but that didn’t mean taking it easy.
We packed in a hike to see the sun come up, a tramp on a glacier, a picnic with a view, then a short sharp pedal over short sharp hills.
In the cold grey light of dawn we stumbled out to Lake Mathieson, a ‘reflection lake’ which makes a perfect mirror on a still clear day.
That left us about 90 seconds to eat breakfast and swallow the heart-starting double flat white before joining a Fox Glacier Guiding expedition. There are only three temperate glaciers in the world; one in Argentina and the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on New Zealand’s west coast.
I’d visited here before and been irritated by the commercialisation of the glacial experience. I didn’t care for the constant background rattle of the helicopters ferrying ‘heli-hikers’ to land on the glaciers and have their photos taken. Sadly, the choppers show no signs of going away and I think it’s a pity that, for the enjoyment of the well-heeled few (a heli-hike costs NZ$300), the peace and quiet is shattered for all we common folk.
However, this time I paid a not inconsiderable NZ$99 and joined the glacier-walking production line. Fox Glacier Guiding issued us with very heavy boots (‘a small Caterpillar tractor on each foot’, remarked Ian). No helicopters were involved. This was to be a short bus ride followed by a hike led by guides Andy and Johnno.
The Fox Valley is moving. The ice advances and retreats, though thanks to global warming it is mainly in retreat just now, leaving exposed cliffs which regularly collapse into the valley. Signs warn of the dangers from falling ice and rocks. Such dangers are real, as evidenced recently when two young Australian tourists ignored the signs at Franz Josef and were crushed while taking their last photos. One body has never been recovered.
We obediently and sensibly stuck to the track over moraine and up beside the ice. A glacier is bigger up close. Huge. Fox Glacier is 100m thick for most of its 13km length.
With crampons strapped over our caterpillar tractors, we stepped up onto it and for the next hour crunched around on something resembling a large ice bucket. The crampons gave good grip, and we never felt insecure, but the surface was rougher than most of us expected, strewn with the rocks carried down from above and pitted with cracks and craters.
The hoi polloi who hadn’t paid for the guided trip were held back behind the orange safety ropes, but nonetheless little groups like ours were dotted all over the glacier, while others in orange helmets set off to learn a bit of ice-climbing.
The ice-climber has bigger crampons than ours, but I wasn’t jealous. A short stay on the ice was enough. It’s hard to feel you’re doing anything really special when dozens of others are up ahead or not far behind, but Andy and Johnno handled it all well, it was like nothing else I’d ever done, and exceeded expectations.
The weather exceeded expectations too. In an area which gets over five metres of rain annually, we struck a very rare clear day. A picnic lunch with a view of the mountain was in order.
The writer was a guest of Adventure South.