FOX GLACIER, NEW ZEALAND – treading on thick ice

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.

Lake Mathieson just before dawn. Thanks, Dutch photographer Sandig (?) for lending me the tripod.

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.

Fox Glacier - bigger than it looks.

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.

Like Antarctica, only warmer.

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.

That's Fox Glacier in the top left hand corner.

The writer was a guest of Adventure South.


Filed under Cycle touring, Hiking

10 responses to “FOX GLACIER, NEW ZEALAND – treading on thick ice

  1. Hello Richard,
    I haven’t been to Fox Glacier since the early eighties and you’ve bought back some fond memories for me here. Lovely snap with Sandrigs (?) tripod. Therese

    • The early 80’s would have been good there, Therese. I think that was before the invention of the helicopter. (Though they don’t entirely ruin it – it’s still pretty special.)

  2. angela highstead

    My sister lived in Westport on the West coast for two years over 30 years ago. She came home with the biggest, heaviest, longest british racing green raincoat I had ever seen in my life. Well done to jag a fine day.

    Enjoying coming along for the ride by means of the read!

  3. bagnidilucca

    What a fun thing to do. I want those shoes.

    • You don’t want those shoes, BdL.

      As our guide said, ‘You don’t have to buy them, just walk in them for four hours.’

      That was plenty for me, even with two pairs of thick socks padding them out. But the crampons were light and useful.

  4. Tim

    Ah, good memories. We were there in 2005. We only walked through the valley to the glacier face, but it was still a great experience. I remember that only the previous week a heli-hiker had died (I can’t remember whether it was Fox or Franz Josef) after falling down a crevasse and cracking their skull open.

    I remember watching a bunch of idiotic – and very loud – middle-aged Americans wittering on inanely and then ignoring the safety ropes so they could see the glacier face up close and take photos. They were almost buried by a sudden fall of snow/ice from the edge of the glacier. Funnily enough, they were much quieter and more respectful after that.

    It shouldn’t be one of my favourite memories of my three weeks in NZ, but for some reason it is …

    • Indeed, Tim, those who ignore the warning signs are candidates for Darwin Awards…the awards which honour those who give their lives to raise the intelligence level of the gene pool.

      The trouble is – glaciers look safe when you can’t see them moving.

      I’ve seen people do similar stupid things around geysers. Mud sticks, and it’s hotter than you’d think.

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