Franz Josef Glacier: Walking on thin ice

By Kate Roff

The Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Joe Powers
The Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Joe Powers

The suggestion of walking around on a giant ice block sounded like an excellent idea until the moment I stood looking up at the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier.

Having been constantly advancing and retreating since the last Ice Age, the glacier wasn't looking as stable as I had presumed.

In fact, the only time I heard our light-hearted guide, Adam, become serious and stern-faced was when he said: "Don't stop on the way up." The "way up" was a set of carved out steps over sleet, ice and rubble - pushed out by the glacier to its exposed front. Peering into the deep holes and cracks that appeared next to the path I could see why he advised against standing still too long.

The valley floors leading up to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are worth a trip out west alone. Dotted with waterfalls and crystal blue ponds, the scenery would be spectacular - if you weren't distracted by the giant chunk of ice dominating the landscape.

The Franz Josef Glacier is a rare phenomenon, even amongst its own kind. Along with Fox Glacier, the area is designated as a World Heritage Site and - contrary to popular belief - it is actually retracting at the moment. It can shift up to 7m a day.

It was this thought that astounded (and frightened) me as we donned our crampon shoes to hike up the face. Only tour groups are allowed to get up close and personal with the glacier, which is probably a good thing judging by the size of the pick axe Adam used to chip out stairs. He also offered to step in front of any boulders that might have hurtled towards us - he was joking but I, for one, would have held him at his word.

Our tour group ascended without much trouble, although we did lose a couple of climbers to fatigue and fear before we reached the top. From there it was smooth sailing - we explored the ice in single-file and looked, I imagine, like a row of little blue ants on the massive white landscape.

After two exhilarating hours on the ice we made our descent, clinging to the hand ropes that the guides constantly have to re-anchor to the moving ice.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Driving across the South Island from Christchurch makes for some fantastic scenery to build up to the West Coast. Check out Your Way Car Rental for a good deal to get you there.

Where to stay: Te Weheka Inn offers luxury bed and breakfast, as well as proximity to some excellent walking tracks. Located in Fox Glacier, the rooms offer great views and a big bath to soak in after hiking around a cold glacier.

Who to explore with: Franz Josef Glacier Guides are masters of the cramp-on excursions. Take your pick from heli-hikes, full- or half-day tours and valley walks. They provide all the gear, too, so you don't have to worry about being unprepared for the glacier.

- NZ Herald

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