Franz Josef: A slow, careful shuffle through New Zealand's glacier country

By Justine Tyerman

Justine Tyerman learns the pin-step and a new form of contortion on a famous South Island river of ice.

A perfect day of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman
A perfect day of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman

"I'm pedantic about safety," our young guide Tim said as he redrilled an ice screw that did not meet his exacting standards.

"Music to my ears, Tim," I replied.

We had just been dropped off by helicopter mid-way up Franz Josef Glacier and were about to explore the maze of crevasses and peaks on the ice. The chopper ride from Glacier Guides base in Franz Josef township up the valley to the "Pinnacles" was thrilling enough but the impact of suddenly being deposited high up a river of ice was breathtaking . . . and I couldn't blame the altitude as we were only 650m above sea level.

Walkers are transported to the glacier's heights by chopper. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Walkers are transported to the glacier's heights by chopper. Photo / Justine Tyerman

In past years, we had tinkered around the lower reaches of New Zealand's mighty glaciers but I had always longed to venture higher, where the ice fractures and tumbles in massive chunks over the edge of steep terrain. The reality of actually standing there, gazing up at the dazzling blue-white marble landscape was staggering.

Tim — tugging at the straps of my crampons to tighten them — brought me back to the task at hand.

"Righto, are we are all set to go exploring then?" he asked, having checked and double-checked everyone's equipment in our international party of eight on the four-hour Glacier Explorer expedition.

Receiving a resounding affirmative in many different languages, Tim led the way upwards, swinging his massive pick axe with impressive strength to recut steps or remove hazards. No wonder those guides are so fit — the job of guide-cum-glacier-maintenance-man/woman is seriously physical. While we were bundled up in merino wool and Glacier Guides-issue jackets, over-pants, beanies and mittens, Tim was in shorts and a T-shirt . . . in the winter.

Guide Tim carries out some glacier track maintenance. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Guide Tim carries out some glacier track maintenance. Photo / Justine Tyerman

However, we soon began to strip off layers as we clambered up ice steps and shuffled our way along the base of crevasses that looked far too narrow for humans to negotiate until we mastered the right technique. Our chunky-booted, cramponed feet were taught to do the "pin-step" — moving one foot forward a tiny bit and then bringing the other one up behind it. At the same time, we had to practise a form of contortion, rotating the upper body 180 degrees to be slim enough to squeeze through the tightest gaps.

It was hilarious and certainly gave new meaning to "up close and personal" — we were literally kissing the glacier as we "sidled" along its intestines.

Pin-stepping along a tight crevasse. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Pin-stepping along a tight crevasse. Photo / Justine Tyerman

The expedition was never too strenuous, as we stopped at regular intervals while Tim did his maintenance work — wielding his hefty axe then clearing the path with his shovel — which allowed us time to catch our breath and take hundreds of selfies.

At the highest point of our climb, 700m, we were directly below the icefall and could see right into the most dramatic, active part of the glacier. We heard the occasional crack and boom as the millions-of-years-old ice river strained and fractured, grinding its way down the valley. The chunks of ice looked like giant curds without the whey.

Sharp ice pinnacles jut from the glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Sharp ice pinnacles jut from the glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Up here, Tim was like a mother hen with her chickens — when one of the group attempted to stray outside the delineated safe zone, he drew a perimeter around us with his pick axe to clearly define the no-go area.

Once we were safely confined, he put on his lecturer's hat and told us all about his good friend FJ which descends from a height of 3000 metres above sea level to 350m in as little as 11 kilometres, moving at a rate of one to two metres a day in the winter and three to four metres a day in the summer. This makes FJ the world's steepest and fastest-flowing commercially-guided glacier, Tim told us proudly.

Shaped like a bowl at the top with a neve area of 32-square-km and an overall size of 35km2, the Franz is New Zealand's fourth largest glacier. It's also one of the most accessible glaciers on the planet, terminating at 350m above sea level just 18km from the sea.

Hikers are dwarfed by the immense size of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Hikers are dwarfed by the immense size of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Each year, an average of 30-40 metres of snow accumulates at the top of the glacier, the weight of which forces the ice downhill.

Despite advances in 1983 and 1999, overall, the Franz Josef has retreated about three kilometres since the late 1880s. Since 2008, the glacier has been in major retreat mode, losing 800 metres in length. In 2012, a dramatic change occurred on the glacier. A hole in the ice resulted in the loss of over 250m of ice from the terminal face in just over 12 months.

Tim also told us the beautiful Maori legend of Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere — The Tears of the Ice Maiden — handed down to him by Ngai Tahu, the kaitiaki (guardians) of the land.

Not only could young Tim swing that pick axe, he was a veritable font of knowledge and a fine story-teller.

As the sun began to fall from the bleached blue sky and the sunset painted the mountains pink and gold, the sound of choppers filled the valley. As we lifted off, I could see a team of guides below preparing tracks for the next day.

A crevasse on the glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman
A crevasse on the glacier. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Within five minutes we were back at base, ready for the final phase of the experience. After an active day on the ice, I stripped off my glacier gear and relinquished my tired body to the tender care of masseuse Nikcola at the spa and beauty centre attached to the Glacier Guide's base. Nikcola administered a sublimely relaxing massage finding all the muscles that needed TLC, after which my husband and I spent a dreamy hour soaking in a private pool at the Glacier Hot Pools. It's a beautiful complex surrounded by rainforest and birdsong.

The day ended with a delicious dinner at the Scenic Hotel Franz Josef and one of the best night's sleeps I have ever experienced in a supremely comfortable bed with a pillow like a soft cloud.

The view of the Southern Alps from our hotel balcony next morning and the throbbing sound of the chopper blades set my pulse racing again — had there been a spare seat that day, I would have headed back up the glacier to relive the magic of the previous day . . . and hone my pin-step and contortion skills.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Queenstown.

What to do: Go on a guided walk of Franz Josef Glacier and relax at the Glacier Hot Pools.

Staying there: Scenic Hotel Franz Josef.

Getting around: JUCY Rentals offers vehicles for hire.

Justine Tyerman visited Franz Josef Glacier and Glacier Hot Pools courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism, which owns Franz Josef Glacier Guides NZ.

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