Glacier-walking's blend of beauty and adrenalin leaves Liz Light spellbound.
I'm snaking my body into a skinny fissure in a translucent blue mountain of ice. There are tonnes of the stuff above, below and all around. The light inside the ice cave is eerie-blue and beautiful, but my pulse rate returns to normal only when I'm out the other side with the sky above.
It's another world up there, high on a creeping, creaking glacier. Squeezing through ice caves and crevasses is thrilling, as is inching between just-frozen lakes and ice cliffs and climbing steps cut into near-vertical walls of ice.
The West Coast glaciers, and there are two close to each other, Franz Josef and Fox, are unique in the world in that they begin high in the mountains and fall steeply — 2600m over 13km — to finish in lush rainforest. They are also unique in that they are advancing, in these times of receding glaciers and global warming. This, the guide explains, relates to intersecting weather patterns from hot, dry Australia and cold Antarctica meeting above the coast and dumping an increasing amount of snow on the west side of the Southern Alps.
But the Maori explanation of their advancement is that broken-hearted Hine Hukatere is weeping more; these glaciers are her frozen tears. Hine loved climbing these mountains and persuaded her lover Wawe, who she met while he was looking for jade in lowland rivers, to climb with her. He, less experienced, was caught in an avalanche and swept to his death, and Hine still cries for him.
Maybe Hine also weeps for others who have died on these glaciers. In 2009, two brothers went behind the warning barrier at the face of Fox Glacier and were crushed by 100 tonnes of falling ice. And today's guides are on the look-out for Tom Christie, a guide who fell into a crevasse in 1935, and whose body was never recovered. He's expected to make an appearance at the bottom of the ice flow sometime soon.
The glaciers are not dangerous if those wishing to explore them wear appropriate clothing and take the recommended precautions. Franz Josef Guides and Fox Guides both offer half-day and full-day walks, as well as guided heli hikes for those who want to splash out. I choose the full-day hike on Franz Josef to get high up the glacier, into the pristine blue-and-white ice and, to be fair, I also take a half-day hike on Fox Glacier.
A day on Franz Josef is a serious body-warming walk, and wearing boots with spiky crampons attached doesn't make for easy going, but it's worth the huff and puff. The high heart of the glacier is fabulously sculptural and I feel Lilliputian strolling through a giant fantasy of pinnacles, shimmering walls, slender crevasses, rounded caves and duck-egg lakes.
The bonuses are fantastic views of steep glacier walls and down the braided valley to the distant sea, and the naughty green kea that swoops in, showing off his orange undercarriage, before trying to steal my lunch.
Towards the end of the day, just before the long slog down the glacier's face to the car park, the young gung-ho people in the group, egged on by each other and the guide, strip off to their undies and swim in an ice lake. It's cold enough for the guide to break the ice with his axe and seems a gasping and shrivelling experience. It's accompanied by cheering — from the rest of us — and photos to prove they did it.
IF YOU GO
Accommodation: In Franz Josef, the award-winning Te Waonui Forest Retreat offers the feeling of being immersed in the West Coast rainforest while being extremely comfortable (divine beds).