That time I walked on a glacier

New Zealand is a pretty underpopulated place. Slightly larger than the UK with about one-fifteenth of the people, nowhere outside Auckland ever really feels crowded.

That said, even in this relatively human-free country, some parts are much more isolated than others. These are the kind of places where you can drive for half an hour without seeing another car, where town sizes are measured in hundreds rather than thousands, where power from the national grid has only arrived in the last decade … if it’s arrived at all.

Places, in other words, like the southwest of the South Island.

The combination of difficult terrain, homicidal sandflies and several metres of rain per year make this part of the country less appealing to live in for all except a particular breed of people. “Coasters”, as they’re known, are a little different to the rest of the population. Insular, independent and fiercely proud of their little patch of New Zealand, these are the kind of folks who organised a (successful) nationwide protest when it was suggested that brewing of a local beer be moved to Auckland. That decision was reversed within four days…..

West coast ocean view

As usual with much of the planet, the places where people aren’t are the places where nature is. The west coast is all drifting mist and thundering seas, towering mountains and dripping rainforests. Oh, and glaciers. That you can walk on.

So we did.

We took about four hours to drive from Wanaka to Fox Glacier, but you could happily spend all day doing it. It’s one of the more beautiful road journeys in a country full of them, with photo opportunities seemingly every five minutes.

Whitebait

Not to mention some rather incredible whitebait. Seriously, if you do nothing else on that drive, follow the little sign from the main road to the Curly Tree Whitebait Company just outside of Haast and get the owner, Tony, to fire up the BBQ and make you a whitebait patty, coast style. Yes, even if the little eyes freak you out. The whitebait’s, that is, not Tony’s. His eyes are totally normal.

Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are within 20 minutes of each other, both with small service towns of the same name nearby. Walking trips were suspended on Franz Josef glacier when we were there for safety reasons – but they weren’t on Fox. Success!

The bus from the Fox Glacier Guiding office to the glacier only takes ten minutes or so – it’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, and really isn’t far from town at all. It used to be even closer, but global warming is taking care of that, a rocky river valley stretching for hundreds of metres where ice lay even a decade ago.

Fox glacier retreat

Just in case you weren’t aware that somewhere that gets a lot of rain and has millions of tonnes of unstable rock and ice might be dangerous, there’s the odd unsubtle reminder here and there.

Swept away sign.

Falling rocks

Our group of twenty or so people was split in two, and after a brisk twenty minute hike to the start of the glacier we ducked under the rope, grabbed some walking poles and tried to figure out how crampons work. Nobody toppled off the ice during the next hour, so I’m guessing everyone got it sorted in the end.

Walking on ice like this is a strange experience if you’ve never done it before. You move slowly, with a kicking action to firmly embed your crampon spikes. It’s relatively easy when walking on flat sections, and decidedly less so when going up or down hill. The guides cut rough steps into the steepest sections each morning, which definitely makes things easier, but I still wouldn’t want to be doing a glacier hike if I was (any more) unsteady on my feet.

Dirty ice

One thing you don’t realise about glaciers is how, well, dirty they are. For some reason I’d expected a pristine white mass stretching off into the distance. Not so much. With all that weight of ice moving downhill, anything in the way gets crushed into dust – including the mountains themselves.

Ice and walkers

The route that you hike changes each day, depending on what the ice has done overnight. Safety is understandably a priority – it’d be all too easy to fall into a hole otherwise. Anybody that wandered even slightly off the prescribed path was quickly corralled back in the right direction. I imagine that looking after a group of tourists on a glacier is much like herding cats … except the cats don’t answer back as much.

Hole in the ice

Despite the chill that inevitably comes from walking on an icefield, hiking up and down the glacier was surprisingly thirsty work. Lucky, then, that there’s no shortage of fresh water. Sadly many of New Zealand’s rivers have become contaminated with giardia in recent decades, so it’s not really recommended to drink straight from them any longer – but that’s not a problem on Fox Glacier. We found a spot with flowing water just off the path, filled up our bottles and that was it.

Who needs bottled water when you’ve got glacier melt?

We turned around after about forty minutes, gazing wistfully further up the glacier. You can do full-day hikes or helicopter trips to get higher on the ice, and at that point, both seemed very appealing. Still, it wasn’t a bad view even from where we were standing…

Glacier view

The trek back down again seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, and we soon found ourselves off the ice and back on the rocky track. As we loosened the crampons and waited for the rest of the group while trying to avoid Lauren’s randomly-flailing walking poles, there was time for a few last photos in the afternoon sunshine.

Looking down the valley, Fox Glacier

We had spent about an hour on the ice, and all it had done was make me want more. The half-day trip, fun as it was, is definitely the lightweight choice – as well as those all-day and helicopter options, there are also ice climbing and overnight trips. None of it comes particularly cheap, of course, but they are the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that might still be worth the money.

Whitebait patties, gorgeous views and hiking on a goddamn glacier.

All in a day’s work on the coast.

 

Fox Glacier Guiding kindly provided a complimentary trip on the glacier for us as part of the Tourism New Zealand Explore media programme.

4 Responses to “That time I walked on a glacier

  • Interesting stuff mate.

    I didn’t realize NZ was that big. Or that empty.

    That Glacier does look rather dirty.

  • Nigel D
    6 years ago

    Wonderful part of the world. The scenery is spectacular and walking on ice is an experience all on its own. Let me comment on the whitebait. It is a unique New Zealand delicacy and made in a batter is a treat to die for. Do not confuse it with European “whitebait” – that is an entirely different kettle of fish and no-where near as nice!.

  • Wow, great day, the glacier is really blue under the dirt!

  • WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!!
    That first photo of the glacier made my heart beat skip a little.
    Glacier walking is very high on my to do list

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.