It seems our promised friends never showed up last night and we were happily afforded a room to ourselves. We woke up to see their beds still empty and the peaks of the mountain above our tiny town blanketed in gray clouds which did not bode well for our heli-hike we had scheduled for noon. There had been a fatal helicopter crash on a nearby glacier just over a month ago in poor visibility and so everyone was being extra careful about their helicopter flying (which we are totally in favor of). The team got up around 8.00 and went to investigate the free breakfast at our hostel. It was, not surprisingly, toast and dry cereal. I chose to lay in bed instead and Leah came back to eat her own breakfast in the room.
After some packing for the day we decided we would go check on the viability of our helicopter flight and then go on a quick morning hike before we needed to check in. The tour company didn’t know anything yet but they had cancelled all morning flights so far. There was some blue sky starting to appear though so that was a good sign. The receptionist (who giggled at Lynn’s last name) told us to come back in an hour and thirty minutes and we would know for sure. Optimistic that we had Farrellione luck on our side, we headed off for a morning rainforest hike.
The hike had been advertised as a pleasant stroll along the river flowing out of the glacier and we were able to walk there quickly from town so it seemed like an ideal way to spend some time and get some steps. We started out across the bridge to the south of town and were a little alarmed to learn it was held together with some very rusty looking cotter pins and when they those had gone missing, old nails were used in their place. Once on the other side we looked back and realized with even more anxiety that one of the footings in the river seems to have been displaced and was now being held up with a large river stone. We all decided it was a probably a structural river stone so it was okay. We walked along the river for 30 minutes, mostly along the road, but also a bit into the rainforest before we needed to head back for our heli-hike.
On the way back we stopped in our hostel room for a quick lunch of peanut butter and jelly time before walking back over to our check in. Success! The clouds had completely cleared and we were all cleared to take a tiny helicopter up onto the middle of the glacier for a three hour hike. After checking in and verifying that we have no medical conditions, we were led into the aptly named Boot Room, where we were given wools socks, very heavy hiking boots, crampons, snowpants, a snowjacket, and a red shoulder bag. Fully loaded and with our red bags stuffed as full as they could be with water, sunscreen, and energy bars, we walked through the rain forest to the helipad. While we waited for our ride we were given a brief rundown of helicopter safety. Don’t walk into the rotors in the back, wear a seatbelt, don’t accidentally walk up a hill and into the rotors above you.
Our helicopter shortly arrived and we all climbed in, with Leah riding shotgun and Lynn wedged as safely away from the doors and windows as possible. Our pilot, Dave, had a very casual attitude about the whole thing and very quickly took off and headed up into the valley. All of us were very excited about the ride and the view. Well, except for Lynn, who enjoyed the view but was terrified that we would fall out of the sky at any minute, or possibly careen into the cliffs that she felt we were dangerously close to. Despite Lynn’s concerns, we safely landed a few minutes later on some very dirty looks ice at the base of the glacier but above the terminal face. Since a collapse in 2012 you can no longer hike onto the glacier and can only by helicoptered onto it.
Safely on solid ground again, we met our guide, an energetic 21 year old named Nathan (which we initiated a bet to learn – Stephen won with a guess of 20), and strapped on our crampons. The next three hours were very stop and start, mostly stop, as we (Nathan) picked our way through the crevasses of the glacier. Nathan was constantly running ahead to clear and maintain the trail with his ice axe. It looked like exhausting work and he would end the day with a swollen knuckle and bloody knee. He didn’t seem to mind though and was pretty excited about all the work since it meant he got to eat two hamburgers for dinner every night.
The ice was quite dirty with a fine dust on top from nearby rock slides on the valley walls but every so often we would come across some iridescent bright blue ice that would seem to glow from within the glacier. As we made our way further in (and away from the very loud and windy helipad) we got closer to the icefall above us as well, which was truly stunning. On our way back we stopped to drink some of the glacial melt from a surface stream and ventured into a bit of an ice cave that Nathan had apparently explored on his own a week ago. The idea of exploring an ice cave on our own, on a glacier, that is constantly shifting, sounded just plain stupid to us but I guess that’s 21 year olds for you. The whole of the glacier was incredibly beautiful even if it was a bit muddy, and we all thought it was worth the money (and the frightful-for-some helicopter ride). At the end of our tour we took in the views one last time before loading into our helicopter and having a bumpy and very high altitude ride home. Though it terrified Lynn once again (especially when the pilot was looking back at us casually discussing our hike while headed straight for a cliff), we were afforded some amazing views of the glacial washout and the Tasman Sea beyond.
Safely on the ground once again we turned in all of our glacier gear and headed back to our room for a snack of cheese and delicious bread before heading off on another hike. Despite being three hours long, our glacier hike had in fact only been about a mile long and as strenuous as standing in line for a movie so we felt we needed to do a bit more walking. We took Lacey for a quick drive into the glacial valley and headed on a hike up to the terminal face of the glacier. This was a bit eerie for me because ten years ago the glacier extended an extra half kilometer into the valley and this hike was how you accessed it. No more it seems with the glacier having retreated so far, but you could still see where it used to be from a vegetation line on the valley walls.
After getting our steps in finally we were all feeling a bit sore and fairly disgusting – coated in layer after layer of sunscreen, sweat, and very fine silica dust. To remedy this we decided to take advantage of the free hot water pool access our heli-hike gave us. The receptionist must have been able to smell the scent of a day full of glacier hiking because she recommended a quick shower for us before we got into the hot pools. Good thinking. We spent the next thirty minutes moving between different temperature level pools before deciding it was dinner time. So we got out and rinsed once more before heading back home for a quick change.
Leah had been a huge proponent of pizza for dinner since the day before and had spent some time in the afternoon looking at pictures of the pizzas offered by the five different pizza restaurants in town. After the initial shock of learning there were five pizza restaurants in a tiny mountain town, we chose Blue Ice based on its pictures and headed over. The pizzas were in fact quite delicious, if a little long to arrive. While waiting we got a bit too hungry and ordered a basket of fries as well, thinking they would come faster while we were waiting. The waitress seemed to not know what fries were when Lynn asked but she got it figured out, though they didn’t arrive until after pizza.
After stuffing ourselves way too much we headed to the Snakebite Brewery for a nightcap and then headed home. Once back home Lynn and I both did our workouts while Stephen lorded over us, eating a Lemon Custard doughnut that Leah had purchased at the European Bakery earlier in the day. All of us found the juxtaposition hilarious and it made the workout a lot harder as we pushed through the giggles. Just as we were all getting into bed a father and daughter opened the door to our room and crashed onto the lower bed, declaring “That was a long day.” None of us bit at the invitation to ask about their really long day and instead we all just climbed under covers and quickly fell asleep.
Daily Walking Mileage : 13 miles
Fun Facts :
- Franz Josef Glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world that terminates in a rain forest. The other two are Fox Glacier just down the road, and one in Patagonia.
- It takes 90 years for a snowflake that falls at the top of the mountain to make its way through the glacier and come out the terminal face.
- A neve is the snow field at the top of the glacier that collects snowfall that will eventually compact and become the glacial ice. It is also the name of the café we ate lunch at yesterday.