The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Monday, May 16, 2011

Doug & Karen's Kiwi Adventure Part 5: Glacier Adventure!

It’s been a while once again, so to catch you up on where we’ve been...we started in the hustle and bustle of Auckland, then visited the ancient Maori of Rotorua, traversed the forbidding volcanic plateau of Tongariro, and enjoyed the cosmopolitan flair of the capitol city of Wellington. Then we flew to Christchurch on the south island and drove across the Southern Alps to the wild Westlands, encountering car-eating birds and glowworms along the way. Now it was time for yet another kind of adventure: glacier fun!

Our big plan was to go on a heli-hike. This is where a helicopter takes you on a scenic ride over a glacier and then lets you off at the top to hike around on the ice for a few hours. The two main glaciers that offer easy access are Fox Glacier and Franz Josef.

The opportunity is very weather dependent—and thus very unpredictable in this wild area. Sure enough, our only day here was rainy and our heli-hike to Fox Glacier was cancelled. So instead we took a good old-fashioned foot-hike to the face of Franz Josef, which is more readily accessible:

Chilled to the bone, we followed our short hike with a long soak in a glacial hot spring:

We decided to get up early the next morning and try our luck with the heli-hike once again before hitting the road. The decision of whether the trip will go is made only minutes before takeoff, and fortunately for us, despite some low clouds this time was a go!

Karen on board our ghetto bird:

The flyover was quite spectacular (despite the hysterical woman next to me who kept screaming)...

...and the glacier was no less impressive once we were on top of it:

We nicknamed this particular formation the “Snow Vulva”:

Now for the hiking portion of the expedition. First you have to strap on a pair of perhaps the worst named items in the world, the crampons.

Then with a couple of walking sticks you’re off and running (well, hiking).

It was a little tight, but we got to climb through some ice tunnels:

Some photo ops in the Snow Vulva:

As you can see in that last photo, the low clouds were starting to roll in around us. The helicopters fly visually, so this meant that our hike would have to be cut short. I wasn’t upset, honestly—it was beautiful and I was glad we were able to make it up there and tramp about for an hour, and we still had a 7-hour drive ahead of us to that evening’s destination.

We headed back to the helicopter landing area, and the helicopter took one group back to the base. The clouds continued to get thicker around us. Soon we heard the whirr of the chopper returning and crouched for safety as we waited to board. And waited. And waited. For about 5 minutes we could hear it trying to land, but we never saw it (which meant it couldn’t see the ground). Finally the engines faded into the distance. The helicopter had left us for dead.

Okay, maybe not for dead, but the guides told us that we were stranded until the weather cleared! We were assured that they were prepared for such an emergency, as provisions were stashed on the glacier (well, by “provisions” they meant chocolate. But what else would you need?)

Whether it was real or psychological, it suddenly started to feel very cold up there. Thankfully everyone was in good humor. I wasn’t worried about our well-being, but I was a little worried about this impacting our ability to complete our 7-hour drive whenever we got down. After about half an hour, the guides suggested that maybe we start hiking downward in hopes that it might be clear enough for the helicopter at a lower altitude. So we put our crampons back on and started to hike down.

Someone to ask how long it would take if we had to hike all the way to the bottom, and turns out it would only be 3 or 4 hours’ hike. All of us in the group were agile enough to do so if need be, so things didn’t feel that serious. And in fact, the extra hiking only meant more time in this hauntingly beautiful, incredibly blue place.

After about an hour we were at a lower elevation where the guides took pickaxes and chopped us a new helipad. They radioed for the helicopter to try again...and sure enough we were saved!

Click below for a short dramatic film chronicling our adventure:

We ended up on the road only a little later than planned for our long drive to Te Anau. It certainly made for a long day, but a beautiful and adventurous one. It also highlighted the diversity of this landscape because only an hour after hiking on the sheer ice of a glacier we found ourselves on the sandy shores of the Tasman Sea:

Along the way picked up provisions and made a scenic stop in Mount Aspiring National Park:

Continuing on our southern and circuitous route, we arrived in the sleepy hamlet of Te Anau long after dark. The next day we would begin our final adventure...

Next up…Fjords and penguins and seals, oh my! BUT BEFORE WE GO…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

I enjoyed many of the warning signs posted by the glaciers:

This one says that there’s no stopping due to the risk of rock fall. What if the rocks are falling in front of you? You have to keep going?:

This is such a polite country, they even give you the choice of dying straight-up or on-the-rocks:

When’s the last time you saw one of these?!

See you at the fjords!


  • Go Doug, you're the man!

    Vassilis from Athens GR.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:24 AM  

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