Heli-Hiking New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier
The ads intrigued us, linking to photos of frozen caves, steep crevasses and icy pinnacles. It was kind of like climbing Everest, without the risk or height, and it just might be the coolest thing we’d ever done. We’d signed up for a heli-hike with the Franz Josef Glacier guides, located on the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand. It was to be the climax of a trip marked by exploring the staggering Southern Alps, viewing native penguins, and sailing spectacular fjords. But it was raining – rain meant mist and fog and grounded aircraft. We couldn’t take a helicopter up to the glacier, therefore we couldn’t hike around it. So we consoled ourselves with a hike up to a viewing area and waited for the weather to clear.
One of the oddities of the area is the tropical rain forest you hike through to get to the glacier. You don’t think rain forest when you think glacier but this was the South Pacific. The first day we hiked a path near our hotel and were pleasantly surprised when the clouds briefly parted and the glacier appeared. It was a good sign.
So we stayed the night, checking on our reservation the next morning. It was a no-go. The mountains were still shrouded in mist, and all morning and afternoon trips were cancelled. We had one more chance the next morning before we left – the following night we would be staying at the airport for an early flight back to Sydney, so it was really our last chance.
There wasn’t much to do in Franz Josef Glacier Village, so we rested – an unfamiliar feeling on what had been a jam-packed trip. We couldn’t complain too much, the weather for our month long journey to Australia/New Zealand had been spectacular. This was the only rain we’d encountered on the entire trip – but we wanted a grand finale, and glacier heli-hiking was it, so we hoped and prayed for better weather in the morning.
Before going to bed, we came up with a viable plan B we could enjoy if it wasn’t going to happen and we went to sleep. We woke up, crossing our fingers as we walked to the window and we slid open the curtains. Lo and behold, there was the mountain that had been hidden, clear as day – we were hiking the glacier!
We geared up, walked to the helicopter platform with our guide and took a quick flight up to the glacier. (I was heavily layered in big puffy gear that made me look like a charred marshmallow.) Once we landed, we put on our crampons – the tool that made it all possible. Crampons took some getting used to – to be able to trust your weight to their grip on the slippery hills of ice. Once you adjusted, the hike was fairly easy. We followed our guide ‘Jagged’ through the caves and cliffs, exploring the glacier.
Jagged used his pick ax to clear the paths just ahead of us, at one point pulling us through a narrow cave the same width as us. He told engaging stories along the way, making glacier hiking seem like a walk on the beach. It was a stunning, adventurous day and another item off the bucket list. Due to our long wait, it only felt like that much more of a victory.
GoPro Video of Our 9/27/14 Hike: