My Small-Group Franz Josef Glacier Walk tour didn’t start on a glacier. Nor did it start on a helicopter. No, this tour started in the town center of Franz Josef, New Zealand, in the office of the tour guide, where excitement for what was coming escalated as I outfitted myself in glacier clothes.
So what exactly are ‘glacier clothes’? Waterproof pants and a jacket, plus extra thick socks, mittens and hat. The group I was part of to go up the mountain consisted of 10 travelers and we were all giggling excitedly as we pulled on our fashion accessories for the day. Once we were all decked out in our glacier-friendly outfit, things got even more fun.
We all got big boots to wear over our thick, wooly socks, plus the most important accessory – crampons. Crampons are strapped to the bottom of boots and have spikes on them to keep hikers from sliding down the glacier. Crampons can’t be put on until you’re actually on the glacier, so I stuck them into the waterproof bags that were handed out for us to bring. We were instructed to leave our personal bags and backpacks behind, and soon we were off to the next part of the tour: the helicopter ride.
Helicopter ride to the glacier
I’d never been on a helicopter before so I was pretty psyched that this was a component of the tour. It takes many hours to hike via foot to the glacier, but a helicopter ride takes five minutes and lands straight on the ice at the base of the Franz Josef Glacier.
Riding in the helicopter reminded me of one of those motion rides where you sit and watch a mini-movie while the platform your seat is on moves around. That’s what it felt like to be on the helicopter – except less jerky. The helicopter ride was smooth and graceful and all of us riding were snapping pictures as the ground beneath us changed from browns and greens to whites and blues.
After landing, we all fussed around with getting our crampons secure on our boots while our guide walked around and checked that everybody’s footwear was all put together correctly.
Then we were off.
The hike begins
Hiking a glacier involves quite a bit of stomping – for all of us new to crampons as we learned how to walk with them and make sure they stuck in the ice – and hacking; our guide had a huge ice pick that he slung down to make steps for us through the ice so we could walk up them easier. Our guide put a big emphasis on safety and so on the really steep areas at the beginning while we were still getting used to walking on the ice, our guide would install ropes or check ropes already there from previous groups to make sure they were secure in the ice so we could cling onto them as we made our way up the incline.
In addition to keeping those of us on the tour safe, the guide was extremely informative. He was open to any questions we had about the glaciers and also was quick to share his knowledge whenever we would be stopped for a break between inclines. As we traversed Franz Josef Glacier and crawled in holes that glowed in hues of blue and bright white, we were regaled with stories about the monstrous pile of ice.
We learned the shades of sky blue we saw streaked through the ice was because the thick and compacted ice often found on glaciers absorbs every color except blue, resulting in the phenomenon often called, appropriately enough, “blue ice”. Our guide also informed us how the holes, arches and crevasses in the glacier appear due to a combination of movement, melting and wind. In addition, he pointed out that one thing that makes the glaciers of New Zealand special is that they are bordered by rainforests. Therefore, while hiking up this ancient glacier, I marveled in being able to look around and see green shrubbery and trees to our left and right with waterfalls making their way down through the foliage of the mountain.
Despite the interesting things to learn and see on the trek up and down the glacier, the most fun part was feeling like an adventurer navigating the ice. Franz Josef Glacier is constantly changing and evolving which is why it’s important to go with a guide who knows how to look for sturdy parts of the ice to walk over. The best part was a small tunnel that we all had to shimmy through sideways. The top of the tunnel was dripping water and the bottom was slippery, but I made it through and it was elating.
Here are some additional tips if you go on this tour:
- Bring water to stay hydrated. Also, fill up your water bottle on the mountain from the streams running down the glacier to have truly pure glacier spring water.
- Wear sunscreen. The rays of the sun bounce off the ice and will give you sunburn faster than you may expect.
- Wear sunglasses. The glare from the white ice is very bright and you’ll spend the whole time squinting without sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Fast-drying fabrics are best to wear even with the waterproof jacket and pants you get; jeans are strongly discouraged. You’ll also want to dress warmly, but don’t overdo it. A sweater to wear underneath your jacket should suffice as the top of the glacier can get quite warm, but the temperature drops when you’re at the bottom for the helicopter pick up and drop off.
– Gina Douglas Tarnacki