It’s not every day that the average person has the opportunity to frolic around on a slab of ice that’s thousands of years old.
So when I decided I was going to visit the West Coast on my most recent trip to New Zealand, I knew that it was finally time for me to tackle glacier trekking.
There are two main glaciers that call New Zealand’s Westland National Park home — the 12-kilometer Franz Josef Glacier, and the 13-kilometer Fox Glacier about half an hour away. Each is in close proximity to a small town that caters to the thousands of tourists who come to see the glaciers each year, and each offers visitors the opportunity to get out on the ice.
I decided to make climbing the Franz Josef Glacier my quest.
Each year, more than 250,000 tourists visit Franz Josef to see and explore the town’s famous glacier — sometimes more than 2,000 per day. While anyone can hike across the glacial valley to the foot of Franz, those wishing to actually feel the ice under their feet are required to have a guide. You can’t go wrong with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, who offer everything from easy half-day hikes to helihikes to ice climbing adventures.
(Note: These days doing a helihike is the only way to get up on Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.)
Since I was only going to have one night in Franz Josef, I booked an afternoon, half-day glacier hike that would coincide with the time my MagicBus was due into town. We were greeted by sideways rain upon our arrival into Franz Josef, and I was not the only one on my bus seriously considering canceling my hike.
But rain shouldn’t dissuade you from a glacier trek. Rain is extremely common in this part of New Zealand, since Westland National Park is designated a temperate rainforest. Roughly 2 out of 3 days will be wet, and, here, the annual rainfall is measured in meters.
On a rainy (and/or cold) day, the crew over at Franz Josef Glacier Guides will hook you up with great gear aimed at keeping you warm and dry. On the day I went, all 17 people in my group were issued the following:
- Waterproof over-trousers
- Wool socks
- Crampons in a fanny-pack-like bag
- Wool gloves
After gearing up and signing “I won’t blame you if I die” forms at the office in town, the group was herded onto a minibus and driven roughly 10 minutes to the head of the valley that the Franz Josef Glacier sits in.
The Franz Josef Glacier at one point (like, maybe 10,000 years ago) reached all the way from the Southern Alps to the sea. Now, however, it sits quite a few kilometers inland about 300 meters above sea level, and getting to it means a 45-minute hike across the glacial valley. This part of the hike is open to anyone willing to brave the elements.
The elements at the beginning of our hike were pretty brutal — heavy, cold rain pelting down on us and making it impossible to use anything but waterproof cameras. Which was a shame, because the heavy rain meant that the valley walls were covered in waterfalls. Hundreds of waterfalls of all shapes and sizes.
We eventually reached the far side of the valley, where flimsy yellow ropes mark the border between where it’s safe for ordinary tourists to go and where you need a guide to venture. From here, the face of Franz Josef was clearly visible, and we were all itching to get closer.
We divided up into two groups at this point with separate guides — a “fast” group and a “less fast” group. Since I’m probably the most out-of-shape person on the planet, I stuck with the slower-paced group. It actually turned out well, because it meant I had slightly more time to stop and take photos.
Both groups soon began the toughest part of the trek — a steep climb up a glacial moraine. At the top of this big pile of rocks, we stopped to attach our crampons (metal spikes) to our boots. As we were learning the art of attaching these metal contraptions, the clouds began to lift and the rain let up. Before long, we were able to look all the way down the valley.
And, above us, Franz was showing his colors.
It’s safe to say that, at this point, we were all glad we hadn’t skipped the trip.
We spent the next couple of hours following our guide all over the face of the glacier. We climbed up and down ice staircases, peeked into ice caves, saw plenty of waterfalls, and learned all about ice and how it is ever-changing and moving.
And, since the sun never quite poked through the clouds to make the top layer of the glacier crunchy, the ice under our feet was about 20 different shades of whites and blues; glassy and beautiful.
Our guide — a young-ish kiwi guy — was very knowledgeable, and also very considerate when it came to the pace he set for us across the ice. He carried an ice pick with him at all times, and always was at the front of the column, chipping away at the ice here and there to give us all better footing. He hadn’t been on the ice for a week or so, and he was also pointing out features that were new to him as we went along — a new cave that was forming here, a new set of carved steps over there (the guides come out every morning to assess the trekking routes, carving new ones if necessary).
It was pretty amazing to realize that we were not only hiking on a big chunk of ice that has been around in some form for thousands of years, but that this chunk of ice has the ability to change from day to day.
It made me feel very, very small.
By this time, we had climbed a good distance up the face of the glacier, and it was finally time to turn back around. I had to remind myself over and over to pay attention to where I was planting my feet, because my eyes kept being drawn to the vast expanse of ice and the valley lying below us.
It started raining again as we made our way back down into the valley, but at that point I don’t think any of us cared any longer. We had conquered Franz Josef, and we had the photos and memories to prove it.
Out of all the things I’ve ever done in New Zealand (and I’ve done a lot!), this ranks up there as one of my favorites.
If you’re thinking about booking a glacier trekking tour in Franz Josef, here are some other things you should know:
- The Franz Josef Glacier is the more challenging of the West Coast’s two glaciers. It’s steeper than the Fox Glacier, so be aware that parts of this hike can be physically strenuous. While most of the hike is easy, parts of it are very steep. Not to mention you’re on ice.
- It may rain. Even if the day starts out clear and sunny, it could change abruptly. Wear layers, just in case.
- Bring a dry bag. You probably don’t want to risk any expensive camera gear out on the ice. Any you do bring should definitely be kept in a dry bag. I brought along a waterproof HD video camera that also takes HD still images. It was perfect for the wet conditions, and took some great photos and video footage. I also had my regular camera with me, but was constantly paranoid about it getting wet.
- No jeans on the glacier. They’re very strict about this rule, and WILL make you change out of any denim that you may be wearing.
- Bags must have 2 shoulder straps. If you want to bring any water, snacks or photographic gear with you, be sure to pack it in a backpack that has 2 shoulder straps. (I just took a drawstring bag.)
- Report any medical conditions truthfully. Just because you have high blood pressure or a heart problem doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to climb the glacier. It just means that, if you’re cleared to go, the guides will know to keep an eye on you.
- Consider wearing your own boots. Even though you will be provided with socks and boots, if you have a pair of hiking boots you really love, you can wear your own. Even though the crampons may not be a perfect fit for you if you wear your own boots, at least you know you'll be comfortable. I had trouble finding boots that fit me properly, and ended up with blisters on the backs of my heels.
- Lastly, expect adventure! Since the glacier is constantly changing, that means that the guided hikes are, too. No two hikes will be exactly the same, so look forward to surprises and a solid dose of adventure.
**NOTE** — The glacier tour I did is sadly no longer available. Due to how dangerous the terminal face of the glacier can be, the only way to get onto the ice today is to book a heli-hiking tour. (Updated 2014)
Have you ever been glacier trekking, either in New Zealand or elsewhere? If so, what was your experience like? If not, is it something you’d ever want to do?
Disclosure: I received a 50 percent discount on my glacier hike from Franz Josef Glacier Guides. As always, though, opinions are 100% my own.