20 Mar Exploring Franz Josef Glacier- A Heli Hike
(Or that time I pulled my shoulder in an ice cave)
They had me at ‘crampons’. When researching all of the fun, unusual, and insane activities we could do in New Zealand, we came across doing a Franz Josef Glacier heli hike.
Exploring a glacier? Sounds cool. Exploring a glacier with cool equipment, arriving in helicopter, and getting to climb down ice caves? Hell. Yeah.
We booked the Ice Explorer trip by Franz Josef Glacier Guides and counted the days until we could be walking on the ice. (I also may or may not have daydreamed of looking all Xena goes polar in my ice-explorer gear).
We’d heard that this trip had high probabilities of getting cancelled because of the weather. You know, they don’t want helicopters to crash and all that nonsense. The day before our trip every single expedition got cancelled. Things weren’t looking so good.
Then, the day came and the sun shone brightly, secretly winking at us. (Maybe it was its way of making it up to us after being AWOL on Milford Sound.)
The trip was on.
After meeting our guide Rob, he took us to a back room where he handed us our equipment: trousers, jacket, really cozy socks, shoes, gloves, and sexy-as-hell crampons. I seriously couldn’t wait to try them on.
Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike
We walked to the helicopter landing and waited for our ride to arrive. We’d never flown in a helicopter before so we were thrilled.
When Franz Josef Glacier came into view from the air, it’s all I could focus on. I don’t know why I expected to see an explosion of white. Yes, there was white, but there was also the brightest clear blue, vivid green, pearly grey, raw black, and ocean-like turquoise, all towering over the colossal glacier. It was hard to keep my mouth from popping open. It was just so beautiful. I know I say this a lot, but believe me when I tell you, if it’s in New Zealand it’s true.
5 minutes later we landed on the ice and it was time to- yes, you guessed it- strap on our crampons!
According to Maori legend, Franz Josef or Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere (“The Tears of Hinehukatere”) was formed when Hinehukatere, a young woman in love, wanted to climb the mountains with her lover, Wawe. (We can certainly relate to that).
But it turns out that she was a badass chick, and a great climber, while he- well- he wasn’t. So he fell and he died.
Hinehukatere, feeling devastated (and probably a little guilty), cried and cried until her tears formed the glacier.
And we were off to explore its slopes.
The views got better and better the higher we climbed. The winding track narrowed, forming ice slits where streams of clear water cascaded down into deep pools. The grey of the mountain, prominent at the base, slowly disappeared making way for more glimmering white. It was hard to picture the scale of the glacier, but as indication, another group making their way back looked like tiny specks on the ice.
New Zealand has a way of reminding us at every turn just how insignificant we really are next to earth’s natural landscapes.
I couldn’t decide if I should look up at the glacier’s peak, or down at all of the ice formations, tunnels and narrow pathways. Besides, my crampons were so sturdy, every step I took was steady and firm. Hell, I looked like I was born to walk on ice. So freaking graceful, if you ask me (and it’s been clearly established that I tend to lean more towards the clumsy side, so I was positively giddy).
The first cave we got to explore was the widest. It was fairly easy to get inside, allowing me to focus on the sight. It was a slippery, shiny, glass-like natural formation. I took my gloves off because my fingers itched to touch the ice. For once, I didn’t mind the cold. Instead, I relished in it.
This was turning out to be one of the most memorable experiences of our lives, and it wasn’t over.
Ahead, there was another opening. We waited to be the last ones so we could have the tunnel to ourselves. As soon as the rest of the group entered the cave, one by one, it was as if the ice swallowed them whole. This tunnel was harder to navigate, as it was narrower and very slippery. I took one step and held my balance. On the second one my crampons failed me.
Damn you, beautiful crampons.
My feet slipped, and as I was falling forward I raised my arm to try to hold on to the- just as slippery -ice ceiling. That’s when I felt it. A hot wave shot up my arm and settled on my shoulder. There it was. You didn’t think I was gonna be all grace and coolness all the way, now, did you?
I tried to ignore the pain as I was still inside the cave, and I had to get out, one way or another.
There was just no holding on. Everything was slick and as glossy as it looked.
Somehow, I was able to find my footing and made it out.
Sigh, always me.
There was still one cave to go and I wouldn’t let any shoulder pain prevent me from having a blast, so I sucked it up. I didn’t even tell Isaac that it hurt. He tends to worry about me.
The last cave was the most tunnel-like. I was the first one to go in and Isaac stayed behind so he could snap this picture of me, which kind of looks like I was eaten by a polar bear, doesn’t it?
Maybe it’s just us.
Well, it kind of felt like that. Not that I know what it’s like inside a Polar Bear, but like I had my own, secluded corner of the glacier. Like we had stepped into another world. There was no way of conceiving the grandness that was waiting for just outside the tunnel’s end.
We reached the highest point of the hike and a waterfall was pounding down between the ice, flanked by the brightest rainbow.
Yes, it was there. No photoshop was involved, I promise.
The sight made me feel like I was a little kid again, if that makes any sense. There couldn’t have been a more perfect ending for an incredible day.
Isn’t it cool when reality turns out to be better than your dreams?
Have you hiked glaciers? Where? Did you enjoy it? Ever suffer an injury while on adventure? How did you deal?