Extreme New Zealand: Conquering Fox Glacier

Extreme New Zealand: Conquering Fox Glacier

Picture the scene: You’re on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand. You awaken to a rare sunny day on this coast, as it covered with lush temperate rainforest and receives over 50 feet of rain every year. You step outside your cabin and are greeted by the majestic snow-capped peaks of two of the country’s tallest mountains, Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. You inhale a deep breath of salty air because, despite the fact that two 10,000-foot peaks are right in front of you, the Pacific Ocean is directly behind you.

Today you are going to visit a river…and you are going to walk on it. You can do this because the river you’re walking on is in fact frozen. This river is known as Fox Glacier.

After working for two straight weeks without a day off, Jeremy and I were blessed with two days off in a row – and they were even the SAME two days! Since we’ve barely seen the world outside Rydges Hotel for fourteen days, we immediately planned our escape route. Our drive began up the long and winding Cardrona Pass between Queenstown and Wanaka, where we were surprised to find that all of the snow was gone for the summer. It’s still a beautiful spot, but somehow it looks a little barren without the white peaks!

From Wanaka, our route turned west and north and across one of only three roads that traverse the Southern Alps. We entered the mountains and instantly were transported to another world of lush green rainforest, soaring trees and ferns, massive waterfalls, and crystal clear water.

Beautiful trees of the temperate rainforest
Beautiful trees of the temperate rainforest

Unfortunately it wasn’t the clearest day – as there are rarely any days in this area without rain – but despite the clouds and misting rain, it was still a beautiful sight. We stopped at the “Blue Pools,” which is essentially an alpine lagoon with the most startlingly blue water you’ve ever seen.

Blue pools
Blue pools

A few more spectacular rivers and waterfalls later, we emerged at last at Haast Junction, the southernmost town on the west coast.

Gigantic rocks in the Haast River
Gigantic rocks in the Haast River

We fueled up, devoured some fish n’ chips, and continued on our way, stopping briefly at a coastal overlook. And here we discovered something terrible.

For those of you who have believed (like us) that nothing evil exists in New Zealand…I have news for you. Allow me to introduce you to a nasty, biting, stinging, blood-sucking beast called the sandfly. They attack you in swarms and relentlessly look for open flesh to feast on – like tiny flying piranha.

Only worse.

While we’d heard of the little buggers from other fellow travelers, we’d not yet experienced them until we opened our car door at the overlook and had HUNDREDS of them swarm into our car! It took nearly an hour of driving with all the windows open to get the last little devil out, but not before they’d stung the heck out of my poor bare feet (while I was driving, by the way – NOT fun).

The overlook where we were attacked by sandflies
The overlook where we were attacked by sandflies

Anyway, seven hours later we finally arrive at the tiny town of Fox Glacier and immediately turn off on the access road for a distant view of the frozen river we’d soon be hiking. It really doesn’t make any sense to hike through lush green rainforest and suddenly see an 8-mile long gigantic river of ice!

It takes a while for your brain to catch up and process what’s right in front of you. The only other place in the world with the rainforest/glacier combo is in Patagonia in southern Argentina.

First glimpse of Fox Glacier
First glimpse of Fox Glacier

Thrilled now at the prospect of our hike, we headed into “town” (that is SUCH a relative term in these parts), found a room at a holiday park, and hit up Cook Saddle Bar and Restaurant for some steak and barbecued spare ribs – yum!!!

We awoke in the morning to a rare sunny day, packed up, grabbed some snacks, and checked in for our half-day trek. They provide some serious hiking boots, jackets, alpensticks (wooden hiking stick with an ice spike at one tip), and crampons (spiky attachments for the bottom of your boots so you don’t slide on the ice).

Then we’re briefed on the fascinating history of the glacier. Centuries ago, it flowed all the way to the coast and an additional SIX miles out to sea! Today it remains a steady eight or so miles long and covers approximately the same area as the city of Phoenix, Arizona. At its deepest point, it would completely BURY the Eiffel Tower! It advances anywhere from 2-5 feet every day, constantly melting and grinding against itself as it flows down the valley.

Beware of falling white and black!
Beware of falling white and black!

Every morning, guides go out early and carve steps into the ice for tour groups – which only last for the day, by the way, since the ice is constantly shifting. We arrived at the car park and had a half-hour walk up to the towering face of the glacier, where an impressive river of melted ice churned out like a chocolate milkshake.

We approached the massive face of the glacier but didn’t go up it – far too steep and dangerous (people die every year trying to climb the unsteady face). Instead, we turned onto the mountainside and climbed 800 steps over the next half-hour, through thick forest, over waterfalls, and along a cliff face so steep and narrow we had to hold on to a chain mounted on the cliff face!

The coolest, cleanest water on Earth
The coolest, cleanest water on Earth

At last we arrived at our entry point of the glacier, secured our crampons to our boots – and we were off!

The pictures tell the story of our hour spent walking on this thing. It was truly breathtaking, and surprisingly easy to walk on. No slipping or sliding at all, thanks to your handy dandy crampons! Every few moments you hear a loud sound, something akin to someone’s knuckles cracking, which was in fact the glacier creaking and moaning and shifting on its way down the valley.

We crossed a few glowing blue crevasses, watching ice climbers from afar going straight up the vertical faces of the glacier while a cold katabatic wind whipped down from the mountaintop. On the valley floor and in the forest, it was easily in the 70’s or 80’s, but on that ice, you’ve got a near-freezing wind chill.

Jeremy and I were right up behind our Welsh dreadlocked guide Llewellyn, where the running joke got to be, “Follow the Floridians to certain death!” (As if we had ANY business being on a glacier, ha!) It was truly awesome.

The weather was pristine for our drive back across the Alps and into Queenstown, so we got to enjoy the view of some stunning peaks that had been obscured by clouds the day before. It’s back to work tomorrow, but hey, at least we had a fantastic getaway.

And we can now safely cross “glacier trekking” off our bucket list!

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