NZ Post #20: Get Your Crampon

02/09/11 - Franz Josef Glacier

Up and at ‘em, we got our gear together for our hike on the Franz Josef Glacier. We'd chosen the all day excursion, which meant more bang for our buck. And, because we’re two very fortunate young women, the sky happened to be blissfully clear! No rain. Only sun. All day. We. Are. Lucky.

After a quick breakfast and lunch making session, it was a hop, skip, and a jump over to Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour center. There were a lot of people milling about, many of which looked geared up and ready for departure.  It made me nervous.

When we were told to be there at 8:15 A.M. did they mean earlier somehow? As it turned out, it was an entirely different group I was worrying myself over. Paranoid Alice, comme d'habitude.

Once checked in, we filled out our paperwork and got herded through an assembly line of gear. Boots, socks, rain pants, bum bags, crampons, raincoats, hats, gloves – they had it all. Anyone could walk in off the street in a state of complete un-preparedness and be ready to go within minutes. Rain or shine, gear or no, these people covered all eventualities. In this way they reminded me of…well, me. Except my gear smelled better.

Franz Josef From Afar

Franz Josef From Afar

We plucked our stuff up and moved on, trying to find an available corner to pack and situate. The only thing we ended up declining were the boots/socks and hats/gloves, as we’d brought our own. Next, we were told to make a pit stop at the bathrooms, as it would be our last opportunity until we returned. Then we were loaded onto a bus and driven about ten minutes away to the site of the glacier. A ten minute walk through the woods brought us to the edge of a wide ravine covered in an obscene amount of gray glacial rock. To the right of us, pressed tightly between two mountains, sat the Franz Josef Glacier: a gargantuan sheet of ice that swept down to the valley floor like an unfurled carpet. It conveyed a subtle invitation for us to step forward and tread lightly.

Before continuing, our guides led us to the side of the main tourist trail so that we could break off into smaller groups. Our options: Fast and challenging, slow and photo-happy, or somewhere right in the middle. We chose the last option since we did want to take a lot of pictures but didn’t want to be lame. The guide that came with our group happened to be a woman who was buff and totally kick-ass. She took us to the base of the glacier where we splintered off into two smaller groups of twelve. Just like that, we had a new guide, which I would’ve been disappointed about except our new guide was also a woman and also kicked major ass. Her name was Jess, she was Australian, and she said we were very lucky because there were only 8 female guides out of the 50 on staff and we just got assigned two. Nice.

Before our adventure truly began, Jess revealed some fascinating information about the Franz Josef Glacier. One particularly interesting fact: Franz Josef is one of three temperate glaciers in the entire world. Temperate means it exists only 250 meters above sea level. The only other two are the Fox Glacier (which is in New Zealand and only 50km away) and a glacier in Argentina. We also found out that today was the first day of nice weather in quite a while, which meant the ice would be bluer than normal. Hearing all this made our imminent hike that much more exciting.

Base Of Franz Josef Glacier

Base Of Franz Josef Glacier

At this point we were finally given the go ahead to step over the yellow safety rope that kept the common tourists off the glacier. We, however, had special passes. That’s right, we were heading into…the danger zone. (Now I’ve got Kenny Loggins singing in my head).

We climbed up a steep slope of flat, dull stones. One might have thought we were climbing up the scree of a mountainside and hadn’t actually reached the glacier, but they’d be wrong. Underneath that massive heap of rock was ice. Periodically you’d see it peeking through. A squish beneath your heel or a watery patch of gravel would be your only clue that below lay a mammoth mound of glacial ice.

During our way up a kea bird flew out of nowhere and landed alongside the trail. I was so excited! All along the Milford Track I’d wanted to see a kea, and though there were many signs warning not to feed them, nary a one came out to beg. They are New Zealand’s own alpine parrot and are known for their wily ways. Given a chance, they will open your bags and untie your knots, all with the hopes of getting at your food. They are also protected birds. I had given up hope of seeing one in the wild, but there he was – green, large, and obviously interested in what we had on our backs. Don’t worry, we didn’t feed him. Besides, our guide would have clobbered us if we had.

Once we reached exposed ice Jess instructed us to put on our crampons. They have a surprisingly simple design: Adjustable metal frames with sharp teeth on the bottom that attach to your boot using a  simple nylon strap. Ingenious, really. She told us to walk with our feet shoulder width apart and to trust in the crampons, they’d keep us steady.

Snowy River

Snowy River

And she was right. As instructed, I kept my feet pointed forward as we headed down the initial slope of chunky ice. As you’d imagine, your mind sees the ice and tells you: “This isn’t right, you’re going to slip and fall!” So you start out stepping gingerly, but with each step I felt the crampons taking hold. It was akin to feeling your boot press into a mound of fresh powdery snow. The two just fit together, like a hand to a glove. Pretty soon I felt as comfortable hiking on a glacier as I would hiking up a mountain, only this mountain was made of ice.

Our pathway was somewhat distinguishable. Shredded chunks of ice paved the way. It looked much like the crushed ice one would get out of an ice dispenser. It glistened in the light, pure and enticing. As the heat of the sun warmed the surface you could see a faint mist wafting off the ice. Periodic hisses and creaks emanated from below. Meanwhile, a waterfall cascaded down the cliff beside us. It was all a constant reminder of what was beneath our feet: We were walking on water.

By this time everyone had shed most of their outer layers, because despite standing on ice it was a fairly warm day. Our raincoats were tucked away and hopefully wouldn’t be needed. That’s when we ventured into our first crevice. We were told to "walk like an Egyptian," which meant turn to the side with both feet pointing forward. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. I touched the ice for the first time as the walls closed in. It felt wet and freezing cold (naturally). The inner tint was a cool blue that swallowed us up and spit us out the other side.

Back and forth, like typical switchbacks, we wended our way up the face of the glacier. Jess, being the awesome woman that she was, carried an ice axe and cut new steps into the surface every so often. The track had to be constantly maintained due to melting and shifting. Evidently, the Franz Josef was an exceptionally fast moving glacier; it moves an average of one meter per day, whereas a typical glacier moves that much in the span of a year!

Katie Is Cool

Katie Is Cool

As we crossed deep fissures and climbed ice steps, we could see that the glacier itself wasn’t pristine. Thin ribbons of gray threaded through the frozen terrain. Tiny sticks, leaves, and rocks emerged. But for the most part it was a brilliant white with a hint of blue. Sunglasses were quickly whipped out to take the edge off the glare.

We ate lunch high up on a frozen ridge whilst sitting on our bum bags (appropriate name, no?). Afterward, we advanced up to the highest point on our trail. Due to the depth and pressure here, giant waves of ice had formed. We were standing within the folds of an angry frozen sea. Our hands gripped rope before too long, helping each of us over these giant ripples. We then got the opportunity to squeeze our bodies through a small ice arch. Jess took photos of us as soon as we made it to through to the other side. I only mention this because she went into a fit of hysterics when I popped out and posed for the camera. She said all she could see were two eyebrows flying up into my forehead. I must admit, my eyebrows do wacky things. It’s in their nature.

During our downward trek we would sometimes take breaks when other groups blocked our path. On these breaks we often had walls of ice boxing us in, so I’d refresh myself by licking them. It was the first ice water I’d had on the whole trip! (Note to Schubert: It’s just like Germany here – no ice!)

Below, with the grandeur of the glacier rising behind us, we took a group photo. Then I borrowed the ice axe to take a picture of yours truly looking kick-ass (in my own lazy way, of course). I did take a few swings into the ice for good measure. Very fun!

Straddling The Line

Straddling The Line

Our crampons were removed the moment we stepped back onto rock. Good thing, too, because hard metal scraping against stone doesn’t sound too hot – like nails on a chalkboard. By the time we reached the valley floor we had been on our glacier adventure for approximately 9 hours!

The good news: This excursion carried the same cost as 3 minutes of bungee jumping. Awesome deal!

The bad news: We hadn’t urinated for 9 hours!

Naturally, both Katie and I were to the point of bursting. I’m not trying to be vulgar, I’m just stating a fact. And we still had 40 minutes of valley floor to cross! We strode over sliding rock with one thing on our minds, and when we got to the other side Jess had this regrettable news to tell: The bus had just left with another group and we’d have to wait until they got back to pick us up. Oy!

We still had to walk a short path through the forest to get to the parking lot. Because of the bus delay, however, Jess suggested taking us on the rainforest trail. I wanted to shout: “For the love of God, I’ve seen rain forests! What I want to see is a bathroom!” I bit my tongue, of course. Poor Katie was in worse shape than I! An hour earlier we’d been joking about our state of discomfort, now we were tight lipped and white knuckled. We both  stared at the ground and marched, hoping beyond hope that there was a bathroom at the parking lot, because if there wasn’t I suspected we were going to make use of the bushes. I mean, seriously, at what point do you just throw your dignity aside? I think avoiding a bursting bladder is worth losing some dignity, don’t you?

When we finally made it to the parking lot we were relieved to find bathroom facilities (and I mean relieved in every sense of the word).

A Group Effort

A Group Effort

That evening, tuckered out from our day on the ice, we enjoyed complimentary passes to the local hot pools. There were three pools of varying degrees: hot, hotter, and burning. It loosened the muscles nicely, and despite the communal feel the atmosphere was lovely and tranquil.

It was a nearly perfect day. The only downside: Due to the reflection off the ice Katie was now sporting a mustache sun burn.