When I first arrived in Franz Josef from Queenstown, I was originally only supposed to stay for two days. Those two days turned into five as I waited out a rain delay (the West Coast is by far the rainiest part of the country) for the next crazy adventure: heli hiking on a glacier. And I’m sure glad I waited because the day I finally went up was sunny and spectacular!
Heli hiking is exactly what it sounds like: you get dropped off by helicopter to some remote backcountry destination and hike around. Since the Franz Josef Glacier has been inaccessible by foot for a little while now, flying in is the only option (unless you’re a mountain goat). Was it amazing? Absolutely. Expensive? It did put a dent in my budget, but it was totally worth it.
I went on the Ice Explorer tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides which offered both a walk on the glacier and a helicopter ride (something I’ve always wanted to do). They do offer another option that’s simply called the Heli Hike, which gives you more time in the air for about NZD $100 more, but you spend more time on the ice with the Ice Explorer option. They supply most of the gear you’ll need: rain jacket, wool socks, waterproof boots, crampons, and if it’s cold enough they give you gloves and a hat. The only essentials they ask you to bring are sunglasses, sunscreen, and a few layers of warm clothing. Since it was so warm out, we really didn’t need the extra clothes. I felt just fine in a long sleeved shirt and shorts. After we collected our gear, our guide showed us how to put the crampons on and had a short briefing on helicopter safety before heading out to the helipad.
Apparently the Franz Josef heliport is the busiest in the country. You can hear the rotors echoing through the otherwise sleepy little town all day. I had never flown in a helicopter before and was honestly more excited about that than walking on the glacier itself. It was sort of like riding an elevator—very smooth and not bumpy at all. The flight was short—only 5 minutes or so—but it was awesome. We flew straight up into the mountains up the valley where we could see the whole glacier from bottom to top. The Franz Josef Glacier(and the nearby Fox Glacier) are actually quite unique in that they are just two of three in the world (the other being in Argentina) that descend all the way down into a temperate rain forest. Once we landed safely on the ice, we put our crampons on and headed out into the icefall.
My group consisted of myself, two couples, and six lovely British girls—a nice group of people to spend a day on the ice with. Our guide, Rohan (it may or may not have been spelled “Rowan”, but in spirit of LOTR I liked to think it was “Rohan”), did a great job leading us through the icy terrain. He explained that a glacier must have three qualities in order to be classified as a true glacier: the mass must be made up of ice, must be moving, and must remain year-round. Essentially, a glacier is like a massive frozen river. And we were heading right into the “rapids,” known as the icefall. Just like when moving water turns frothy when it hits larger rocks or drops down, the ice cracks and buckles as where the glacier bed steepens and narrows. This is where crevasses and ice caves are formed, and we spent a good portion of the hike navigating through and around them.
At one point in the hike we got to go into one of the caves where the ice was incredibly blue. I was sure I had actually flown to the planet Hoth where a Wampa would jump out at any second, but fortunately that never happened. It was very surreal walking inside the glacier—I’ve never seen anything like it before.
The tour lasted three hours, which I thought was plenty of time to be on the ice. We made our way back to the rendezvous point and we were off again on a short hop flight back into town. This time we had a view of the ocean as we descended past the rain forest covered hills. Truly a unique place–it’s not everyday that you find glaciers so close to the sea and at a latitude closer to the equator than the South Pole. Upon landing we returned our gear and headed off to soak in the hot pools in town, which was included with the tour. Not a bad way to end a day on the ice!