January 25, 2006
We are spending a few days in Franz Joseph in order to explore the glaciers. Last time I was here, the weather was so bad that they refused to let anyone up on the mountain. This time, I was determined to do the glacier hike – I mean, how many Africans can claim to have walked on a glacier?
The Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers are unique in the world as they are surrounded by rainforest.
Did you get that? You actually have to walk through dense vegetation and then suddenly, there you are: standing with PALM TREES overhead whilst before you sits a MOUNTAIN OF ICE!!!
It is utterly surreal. If you saw this in a film, you’d cry foul and insist that some computer trickery was in play. But no … this is the real thing and if I thought it were possible to describe what it’s like to be there, I would have a damned good try at putting the experience into words.
We ended up doing the half-day Fox Glacier hike with Alpine Guides. I had to talk myself out of the full day hike because I didn’t know if the current state of my muscle health would allow it; and the last thing I wanted was to be carried off the glacier drooling and spasming like a puppet with the strings cut.
The trip starts with a check of health statuses, boots and socks (They have spare equipment for those people who turn up in ankle socks, no jackets and open-toed sandals – you would be surprised) and then grabbed crampons and jumped into the minibus for the 20 min drive to the base of the glacier.
From the car park, a 20 minute route scrambles along the valley floor, flanking the lively and loudly rushing river (which glows a dazzling blue because of the glacial waters) and brings you within safe distance to get the full impact of the astonishing spectacle.
It’s at this point that our day deviates from all others present, because our guide then turns off and disappears through the trees to escort us up the “secret track” that Alpine Guides use for their glacier hikes.
Dennis, our guide, was fantastic and his knowledge and evident joy in his job really added to the experience. To think that you can have a mind-blowing experience like that on a daily basis and get PAID for it … If only the careers teacher at school had mentioned something like this, I’d have paid more attention rather than catching up with my Physics homework that’s for sure!
The whole encounter was a wonder. How can I put words to such an experience to give it full justice?
But first, let tell you about the 10 year old boy who talked pretty much the whole of trip – and I mean EVERY STEP of it. To the point where the guide actually sought Auburn and I out for conversation because we were the next closest people. And probably as a means of distracting himself from tempting thoughts of slapping the child ’til it shut up.
The particularly astounding fact about the boy’s dexterous loquacity was discovering that he had done the starting climb (An hour’s worth; uphill through narrow rainforest tracks, river crossings and scrambling over dislodged land falls etc.); talking the entire time with nary a pause for breath …. with a GOBSTOPPER in his MOUTH!
And talking about the climb up: my, but the views were spectacular.
As we rose, we received ever-increasing perspectives of the valley and the wide river’s meandering path as it emerged from beneath the glacier, wound its way across the basin and between mountains and disappeared out of sight like a glittering cerulean serpent.
You just couldn’t take enough photos to capture the sight. It got so the guide asked us to wait until we reached “Kodak Corner” – which is more than aptly named.
At one point, the guide stops us all and waits for our full attention before explaining about “The Bluff”.
Basically, on rounding the next corner, we would be met by a metal ladder.
We were supposed to climb up it and at the top, would find a metal chain fastened to the rock face itself. He advised us to always have at least one hand on the chain for the next part of the trip – regardless of whether you were an accomplished rock climber or not.
Well … He need not have worried, as most of the group had BOTH hands glued to the chain by sheer panic – and sweat.
The ladder bit was fine.
The problem was climbing up to find yourself suddenly stood on a very narrow rock shelf a long way up the side of a very tall mountain with the wind whipping past; and “down” being the only concept that your brain can process.
Cheese on bread! But my body cussed me good and proper at this point.
Part of me just collapsed out of shock at the extremity of the predicament (knees, bladder and pulse); and another part of me went into the automatic self-preservation mode of moulding my limbs to any available solid surface (brain, common sense and all muscle groups).
Yet there was still a part of me that rejoiced at the experience (eyes, spirit and heart – once she’d been soothed a little).
It was utterly extreme! But not an experience I wish to repeat in a hurry because I still retain a comprehensive and detailed memory of the whole thing (Be still my beating heart).
And all this before I set foot on the glacier itself – what a day! What a day!
As we were approaching the glacier, I looked up to see another tour group making their way across it and quickly directed Auburn’s attention and camera towards it. The result is that delicious photo of people climbing down the steps.
Apparently, Alpine Guides has a 4-man team working 8 hour shifts on the glacier every day. They spend the time checking ice safety and chiselling the steps because the ice melts steadily and if you don’t attend to the existing steps, you have to carve out a new path to get across it.
After donning crampons and grabbing a Birkenstock (the wooden sticks), we were led onto the glacier itself. The crampons were easy enough to use; they just made me walk like John Wayne – with a bee-stung arse. 🙂
One of the things that surprised me most was the fact it was nowhere near as cold on the glacier as I had assumed it would be (Quite weird, but better than suffering frostbite of the nipple).
And then the guide told us that the rocks and boulders that we could see on the glacier had been dated by scientists and found to be some 8 million years old!!! But get this: the surrounding mountains – you know, the ones that were towering all around us in the distance? – were actually the THIRD set that had been formed by the glacier’s progress!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We were taken through a crevasse (a crease in the ice) and seriously, we thought he was having us on. The way through was so narrow that our hips kept getting stuck (males included); and there were several points where you had to pirouette whilst doing the limbo, just to get past the ice shelf. But the bonus was of being told that the crevasse had only been made the previous afternoon and that we were the first people to pass through it. Cool or what?!!
Seriously now, I could wax lyrical about the whole glacier experience for days. But I really AM struggling to find the right words to convey what it was like: plus, my thesaurus just doesn’t have the capacity to fully describe this particular scenario.
Let me just say that if anyone out there is thinking of doing the half day hike then I’d definitely recommend the Alpine Guides trip. Even on the half-day hikes, they take you along the glacier in a way that ensures that you too can garner images equal to the stuff you see on all the advertising posters.
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AUTHOR: I am might war. I have a love of music, the written word, travel, Anime, polar bears, people and “sticking and colouring”.