Ice 'n' Easy (Taking the Lazy Way up Fox Glacier)
25th April, Fox Glacier, New Zealand
"That's cheating!" I said, pointing up at the helicopters flying overhead as we trudged our way up Franz Josef glacier. That was two days ago, and I'd had something of a change of heart since then.
Every now and then an opportunuity arises - at a cost - and you feel that you have to seize that opportunity and say to hell with the consequences/credit card bill. That's why I found myself at 7am paying very close attention to the morning skies over the town situated at the foot of Fox Glacier, still trying to decide if the weather would be to our favour. The sky began a greyish colour, but as the sun rose it was clear that it wasn't cloud, it was just that transitional stage between night and day. Soon the grey turned to light blue and I knew we were good to go - we were gonna go on a heli-hike!
To back-track just a little, we had already been up on Franz Josef glacier two days previously, leaving there just yesterday. Even then, we only got as far as Fox glacier (or the town of Fox) just 23km further south. We turned off to take a walk around Lake Matheson, a location billed as the perfect place to get picture-postcard views of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook. And boy were they right on the money with that description:
We then stayed around town trying to decide whether we could justify the cost of going up in a helicopter. All the scenic flights were quite expensive for the time up in the air (the cheapest was around £50 for a 10-minute flight). Better value were the heli-hikes - a flight further up the glacier, where you can be dropped in the clean, less-visited sections of ice and then spend a couple of hours trudging around before being picked up and taken back to the valley below. The trouble was that we'd missed all of those for the day. So, we decided rather than heading off out of town, then regretting the decision later, we stayed for one more night so that we could see what the weather might bring. And then decide ...
The weather had been forecasted to turn cloudier and perhaps give us some rain but here I was at 7:30am looking at blue skies, struggling to find a hint of cloud. Game on! I went straight over to the glacier hike company, Alpine Guides, and got us in for the 9am slot.
In our time off over the last 5 months, we've covered a lot of air miles and been in a few planes, but standing near the helipad, watching the helicopter start up and feeling the wind from the rotor blades I was pretty excited. This would be a first for me - I've always wondered what it must feel like to take a ride in one of these machines! Manda and I were lucky to get front row seats and as soon as we had climbed aboard, strapped ourselves in and donned our headphones the pilot was peeling away from the ground and pointing us, slightly-nose down, up the valley and over the glacier.
Sometimes a one-word paragraph can say it all. But you know me and detail, right? The other day, as we had worked our way up Franz Josef glacier we had little notion of the glacier's movement, other than it went down the valley in its own lumbering way. From the helicopter, we could see right across the huge ice flow and what must have looked like walls of ice from foot level could be seen as distinct patterns from the air - striations, if you like - which hinted at the glacier's slow but relentless journey from its source thousands of feet higher and a few kilometres back. It was so difficult to get a sense of scale. What looked like puddles were large water-filled cravasses and I didn't spot anyone on the ice. Did that mean people were not there or they were simply dwarfed by the scale of the landscape? As we came in to land on the ice, finally the location of our guides was revealed by the pilot and I realised just how inconsequential they were on the massive tongue of ice below us.
For the next couple of hours we worked our way around the ice, passing by a few ice caves and an ice tunnel. These are formed by opposing flows of ice which cause it the arch up. Then the wind and elements start to take over, carving smooth holes through the middle until it all collapses and the process begins elsewhere. Thankfully, the guides knew where to find some that were big enough to stand under or clamber through, but had not yet reached their use-by dates.
All-in-all, I preferred the experience today to that at Franz Josef, mainly because the ice was cleaner, there were some more interesting structures to see and there were so few people there. Ours was the only group at that part, and it felt great to be there in such fantastic conditions. Oh, and of course there was the comfortable helicopter ride vs a 2km slog to the base of the glacier (as we'd done at Franz Josef).
So to all those people who might have been pointing up at the red and white helicopter containing Manda and I and the other hikers calling us cheats I say just this: "Hah! How are your legs?!" This heli-hike stuff rocks!