A world of ice

The west coast of the south island is magnificent. On one side is the Tasman Sea, a gorgeous coastline with beaches dotted along the way. On the other side are mountains with clouds catching on the top and rivers spilling down the sides. These two forces of nature aren’t usually seen in such close proximity. Rainforests and glaciers both fed by the ocean winds, one by rain, the other by snow.

Mt. Cook in clouds

Mt. Cook in clouds

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are part of this landscape, fed as the ocean wind brings in moisture and deposits it on Mt Cook as snow. This snow then accumulates in a number of glaciers upstream from Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, feeding both down the funnel valleys they are in.

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier

We hiked up Fox Glacier with the Fox Glacier Guide group, doing the all day hike with them. To do this, you get outfitted with proper hiking boots, thick wool socks, dry gear if you need it, crampons and a walking stick.

Geared up for the adventure. The gloves were really a good addition, don't forget to ask for a pair

Geared up for the adventure. The gloves were really a good addition, don’t forget to ask for a pair

You start about a kilometer away from the face of the glacier and hike up the valley across the ground moraine until you get to the ice.

The valley up to Fox Glacier

The valley up to Fox Glacier

From here, you don all the proper gear and the guide leads you up into the face. The beginning has stairs cut out for the half day visitors and tracks from where guides have found safe passage.

Ice stairs

Ice stairs

As you progress, you get out of the areas where there are cut steps and clear paths. The ice is covered in places with glacial till and you can think you’re just walking on the valley floor, until you look up ahead of you and see the rising tide of the glacier. Here the guide searches out a path, cutting steps where needed and routing the group through the face. You hike up, into and over a few crevasses as you make your way up the face of the glacier.

Both of these glaciers are in retreat. The snowfall at the top isn’t as fast as the melt. They’ve been in retreat for the last 100 years, off and on, but mostly in retreat. In the life of glaciers this isn’t a big deal, but to us, people, it’s a big deal. Franz Josef is only accessible with a helicopter now because the face has been cut off by a side river. Fox has retreated up the valley a few hundred meters and is looking to fall victim to the same change that Franz Josef underwent. If you want to hike on these glaciers without the helicopter flight, you should do it soon, or wait for them to advance again.

If you’re in this area, you should also make a stop at the West Coast Wildlife Centre, an organization that works to help the Rowi and Haast Kiwi. The center has an exhibit on Kiwi and on Glaciers, as well as an option to go behind the scenes and see how they take care of building these species back up. While we were there, they had just hatched a Rowi Kiwi two days before and we were able to see it with the back stage pass.

2 thoughts on “A world of ice

  1. Anthony

    I loved this area of New Zealand. I hiked and glacier climbed there too. It’s an impressive nature experience. Twenty years ago both glaciers were a bit bigger and the Franz Joseph wasn’t cut off. I’m afraid global warming is having an impact.

    1. Ryan Post author

      We asked the guides about it thinking on global warming. Their reply was that it probably is having an impact, but advances and retreats are just part of the process the glacier goes through. They described it as a ‘short term perspective’ in the life of the glacier. They will advance again. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but they will. I appreciated the perspective because it highlighted the difference between the way we think of these natural wonders and the ongoing cycle that is larger than our lifespans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>