Ice and Spikes: New Zealand

Posted July 3, 2013 by Chris Allsop in Just Back

Entrenched within New Zealand’s Southern Alps is the Franz Josef Glacier, one of the steepest glaciers in the world. We challenge ourselves to this monstrosity and gain new perspectives on a heli-hike.

Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013


he bad weather may have passed, but it had left a present. The corrugated face of New Zealand’s Franz Josef glacier had been softened by an overnight dump of fresh powder, which was now being hurled into the face of our guide as the helicopter touched down upon the ice.

Our group disembarked and trudged over to him. The unexpected snowfall complicated matters, A.J. told us, and would mean a slowed progress across the glacier. We’ d already taken an extra day and a half out of our itinerary waiting for the weather to clear, and now it looked like our two hours on the ice would be compromised by a further meteorological mishap.

But having seen the adventure flick Touching the Void,  I didn’t mind reigning in my impatience. The powder concealed the contours of this ever-changing landscape. While Franz Josef may appear to be frozen in place, it is actually in perpetual flow and riddled with caves, glacial pools, and icy ravines. We fell in line behind A.J., who led us forward, occasionally bringing the hike to a halt as he tested the terrain with his pick-axe.

Immersing in the Southern Alps

Heli-hiking the Franz Josef glacier was the crown jewel of a three-week New Zealand honeymoon. Budgeting heavily, we’d hired the cheapest campervan we could find and started our trip on the North Island, driving the higgledy-piggledy Coromandel Peninsula and speeding past Mount Doom, before traversing the South Island, alongside the serrated spine of the Southern Alps.

While Franz Josef may appear to be frozen in place, it is actually in perpetual flow and riddled with caves, glacial pools and ravines.

As anyone who has been to New Zealand — or seen the Lord of the Rings movies — is aware, the landscape of those islands is a microcosm of everything you’ll find in the great wildernesses of sprawling places like Canada: here, mountain ranges butt up against rugged coastlines, while surging blue-green rivers feed into the fertile waters of the South Pacific and Tasman Sea. What makes it remarkable is how the various elements of the scenery are crammed into a relatively small space, making it possible to see it all on one trip.

Unfortunately, because we’d planned a whistle-stop road trip, we felt somewhat removed from this dynamic landscape. Which was why we had set our minds to try heli-hiking — we would finally be able to immerse ourselves in the environment. Also enticing was the concept of heli-hiking itself. Flying in a helicopter up the face of a glacier and sliding on the surface? Cool. Even if we did crash, it’d be into a glacier.

Westland Tai Poutini

Franz Josef Glacier (along with Fox Glacier) is situated in the tightly-wrapped contour lines at the heart of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, where the towering 12,300 ft (3,754m) Mount Cook marks the South Island’s highest point. Located within a UNESCO World Heritage Area, Franz Josef descends from an altitude of  8,880 ft (2,700m) into rainforest at 780 ft (240m) above sea level, making it one of the steepest, fastest flowing and most accessible glaciers in the world. The Maori name for the glacier is “Ka Roimata O Hinehukatere,” which translates into “The tears of Hinehukatere.”  Since 2008, along with other glaciers in the Southern Alps, Franz Josef has entered a very rapid phase of retreat due to global warming. We wanted to see it before it disappears, forever.

Since 2008, Franz Josef has entered a very rapid phase of retreat due to global warming. We wanted to see it before it disappears, forever.

Driving into this drizzly country, we were struck by the individual personalities of the various national parks that make up the South Island — they were much like the states of the USA, only with sheep instead of people (New Zealand has a population of only four and a half million).

After a winding drive through rainforest cloaked in low cloud, we arrived at the twin townships of Franz Josef and Fox, two settlements in thrall to long chains of compacting ice. Inclement weather had postponed our heli-hiking that day, so we booked  for the day after, aware that it might be called off as well due to poor conditions. Windshield wipers squeaking, we drove to the campsite at Gillespie’s Beach to wait out the night on tenterhooks. The weather on the beach kept us guessing: sunset was accompanied by apocalypse-force winds while the night skies brought a sprinkling of  stars and an intermittent moon; everything on the beach became still except for the long, luminous lip of the surf marking the Tasman Sea.

Glacial Blues

Thankfully, the next morning was crisp and sunny, and Mount Cook and its friends were crowned with dawn gold. We rose early and bombed towards check-in: we had the green light. In an international group of eleven fellow hikers, we were kitted out with waterproofs, boots, crampons and pick axes, and loaded into the chopper. Despite my fear of flying, I felt perfectly safe in the helicopter. We skirted crevasses that seemed to emit an inner blue glow and stared agog at the glacier’s serac-strewn surface. Soon enough we landed halfway up the face, where we met up with A.J.

Literally following in our guide’s footsteps for safety, we searched for ice caves to explore, the snowfall adding to the glacier’s mystery. A.J. regaled us with information: how the region’s rainfall (no less than 243 days a year) contributes to the existence of the two glaciers, and how global warming is causing these geological formations to retreat at an accelerated rate. When he ran out of glacier facts, A.J. told us about his unofficial induction into the Franz Josef Glacier Guides, when a fellow guide nicknamed “Horse” dumped him into a glacial pool.

We skirted crevasses that seemed to emit an inner blue glow and stared agog at the glacier’s serac-strewn surface.

Even under several layers of gore-tex, I was shivering and my fingers were feeling the chills. Thankfully our body was in motion, keeping us just warm enough to resist the treacherous cold.

With each step we took, we dug our crampons deep into the ice, careful to make sure we wouldn’t slip and fall off the slippery ice surface. Looking down on the series of crevasses that seemingly plunge into an endless depth, we knew we didn’t want to end up in any one of those.

We soon came across ice caves that were carved out naturally from the ice mountain. They were like nothing we’d experienced before, with bright aqua-blue walls that appeared expertly carved and polished. One of them appeared to be a tunnel, connecting us to another face of the glacier, equally stunning in cyan color.

We carefully stepped over a tiny fissure dark with untold depth. One of our travel mates  wasn’t so cautious — he stepped in a puddle and sank into freezing cold water up that went up to his thighs.

Of course, the two hours evaporated. The helicopter descended just in time: the sun was suddenly snuffed out by fairy-tale cloud formations and the sky once again took on an ominous hue. As we flew back down, I stared at the treacherous face of Franz Josef, awed by its majesty and extremely thankful to have had the chance to go beneath the surface and see it from a different perspective.


This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013

About the Author

Chris Allsop

Based in Bath, UK, Chris Allsop is a freelance writer with over nine years’ experience. See more of his writing and photography at He tweets about travel, film and cheese at @Dionisio79.

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