June 29 - Fox Glacier/Franz Josef
New Zealand - There and Back Again
I woke up this morning around 7:15 AM. It was by far the coldest night and morning of our trip. My back was freezing a lot of the night. Andy had gotten up before me to check the battery I was charging and to go to the bathroom. He also went to put his gopro battery on the charger.
He was outside taking pictures of the campsite and the stars. I was wondering why he was doing that because it was ridiculously cold outside. I was shivering inside the tent. My sleeping bag felt wet near my head all night because I was leaning against the side of the tent and didn’t realize it until the morning when I got out of bed. I took a few pictures of the campsite as well, but could barely stay outside for 30 seconds before I was frozen.
We had pre-booked a glacier hike for the day. We had to be at the check-in at 9:10 AM. We took down the tent and had breakfast. We ate the last of our cereal, a banana, and hot chocolate. We needed to pack a lunch too since the hike wouldn’t be over until after 4 PM.
For lunch we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The peanut butter was frozen so when I tried to spread it the bread just got ripped apart. It was the worst sandwich ever. I also had an apple, a boiled egg, and a nature valley granola bar. It was about 8:55 when we finished doing everything we needed to.
We drove down the street to the Fox Glacier Guiding building. When we pulled up it looked like lots of people were already there. Some were going on half day trips, but most that were left inside were going on the full day hike with us. We needed to check in so we went inside and found a counter. I recognized the check-in spot from the promotional video I had seen on their website.
A guy in front of us in line was checking in also. It only took a minute and they gave us a ticket indicating we were part of the tour. They said it would be about a 10 minute wait until we were ready to get our gear and go. We could wait until then.
We sat down in the café area where everyone else was waiting. The guy in front of us in line was from California. He had done skydiving the day before. I heard him talking about it while we were waiting with some other people. He acted like it was the coolest thing ever.
After about 5 minutes of waiting a guy came in and said that if we were on the tour to follow him to the next room. I was changing my gopro card so I had to hurry and then go find them. He was already talking about the trip and explaining the things we needed when I walked in.
We had to get boots, crampons, and socks out of a box. We had to grab a pair of thick socks and then take our shoes off and give them to the guys at the counter and they grabbed us some boots that looked the right size. I was the last one in line.
I got my boots and than put them on along with my socks. I just put the socks on over my other two ankle pairs of socks I was wearing. I figured it would keep me warmer and I didn’t want dirty socks on my feet. The boots seemed slightly big, but they would do.
Next we were issued crampons. They briefly told us how to put them on. I was trying to put mine on backwards at first. The guy showed me how to do it correctly and adjust the size to fit my feet. They worked so he wrapped them together and gave them back to me. I stuffed them in the top of my bag and put my lunch in the bottom of my bag where my cameras get stored.
We were told about what we would be doing on the hike. We would be hiking the Glacier Valley Trail we had done the day before, but then branch off on an alternate route and then hike on the glacier for about five hours. We would walk up one side, and down the other. Then back to the Glacier Valley Trail and back to the parking lot.
Before we could go we needed a few more pieces of equipment. There were bags, jackets, gloves, and hats available. We had everything we needed, but I wanted some warmer gloves just in case. They were big wool mittens, but they were really good.
We had all of our things and everyone boarded the bus. The drive took about 15 minutes. When we parked we were told to divide ourselves into two groups. There were three guides total. Two would go with one group and one with the other.
We were some of the first to get off and the guides weren’t really off yet, so we didn’t know where to line up. He said go on the other side of the large rocks, but nobody followed at first. I wanted to be in the group with the two guides since they seemed cooler, but a lot of other people went over near them when they got off.
We turned and went to the group with the one guide. His name was Dan and he was from Scotland. Our group was mostly girls except for me and Andy and a Chinese guy. It was also mostly Asians. There were a Philippine girl, a Malaysians, a Taiwanese girl, and three Germans. We were in the group of duds.
The other group seemed to be the more athletic group. It ended up being better this way in the end. We had one girl in the group named Iris. She was Malaysian and had no business being on this hike. The first part of the trail was flat and easy, but we quickly branched off into a trail in the woods. I thought we would go as far as the tour groups had done the day before, but we were in a completely separate area altogether.
This hike was much better than the rocky path we had to walk on yesterday. It was steeper, icy, and in the trees. It wasn’t a hard hike though. Me and Andy stayed near the back of the group so we could do filming and not slow the group down. We stopped a few times when our guide gave information about the area and the way the glacier had formed the landscape. The other group didn’t seem to stop nearly as much as we did.
For the first part of the hike our group was in front, but with all the stops we were passed. On one section I got stuck behind Iris. This girl was a complete moron. I couldn’t have walked any slower if I was going backwards with my eyes closed up the trail. At first I thought she was sick, but I don’t know what her problem was.
Our guide kept looking back and seeing how she was slowing everyone down. We stopped at a small waterfall that was dripping off of a mossy rock into a little pool below. Dan said it was fresh water and said we could drink it. Nobody did at first. He went over after a few minutes and drank some. Then one of the Asian girls filled up her water bottle.
Iris was sitting down and looked sick. Dan was talking to her and it turned out she was just scared. He asked if she wanted to continue on and she said she did. I was hoping she would leave. She had no business being out there if she was scared of heights and the slippery trail. She wasn’t even dressed properly. She had no gloves at all or a hat.
We stopped a lot to allow this girl to catch up. Eventually Dan made her walk up front with him to make sure she wasn’t scared and would keep up. It really slowed us down to have to go at her snails pace. We stopped for a little while to get some instructions about an upcoming stretch of trail. We were warned that it was a very steep drop off with no railing. We had to put our cameras up. There was a chain link rope that we had to hang onto for support. He said everyone must do it, not in case we fall, but in case someone behind us falls and knocks us down. He made it sound like it was going to be some tough stretch of hike.
This part of the trail was nothing. It was a drop off, but the trail was plenty wide. You would have to be an idiot to fall off. It was also only 120 feet to the bottom and it was more of a sloped area below. The chain was near the ground and I felt like reaching down for it was more of a hassle than just walking. The trail was a slight climb for this part as well.
As we made it to the top the trail turned a corner and then led to a down hill portion on steps. I could see the other group ahead. They didn’t look that far, but they were in the area just before the glacier putting on their crampons.
We hiked down, but it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer. The trail was pretty steep and down hill through a rocky area. Iris was taking her sweet little time and had to have her little hand held most of the way. This girl was at least late 20s, but acted like a 6 year old and as the day continued it just got worse.
As we got to the edge of the glacier we stopped. There was a rack of walking poles if we wanted them. I think most of the girls took one, but I didn’t see any of the guys grab them. There were already a lot of people walking around on the glacier. There was a group doing the ice climbing tour and a few half day tours, plus the other group in our tour. We knew how to put on the crampons, but not tie them. We sat down to get instructions.
I used the gopro to film myself as I put mine on. It was pretty easy to get them tightened. Walking in them was awkward though at first. Once everyone had their walking shoes on we were ready to hit the ice. The first thing we saw was a small ice cave. There was an entrance and it went back about five yards and was about nine feet tall. I assume it wasn’t man made.
We all got pictures of ourselves inside it and then were ready to go. To get onto the glacier there were steps carved out of the ice. It was really cool. The crampons were making it easy to walk on the ice as well, otherwise our feet would have been cold and we would have been slipping all over the steps.
As we got up the first set of steps we stopped for a little while to watch the ice climbers. I asked how many walls they would climb on that hike since we had considered doing it. Dan said between 6-7 if we were good, and only 1 or 2 if we weren’t. It sounds cool, but it was really expensive.
The Asian lady we were watching trying to climb this 25 foot wall was struggling pretty badly. It took her about three minutes just to get two feet off the ground. One of the Asian girls was standing by me and we were laughing about it. I said she wasted her money and that she would maybe do half a wall and be done for the day.
We watched for at least 15 minutes and she finally made it to the top. She would probably be good friends with Iris. Luckily there was only 2 or 3 people on that hike. If I was doing that adventure and someone was that bad and that slow I’d hope they’d just leave them behind.
We left the ice climbing area and continued down the ice trail. We had to climb a few more steps and pass through a narrow passage along the way. At the top it opened up to a huge ice cliff. We walked by that and up a few more stairs.
We were walking in a zigzag path across the ice to keep from creating sliding areas. The guide said by doing that if we were to fall we wouldn’t slide too far. The other group that was with us went a different way. I think they went to the left while we walked up the middle of the glacier.
It was about 11:30 AM at this point. We were going to stay on the ice for about 5 hours according to the itinerary. Our group was extremely slow. Iris was up front with the guide to set the pace. She had a walking pole and I think it slowed her down even more. She didn’t even use it properly. She just carried it. There were times when I didn’t think she even knew how to walk properly. There would be a patch of snow, ice, a rock, or a step and she would just stop and look at it. Scared or too stupid to continue.
The guide would have to turn around and grab her hand. It got to the point where his helping just made it worse. Anytime we were going to go to a part that he felt could be slick or steep he would say not to be scared to the whole group, but look directly at Iris. And then make a comment about how she shouldn’t be too scared and to have confidence. By doing those things he was just making it worse for her.
As we walked on the ice me and Andy stayed in the back. There was a Malaysian girl in front of us and a German girl hung around the back too. We seemed to be the only ones stopping to take pictures. The group would get 30-50 meters in front of us, but because they were going so slow we could easily catch up to them in a matter of seconds.
At first it was frustrating to be in the slow group, but I realized after I saw how fast the other tour was going that we couldn’t have stayed up with them. We stopped and did videos and pictures of the glacier and mountains around us and could still get back to the group very quickly. The other group would have left us behind and because of the nature of walking on the glacier we had to follow the unmarked trail or we could fall in a crevasse.
In the end it was a good thing to be in that group. The guide stopped a few times to explain things about the glacier, the history of the area, Maori traditions, and how to walk on the ice properly in crampons. This allowed us to take more pictures.
The Fox Glacier is actually receding while advancing. All glaciers are moving forward due to gravity and the sheer weight of the compact ice. It can take a few years of snow fall to accumulate to start creating a glacier, but in some recent years it hasn’t snowed as much at Fox Glacier as it did in the past. In addition, the front of the glacier is melting faster than snow is being added at the top. As a result, the glacier appears to be going backwards because it is melting while it moves forward.
The Maori people have lots of traditional stories about how New Zealand was created by their Gods. One of the stories talks about a man that loved a girl so much he would walk through the valley of Fox Glacier to see her as often as he could. One day he fell and died. The girl was so sad that she cried and cried. Her tears flowed down the mountain and froze. One formed Fox Glacier, and the other formed Franz Josef Glacier. I guess it makes sense since they are on opposite sides of the mountain and shaped like a tear drop.
To walk uphill with crampons we were told to stamp our feet into the group to make sure they enter the snow. On top of the snow the crampons are useless and don’t get the effect they are supposed to have. To walk down we were told to walk like a duck, not sideways the way you might if you were on a steep trail in normal shoes. At one point Iris just stopped and looked around like she was lost. The guide had to literally tell her to just put one foot in front of the other. I don’t think this girl even knows how her legs work.
There were a few times when walking that the spikes on my crampons got stuck in the lace of the other crampon. It made me slip and I almost fell down a few times. A few times other people did fall, but I’m not sure if they stepped wrong or if their shoes got tangled.
There were mountains surrounding the glacier. We could see a large bulge near the middle of the glacier, that is where we were headed. This part looked like it would have lots of crevasses and narrow passages to walk through. Before we got there we stopped for lunch near a rocky area on the glacier around 12:30 PM. We stayed there for about 20 minutes. It wasn’t very well protected from the wind so it was kind of cold. The Chinese guy was smoking and I asked him to go stand down wind from us, but all he did was go behind a rock, so the wind was still blowing it towards all of us.
I didn’t bring water on the trail and I wasn’t even hungry or thirsty since I had been chewing gum all day. I wasn’t going to eat my boiled egg at first because I didn’t want to peel it, but I decided I would since the trail is the reason I wanted to boil eggs anyway. It peeled really easy anyway.
As we finished eating we packed up our things and started walking again. We put our gopro’s on our head to get more videos and make it easier. We walked up to the most fun part of the hike, the bulging portion of the glacier. It didn’t seem like we were going that slow since I kept stopping to take pictures and when I would walk I had to walk fast to catch up. I don’t even know if I followed the same trail that everyone else had taken. I just tried to follow the spike marks in the snow and ice.
The other group caught up to us as we approached the crevasses and narrow passages. I was in the back of the pack still. I could see them gaining on us very quickly. In order to go further at one point we had to climb a set of steep steps through a narrow passage. There was a red rope to hang onto for support so I grabbed it and pulled myself up with both hands. I think I was pulling too hard because the girl in front of me was only holding on with one hand and started falling over. I let go of the rope at that point. I didn’t need it anyway.
From here there was a serious of passages like a maze. We wondered around in them for about an hour or more, stopping to take pictures. The ice was in all kinds of weird formations. There was one portion that was a tunnel with two openings. It was about 18 inches across and about 20 meters high at the first part. I had to walk sideways to get through, and leave my bag behind. Everyone was stopping to get their picture taken one at a time. We were some of the last to go through.
At the end of the tunnel there was a covering over top of our heads and it made a small little igloo type space. In order to get out we had to step up a few feet and crouch down to crawl through a little window. It was pretty neat. We had spent enough time in there and it was time to start heading down.
The German girl noticed we were taking a lot of pictures and videos and asked why we were dong that. I told her just because we wanted to and that we were kind of filming a documentary of our travels through New Zealand. I think she thought we must have been doing it for something important since she commented on the fact that we had such nice cameras and lots of equipment. I told her we would put the videos on you tube, but probably not anything else. I should have told her we worked for National Geographic or something.
The hike down was pretty quick, except for Iris. I got way behind at this point. I turned around to look where we had just come from. Coming up over the mountains was the moon. A few people stopped to look and everyone started taking pictures. I put on my zoom lens to get better pictures.
Along the way down our group stopped to get our picture taken. Everyone that had a camera gave it to the guide, I didn’t give him mine since Andy used his. He had too many cameras, so he passed them off to members and guides of the other group. Our guide jumped in the picture as well.
Three different people were taking our pictures. One of the guides had Andy’s camera and took our picture. He was excited to have a better camera and started turning vertically and horizontally and took three or four pictures.
After picture taking was over we began walking down again, the same route we had taken on the way up. Again I was way behind. The other group had passed us by and was moving fast. Luckily Iris was still being her normal self, slow as possible. We eventually made it back to the area just off the glacier where we put our crampons on.
We all stopped to take them off and pack them up. I had mine in my hand since I couldn’t get them to fit in my bag, but Dan said I had to pack them in case I fell. I told him I was tough, but he insisted. I stopped and put them in the top after some shoving.
I was hoping we wouldn’t go back the way we had came. I couldn’t imagine how long that would take and I had to go to the bathroom. I had needed to go since lunch, but there weren’t many options in the middle of the ice. The German girl had said she needed to go earlier, but said she could wait.
We went back down the trail the way the group the day before had gone. It didn’t look that far from the steep trail we were on, but it felt like as we walked down that we weren’t getting any closer. Eventually a few other guides caught up to our group and started talking to Dan.
A few were just guides that hang out on the ice in case there is a problem, but two of them were a guy and girl that had been skiing at the top of the mountain and stayed over night. They had a helicopter bring their things down, but there was no room for them so they hiked down a trail called “Suicide Alley.” It was given that name due to the amount of loose rocks and slides that occur in this area. At one point Dan told us to look for them coming down the mountain to see them pass this treacherous area if we could. I
I was able to catch up to the front of the group since I wasn’t taking anymore pictures. Dan slowed down a lot, and realized that he needed to go back to help Iris since there was a water crossing coming up.
At this point I just walked as quick as I could. I caught up and passed all the people in the other group ahead of us. Andy had made it up to me as well since he needed to go to the bathroom worse than I did. He was to the point of almost jogging back. I didn’t take any pictures or videos from the time we got off the ice until we got back to the parking lot. I immediately went to the bathroom. They were really nice and clean. All the bathrooms I have used in New Zealand have been great actually, even the pit toilets.
We got back and had to wait for the bus for about 3 minutes. When the bus pulled up we all got on. Andy was still in the bathroom when they started counting heads. There were supposed to be 18 of us on the bus, and there were only 16. A guy came walking up and Andy was right behind him.
We got back to the Fox Glacier Guiding building and returned our boots, crampons, and mittens. I was the first one to turn my things in. Andy was talking forever to get his stuff off. If this was a challenge in Amazing Race we just lost.
One of the guides told us on the bus drive back that we got certificates for completing the trek. We were waiting around, but I didn’t know where these certificates they were talking about were. We went outside to look, then to the front desk, no certificate. We went outside and Andy took pictures of the bus since Andy said it was a historic bus.
We went back inside, but I didn’t see anything still. We walked around the gift shop for a little bit, but I didn’t see any shot glasses and the other things were way too expensive. I went back outside to get a picture of the bus and Andy went the other way.
When I came back in he was standing in line to get his certificate. Our guide was signing small little papers and dating them. I got in line behind him and we got our certificates. We got back in the car and headed for Franz Josef Glacier, about 30 minutes down the road. It was about 4:35 PM at this point.
We drove down the curvy road pretty quickly. As we approached the town we saw a sign that pointed towards the Franz Josef Glacier. The weather was good so we thought we would try to see it before it got too dark.
There were four hikes at the parking lot. One was the Franz Josef Glacier hike, an hour and a half return. A forest hike, which led into the Franz Josef Glacier hike, which was 30 minutes. We planned to do those two in the morning. There was also the Sentinel Rock Hike, which was only 900 meters, and provided views of the glacier. There was also another longer hike, but we didn’t intend to do that since it was 7 hours.
I ate a granola bar for energy. We put on our bags and started running down the trail. We wanted to beat the sunset. The trail was really icy and slippery. We passed a few groups coming down and they probably thought we were nuts for running. We had to cross a bridge covered in snow so we just walked across that to keep from falling.
We ran for about 5 minutes and then came to a fork in the road. It was technically the start of the trails. To the right was the glacier walks, up and to the right was Sentinel Rock. We stopped just for a second and then continued running.
The trail wasn’t as icy, but it was very steep. I ran about 750 meters of the trail and then had to stop. My throat was hurting from the freezing cold. Andy was a little bit ahead of me. I yelled up to him if it was the end of the trail and he said no. It was a few more switchbacks and then I saw him stop.
There was an opening in the forest that led to a platform. We had made it just in time. We were at least a mile and a half from the glacier, but the views were good. The mountains were turning pink as the sun was going down. We stayed there for about 10 minutes taking pictures and reading the signs.
I was really tired and felt like throwing up. I couldn’t stop coughing. I didn’t have any water, but I did have an apple with me. I ate that. It gave me just the energy I needed to get down and was wet enough to act as water.
We headed back down at about 5:30. We did a 45 minute hike in about 20 minutes. To get down we just walked quickly for most the way, but we did run a little bit. Back at the fork in the road we went slowly since it was icy. We had to cross the bridge again. I slipped a few times, but never fell.
We got down at about 5:45, just as it was about to get dark. It was the only hike we have done this whole trip that we didn’t film any gopro videos. We needed a place to stay for the night. We had a few places picked out, but didn’t know which would be best. We drove back to the main road and turned towards the town.
We passed a few places, but most were hotels and hostels. We saw one called Rainforest Lodge. It looked pretty nice and was in our guide book. It had a spa, kitchen, and camping areas mixed in with cabins and a lodge.
I went inside to ask about camping. The girl at the counter thought I was nuts when I said we had a tent. She asked where I was from like they do at all the places we stay for their records. She thought I was from Ireland. I told her I had been in the country for 3 ½ weeks so my accent was a mix of American and New Zealand so I sounded Irish. I have been using a fake New Zealand accent a lot, but never near other people except Andy.
She said that the tent camping area was very small, but next to the playground. It was really dark as we drove around looking for the area. All we could see were campervan sites and cabins. It looked like we needed to go down a road that was blocked by a huge tour bus. We passed the kitchen area and playground and assumed that was the tent camping area.
There was one picnic table and three parking spots. It was about 30 yards by 30 yards. We found a flat spot and threw up the tent. It was pretty cold outside, but was only supposed to get down to about the mid-20s for the night.
I didn’t wear my gloves to put up the tent so they wouldn’t get wet and they felt like I dipped them in a bucket of ice water after 10 seconds. They were hurting pretty badly and I eventually had to put them on. I was trying to keep them from getting wet since our tent was still a little wet from before since it had frost on it, and it would just melt during the day and refreeze at night.
We wanted to have dinner so we went into the kitchen. I went in to see the facilities and there was a TV area with a small kitchen. Four girls were on the couches watching a movie. It was really warm in there since they had a portable plug-in heater.
There were two Spanish speaking guys eating something that looked like rice in sauce and then there was a guy and a girl cooking a huge feast. We planned to have a salad, spinach, and fettuccini alfredo with a piece of bread followed with cookies and chocolate. We also drank hot chocolate.
Our meal finished cooking pretty quickly. As we were eating the guy and girl were still cooking their food. On the TV was “Courage Under Fire.” The girl was watching that while the guy cooked. Their feast finally finished. They had a huge plate of rice with vegetables, and beef stew. It took at least 45 minutes to make their meal.
We finished eating and then went to the reception area to find out about internet. I needed to transfer my money to my bank account by Monday. It was Friday so it wouldn’t be there until Monday. I only paid for 15 minutes of internet. I was able to get my things done really quickly. I read about how the Healthcare Law was upheld by the Supreme Court and how each political side tried to spin the decision to fit their agenda.
It was about 8:10 PM when we went back to the kitchen area. We wanted to write in our journals in a warm place. The guy and girl were still there watching “Courage Under Fire.” Afterwards a movie with Russell Crowe came on. I hadn’t seen it before. He was a businessman from England that inherited a vineyard and home in France so he went there to sell it and make some money. While he was there he fell in love with a girl he had known when visiting the region as a child. They ended up together. It was pretty predictable and a repetitive movie.
We finished writing around 10:45 PM and went to the tent. The tent was covered in frost since it was so cold and it had been wet. Luckily my sleeping bag is really warm and with the hot water bottle at my feet I was hoping it would work great.