Strange Geographies: Walking on Glaciers

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If there's one thing I can say about New Zealand (and there are many), it's that it is a place certainly not lacking in geographical diversity. In the South Island alone, a landmass five times smaller than the state of Texas, you have amazing fjords, mountain ranges, a world-class wine country, lonely, bronze-hued mining towns that'll remind you of California's gold country, beaches crowded with albatrosses, penguins and seals, and glaciers surrounded by temperate rainforest. It was that last feature I was most excited about. The Fox and Franz Josef are twin glaciers, and the stars of the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island, because they're both impressive and accessible. I helicoptered to the top of Franz Josef and hiked through its ice caves, and walked to the bottom of the Fox -- and of course, I brought my camera.

I started the day at Lake Matheson, a beautiful body of mist-shrouded water nestled in the foothills that lie between the two glaciers. If you get there at just the right time of day -- sometimes dusk but usually dawn -- you can catch the lake at its most perfectly reflective and still; a perfect spot to stop and contemplate the adventure I was about to go on. I also found a man teaching his daughter how to fish.

When the sun had risen over the mountains, I returned to the town of Franz Josef, where I'd spent the night. (This was in the midst of a week-long road trip down the length of the South Island.) The tiny town is mostly a jumping-off point for expeditions to the glacier -- hostels, tour companies, hiking gear outfitters, and so on. I figured I wasn't going to be hiking on any other glaciers anytime soon, so I went for the luxe option: a heli-hike. It takes you several kilometers up the glacier, far beyond where people can hike on their own, into a constantly-changing landscape of ice falls and caves (with a guide, of course). It was also my first helicopter ride. I have to say, helicopters are the way to go. If I could take a helicopter to the grocery store, I would.

It was only when we took to the air that I got a real sense of the glacier, which from the ground just looks like a big icy mountain. From the air, it becomes clear that it's a river of ice, and you start to understand why the Maori people named it Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which means "the tears of Hinehukatere" -- it really does look like some ancient god's tear-track.

You can see how smaller ice-flows feed the glacier, their tongues licking down from higher plateaus.

Don't look down: what the surface of the glacier looks like from 500 feet; each of those crevasses deep enough to swallow a person for a very long time.

We land in a more stable part of the glacier, and our guide hands out crampons that we strap to our boots. He then begins to forge us a path with an ice-pick. The path is never the same twice: the ice moves so quickly that whatever steps and cut-throughs a guide chops one day will be somewhere else, or gone altogether, just a few days later. The ice under our feet was moving at a rate of about ten feet a day -- a phenomenally fast glacier, by world standards, some ten times faster than typical glaciers.

Why does it flow so quickly? There are several reasons, but one is the amount of snowfall it gets, and the unusually steep angle of the glacier. Our guide, as wild and crazy a New Zealander as we met on our trip, said that after heavy snowfalls he and his friends would jump out of helicopters with skis on and ski down the glacier -- a dangerous bit of fun, by anyone's standards. But that's the Kiwis for you!

There were pools of frozen water everywhere, as clear and clean as any I've seen. I filled my water bottles with glacier melt. For my money, it's the best you can drink! Amazingly, it wasn't that cold on the glacier, despite the landscape -- when the sun came out, it was in the high 50s, and people actually started unzipping their parkas.

And then there were the ice caves -- impossibly blue, teal almost, from the incredibly tight compaction of the ice crystals. They changed and flowed on a daily basis, too, so before we ventured into any of them, our guide had to make sure they were safe. Some were, some weren't.

After an hour or so, the helicopter returned just ahead of a gathering snowstorm and took us back to base. We drove to the next glacier -- just forty minutes away -- and walked to the base of it. Along the way, we saw pools of mineral-rich glacier melt that had turned amazing shades of blue, like this:

After having helicoptered to the top of Franz Josef, walking to the base of Fox wasn't nearly as impressive. Still, it seemed amazing that you could even get this close to the tip of a glacier just by walking a few hundred yards from a parking lot.

One thing that was impressive: the number and variety of frightening warning signs we found around the tip of the glacier, like this one.

And then we were off, headed south, and surrounded by lush green forests on one side and beaches on the other, amazed that we had just been climbing through ice caves in a wonderland of pure white. But such is New Zealand.

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

To get prints or high-resolution digital downloads of any of the photos in this essay, click here.

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April 19, 2010 - 3:00am
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