The Glacier walk

Trip Start Aug 10, 2007
Trip End Dec 27, 2007

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Friday, September 21, 2007

The rainforest campsite was great, and we were sad to leave it in the morning.  I went onto the web for 2 hours while Jules shopped a bit in the town.  We met at a café and sat outside in the sun and had coffee while we waited for 12:30 to arrive.
Franz Josef is like a Swiss skiing village and we liked it a lot.  We went into our guided walk operator and were psented with walking boots, socks, rain jacket, mits, beenie and snow talons.  The snow talons are sharp spikey steel things that are clipped underneath your boots, to give you grip on the glacier ice.
We had daypacks with samies, water, camera's etc.  So we jumped on the bus and were soon heading for the glacier.
I think at this point it would be good to know what we were heading to, so let's start at the beginning; Franz Josef is one of only three glaciers that are terminal glaciers, i.e. their terminal face is on a warm climatic area.  The other two are Fox (down the road from Franz J) and the third is in Patagonia (Chile). Franz Josef descends from the Southern Alps to just 240 metres above sea level.
The Maori name of the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, meaning "The tears of Hinehukatere". It is located in Westland National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand. 
It was named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865.  He said he thought the glacier resembled the emperor's flowing white beard.  Haast was quite a modest man as he only named about 12 other things after himself!  The town of Haast is filled with all sorts of stuff he named after himself, like a lake, road, etc.
The Maori legend of how the glacier received it's name is as follows:
Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Tawe, to climb with her. Tawe was a less experienced climber than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her until an avalanche swept Tawe from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was broken hearted and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.
The glacier is currently 12 km long and terminates 19 km from the Tasman Sea. It exhibits a cyclic pattern of advance and retreat, driven by differences between the volume of meltwater at the foot of the glacier and volume of snowfall feeding the névé (the big bit which looks awesome as it is a massive snow area).
Having retreated several kilometres between the 1940s and 1980s, the glacier entered an advancing phase in 1984 and at times has advanced at the phenomenal (by glacial standards) rate of 70 cm a day. The flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers. Over the longer term, the glacier has retreated since the last ice age, and it is believed that it extended into the sea some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
This cyclic behaviour is well illustrated by a postage stamp issued in 1946, depicting the view from St James Anglican Church. The church was built in 1931, with a panoramic altar window to take advantage of its location. By 1954, the glacier had disappeared from view from the church, but it reappeared in 1997.
There are markers all over showing where the edge of the glacier has been over time.
We were in the bus for ten minutes and then we reached the public parking lot.  Out we got and began a 30 minute walk that took us through a pathway surrounded by bush and out onto a rocky river bed.  Jeremy, our guide, explained what we were looking at from this distance. 
As the glacier is advancing, it is pushing rocks from under the glacier ahead of itself.  This makes the advancing front look dirty as it is ice mixed with ground from under the glacier.  It is also an optical illusion - as we walked, we did not get any closer (it seemed). 
The walk to the edge of the glacier took an hour.  We walked through the glacier valley and saw how the glacier shaved off vegetation etc. as it advanced years before. We picked our way through the water, rocks etc. and were suddenly standing in front of the huge chunk of ice. 
Your first thought is that it doesn't look that big, but when you look closer, you realise you cannot see over the dirty front bit because it is so high.  The sound of running water is loud and as Jeremy explained how we should put the ice talonz on, chunks of ice would break off and smash loudly just ahead of us.
We got our ice talonz on, courtesy of good East London educations, and were then asked to split into two groups of ten for the glacier walk
We obviously selected the "fit" group who would go first and move a bit quicker (Jeremy said).  We were dismayed to see that Nellie had joined our group!  An explanation is needed - we named an American girl "Nellie" after the song about the pink elephant named "Nellie".  If you walked behind this girl for one minute, you would understand how appropriate the name was.  She began the walk by falling through the first set of ropes that are placed near the entrance to the glacier, warning people about walking to the glacier without a guide.  We all bent down, and stepped over the bottom rope, while making sure the top rope did not catch the top of our back.  Nellie somehow dived through the ropes and ended up on her sizeable stomach (which was at least a soft landing)!  Her nonchalant skinny boyfriend (why is that - how a skinny person often ends up with a larger person?) picked her up, looking as though it was a common experience. 
So, we were wondering how fit you needed to be?  And then we were off.
As usual the Aussies and the Saffers moved to the front and immediately got ahead, competitive natures making sure of that!  The poms and the yanks slipping into their customary positions at the rear.
We set off into the ice, hanging onto ropes from time to time as we climbed up the front of the glacier.  Jeremy had a pick axe and would hack out steps for us to walk on - they were already there but require constant maintenance, so every guide does a bit of ice sculpting as he takes along a group.
Jeremy explained that the walking companies change the route every month to ensure they continually move along the safest route as the glacier moves and the ice freezes in new formations.  I kept thinking he would break out into a rendition of one of the Jo'burg mining songs as he rhythmically hacked away with his pick axe.
So up we went, ensuring we placed our feet downwards in a straight line out in front of us, so as to not twist a knee, and making sure the ice talonz gripped into the snow.  This is important as we were moving in single file and if someone slipped, they would take down the people in front or behind them, depending how they fell.  I made a mental note to stay clear of Nellie, who for all size, kept up well.
How was this possible, well Jeremy was a sly red headed dreadlocked tour guide - he would stop every 10 minutes and explain something about the glacier or give us a riddle, ensuring we rested regularly, shneeeeaaky!
The route we took was brilliant.  We went up onto the dirty ice and then down into the depths of the bluey white ice.  We eased through narrow crevices, we peered down precipices, we tasted the glacial ice etc.
We took some photos, but the video was used much more as we wanted to record the walk as it was for us.
Jules had a close call when we walked down a long set of ice steps and she almost tripped herself.  She managed to catch herself in time and was quick to let the English guys behind her know that could laugh with me!  But, being good poms, they could not bring themselves to laugh and were more concerned about Jule's pride.  "How different we all are", I thought as I laughed with the 2 Aussie guys, realising that I should stop as I did not want to wet myself on the glacier, much too cold!
Shortly after that we stopped for our snack and a 10 minute break.
Jeremy explained that to get up onto the neve would take an experienced snow climber 2 days.  We had been on the ice for an hour and it was brilliant.  The day had been bright and sunny, but as we scoffed our muesli bar we began to feel a cold breeze blowing down the glacier onto us.
The ice was very sharp and when you knocked your hand against it, it was very hard (and obviously cold).
We went back the same way we had come up, except now we had more down sections, which are more fun.

We reached the edge of the glacier far too soon.  Nelly was still with us, Jeremy was bleeding, we were all a bit cold and got a bit excited when a Kea decided to join us for the homeward walk across the glacier valley.  A Kea is a New Zealand bird that looks like a big parrot (see the pics).

And then we were handing in our gear and heading back to the monster, contented and very happy to have done one of the things we originally picked out to do before leaving London.

A brilliant unforgettable experience.
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