Franz Josef - It was nice to have met you.

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Friday, November 25, 2011

I come back to you now at the turn of the tide…. Sorry stuck in Lord of the Rings again – Gandalf has just decided to reappear after a ridiculously long winded explanation which allows him to come back from the seemingly dead. I'll let him have it though, he is a wizard after all. I sit here after a long tiring day. And after a long tiring day yesterday. I am now knackered and Kate is busying herself with some laundry and bits and pieces of tidying up. We have decided to live it up this evening by staying in a pretty high spec campervan park in Franz Josef, home of one of the two commercially guided Glaciers in New Zealand. It’s a nice campervan park and we are currently deciding whether to take in the happy hour drinkies in the bar (with a lot of Kiwi Experience travelers – but we will probably opt out when their 'frozen T-shirt’ competition begins) or going to have a soak in the Franz Josef Hot Springs (Which is also likely to be packed to the rafters with Kiwi Experience young people) which we may instead do tomorrow morning/lunchtime.

We are staying at the ‘Rainforest Retreat’ which is probably our nicest park to date, and we are plugged in to power, filled up with water and having a general sort out before continuing southwards tomorrow afternoon. The power sites give you a good chance to regroup but they do not have the ambience you get with camping by a lake in the open or in a secluded wood. Sometimes a bit of luxury is warranted though, especially when you feel broken by the day’s activities.

We stayed outside town last night by a lake and had an especially cold night, but the park was busier than most we stay in. The reason is it is right next to a bit tourist attraction, the glaciers. We booked up a few days ago and have after a 7 hour-ish drive yesterday arrived in one piece and on time to take up our trip. We were the last two bookings or so it said on the online system, giving the impression that this is something popular that you need to book for – especially when it gets closer to summer.

On arriving in Franz Josef we seem to have timed our trip nicely with a large Kiwi Experience group, a company which is somewhere between the Greyhound bus company and an 18-30’s holiday – forced fun at its finest and most irritating. After speaking to a couple who opted for the experience for the ease of it, I am glad we went for the Campervan.

The Glacier Guides at Franz Josef are an organized bunch. We arrived about 5 minutes early with most of everyone else and locked away all of our valuable in a locker on site, the van was parked just 100m away in a nicely placed campervan car park but would be off-road and so a possible target – no chances leaving anything valuable inside. We checked in, were given a little necklace with some clothes card tags attached and then redeemed the tags at different stations around the Glacier centre, first getting overtrousers, boots & socks, then crampons, gloves, hat and finally a nice blue rain jacket. Some half decent gear, a little bit smelly. Compared to the Whale Watch crew, you felt you were getting straight into the action here.

Once togged up; the group of 63 was put onto the bus and driven the short distance to the Franz Josef park a 30 minute walk from the base of the Glacier. We noted straight away the younger people in the group clearly either building confidence for university or pumped just after finishing; they are all somewhere between overly confident and slightly self-conscious and some with an awkward forced confidence that gave them away a little as posers. I am glad I am not travelling with a group like this, however it would give me ample time for people watching – I wouldn’t have any time for my little delves into Middle Earth though.

It was very warm and we walked across to the Glacier. Slowly people started peeling off the many layers we had been advised to bring/wear. Maybe they should advise not to pile it all on at first but to wait until you see what the weather is like at the Glacier. It was like walking in a sweatbox as I chose my Tongariro get-up with now added Glacier overwear. Very toasty. The guides did advise to make the use of the layers though and gave plenty of time to sort yourself out.

When closer to the foot of the glacier we self selected ourselves into abilities. The people that wanted to sprint up the glacier not waiting to cut steps went with the beardy loud confident Cliff, middle groups with Ryan and some Aussie fella, and then the plodders at the back with another Guide. We put ourselves into the middle group with Ryan, which would eventually form group 3 out of 6 – we would move quick but nothing too overly energetic.

We stepped over the ‘do not cross on pain of death’ sign and started hiking up some moraine gravel. The moraine sits on top of the ice as it has been dragged down the valley over time and gave an easier initial ascent without the need for crampons. Once at the edge of the ice though we all took our crampons out of our little handy bumbags and strapped them in place. Walking on the moraine with these is a bitch, but a necessity for a few small steps.

I never knew what it was going to feel like walking on ice with crampons and I have built up a horror story in my head after reading more books than most on Antarctic and mountain adventure tragedy; but they are a revelation. They make walking on ice easier than walking on gravel in normal shoes. Once you start to trust them to stick, they give you some strong footings. They are a little cumbersome; my feet felt about 4 sizes bigger than they are; but they do the job. Very quickly both me and Kate could trust them to hold on the ice and we found the going pretty good.

Now this is where I felt a little let down but it was going to change. The trip is at first very slow. Ryan stopped often to tidy up steps and break bits of ice down to clear the path where the first group just ploughed on ahead making the most of a bad job. It meant we spent a lot of the initial ascent standing in a little line while Ryan swung his pick-axe in a manly fashion. It was very stop start and not very challenging. This was meant to push us a bit at least.

Just shortly after Ryan had then promised we were going to accelerate and go up the hill Kate brought us to a halt to need to treat her blisters. We all stopped. The smiley, constantly laughing (even when there is no need to laugh) Kiwi still nervously laughed but looked disappointed and slightly annoyed and then gave Kate some blister tape to sort herself out. His manner was clearly irritated that we would have to stop for a mini lunch a bit early, but he continued to smile and laugh.

After Kate’s hold up we marched on. We gained altitude quickly, we went through a little ice tunnel, up some steep cut steps the ice started to grow around us. It looked like the forward group were only about 2 minutes in front of us when we stepped up on top of the crevasse field plateau. Ryan suggested we were going to follow this group as they have found some interesting routes. He wasn’t kidding.

The route took us up, down, around, over, under. One of the first trials was a very tight narrow walkway in which it was suggested we may find a little tight. I edged my way along and found very quickly that I could not move and both directly in front of my face and behind was a wall of ice. My body was pinched between the walls and when I took a deep breath to prevent myself from panicking in such a tight space I seemed to sink down further between to two walls. It was difficult to take steps as the footing was only wide enough for a foot and not wide enough to move one foot in front of the other – you had to shuffle. I somehow got some purchase on a mini step and pushed my chest free from the pinching which helped me relax a little. I shuffled my way up and out and then looked back at Kate getting into similar problems. To help I had to give her a little pull every now and again as she got wedged but she was through fine. It was a little uncomfortable to say the least though.

We walked along some more crevasses where steps had been cut into the wall of the ice either side and so you were walking above the drop. Pretty daunting at times but you felt safe. Once we had taken our fair share of this claustrophobic stuff we opened up back onto the plateau and had a ball stepping over some nice big openings in the ice. The openings dropped down and became narrower, giving the impression that if you fell you would wedge for a while at least, but that below in the darkness would be a nice big fall into the water running below. When you thought about stepping over these things it gave you the willies a bit. I was hopping over them for ages not taking it in at all, discussing Arsenals form of late with another Brit and when we stopped talking I couldn’t believe what I’d been stepping over.

Once we had reached our highest point a short distance below the largest crevasses and the large serac ice blocks we turned for home. It was one of those things where even though we were enjoying ourselves, I think everyone was a little relieved. The weather had taken a slight damp turn for the worse and we were all dressed up again and we had been worked much harder for the last couple of hours.

The descent was surprisingly long – it didn’t feel like we had come anywhere near as far up the mountain. I found it really easy descending with the crampons and Kate also mentioned that she didn’t have the trembling legs that we would normally associate with a descent. Having the trust in a footing seemed to help.

We got back down to the gravel eventually and de-cramponed and it was a nice relief. You could feel where your feet ended again. The walk back to the coach was slow and ploddy and the smell on the coach is something that reminds me of days gone by when snowboarding with friends. The smell of the sweaty clothes just builds and builds until the end of the week when you just accept that everything stinks. We sat broken on the coach, very warm and steamed up and barely bothered by the fumes.

The hike had given us a chance to walk on a glacier that is retreating fast every year. It has moved back something like 1.6km in the last 100 years which is a saddening long way when you look at the valley. We saw the power of the glacier, we saw the beauty of it and we got up very close to blue clear ice, perfectly formed. As time goes by, this experience will be less and less special for those that take it so I advise taking the chance if you can while there is still a lot to explore. The full day was worth the $180 cost each (the half day is still $120) and with that you get included entry into the Franz Josef Hot Pools (value $18). It partially redeems our regrets for going Whale Watching. We did consider doing the half day for this, but thankfully turned it down. The full day lets you see all the good stuff further up where the glacier is a little more active after the ice falls.
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