Franz Josef Glacier: Ice Climbing

Passing through some beautiful scenery including views of kettle lakes, which are created as glaciers retreat and leave huge chunks of ice behind that melt and form deep lakes, we arrived in Franz Joseph Glacier Village which is nestled in Westland National Park. It really is a beautiful part of New Zealand with the glacier region of South Westland is full of natural wonders including sprawling forests, snow-capped peaks, sand dunes, lagoons and beaches set within a varied coastline. This region is the northern gateway to Te Wahipounamu, the World Heritage area in southwest New Zealand. The region includes Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini, Mount Aspring and the Fiordland National Parks. It is a continuous stretch of beautiful wilderness untouched by humans and recognised by its World Heritage status as one of the world’s most natural landscapes. Westland Ta Poutini National Park is a striking feature of the glacial region encompassing the two famous glaciers – Franz Josef (Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere) and Fox (Te Moeka o Tuawe). The glacial region was known to the Maori long before European settlers.

Abel Tasman was the first European to see the Franz Josef Glacier in 1642 as he sailed along the coast. In 1862, the Austrian explorer Julius von Haast named the glacier after the Emperor of Austria. However, the name the Maori call the glacier – Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (the tears of Hinehukatere) – comes from a local legend. Hinehukatere loved mountain climbing and went with her lover Tawe on a hike. Sadly, Tawe was caught in an avalanche. Hinehukatere was devasted and remained in the mountains sobbing resulting in the glacier being created by her tears freezing! The glacier is 12 km long and descends from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres above sea level amidst the temperate rainforest, one of only three glaciers to do this in the world. The glacier also travels up to 50 metres in a day therefore the ice caves and crevasses can vary in structure each day creating a unique and beautiful landscape.

When we arrived at the Franz Josef Glacier Village, we were able to choose our glacier activities. I was the only person in the tour group to opt for the ice-climbing which was surprising due to the adventurous spirit of the group. It was something that I was determined to have a go at, and the following day was spent on the glacier.

Typically, it was full of comedy moments! There were some really funny moments on the ice and if you ever do this activity this is an account of pretty much not to do ice-climbing!

It rained had all night and it was supposed to rain during the day too but by 7am it was clear so I walked down to the glacier centre to register.

It was me and this American couple. They were on their honeymoon! They seemed quite nice. The guy was called Clay and his bride was Dirk.

First we had to put all the gear on!

A fool’s Guide to Ice Climbing:

1. Be completely clueless when fastening shoes, coats etc etc!! I had not got a clue! I had a harness I could not put on, and my shoelaces kept coming undone and my toes could not move due to the super thick socks we had to put on! I also had a pair of ice picks and crimpers – spiky ice shoes!

2. Read all signs about boarding helicopters thrice!

Boarding the helicopter was cool. You have to duck in before you can board it and then you put on head phones on to protect your ears from the noise of the helicopter and to be able to talk to the pilot when you are on board. The view of the mountains and the glacier were awesome! The flight was only about five minutes, but it was spectacular. I have not been in a helicopter since I flew over the Grand Canyon when I visited America.

View of the Franz Josef Glacier

When we landed on the ice I was amazed by the glacier. It was a fascinating beast. It may disappear very soon due to higher temperatures so am so glad I got up there and my day on the glacier was not rained off!

3. Do not drop your water bottle top!!

I decided to have a quick drink and I dropped the top and it rolled down the glacier! It was so annoying and random!

Of course, the people on the walk were the people on my bus. I was the only one who did the climbing!

We just had to practice hitting the ice with picks and climbing up. I was enjoying it and seemed to be doing ok.

Our guide was called Thai and he was from Japan. He showed us how to spot people so when one person is climbing the ice another person has the rope and is pulling it to keep it tight and keep the other person safe on the ice face! Again, I needed special attention to ensure I was doing it right.

4 Never spot someone that is heavier than you!

It was genuinely funny and to be honest I thought I was in a programme like Fawlty Towers but I had to spot Clay. When he was on his way down, I was too light to support his weight so as he was coming down, I zoomed upwards!!! Thank god Thai was there to help!! This happened twice!!!

I think the American couple thought I was crackers!

After the practice Ice wall we went to a higher one that we could climb properly. The Americans were awesome and zoomed up in no time!

5. Never go with Americans who are marathon runners and champion ice skaters!

They were pretty sporty to say the least and had been training for all this! I had ticked a box on a clip board and hoped for the best! It did say the fitness level was difficult though!

6. Do not mentally celebrate you are at the top until you get to the top!!

I had almost scaled the first summit of 8 metres when I slipped. I came right off the ice and fell. I was saved by clay who pulled the rope, so I dangled in mid-air. The fall was cool… My wedgy was not! It was exhausting getting back on the ice face and climbing again! I began to climb again but this time my picks gave way and I fell again! It was an awesome fall! Again, I got another painful wedgy, this was all on the second wall.

The third ice-wall was tough as it was ridiculously hard ice that was in the shade.

Ice Climbing on the Franz Josef Glacier

7. Take rests!

I got so worn out I lost my technique and was in danger of falling again so I had to take rests. I was not as fit as the Americans, but they did support me and took my photos!

We had lunch as Thai set up the final ice wall. It was 20 metres high and curved so you could not see right to the top of it.

I was dreading it a little.

8. Be positive as you will only be there once.

This became my motto as I faced an exceedingly difficult challenge. It was bloody demanding!
The American iron man zoomed up in no time and I went last. I was nervous. The ice was hard, and my left hand could not knock the pick in. I seemed to turn to jelly. Thai let me rest again. I had another five metres to go but there was a ledge which made it difficult to climb.

9. Never hit the supporting rope with your ice picks!

I hit the rope a few times with my picks and with my spiky shoes kicked an important knot! Thai warned me to be careful!

After my rest I realised I just had to go for it. I wanted to reach the top. It was hard work; I was knackered, and my hands and wrists were like jelly but somehow, I came to life and I went for it and I got right to the top of the 20 metre ice wall! When I had got up, I had to abseil down and that was another challenge in itself! I was elated when I got to the bottom. Clay and Thai were smiling a little…

10. Check your spiky shoes for rocks!

Yep, I had gone all the way up a 20-metre ice walk with a big rock stuck in the spikes of my left spiky shoes! No wonder it had been so bloody hard!!

That was out last climb and I had nailed it. We looked at some of the ice caves afterwards which were pretty spectacular. I loved the glacier and I am glad I did the climbing even if no one else did. It was one of those amazing activities that you cannot do in very many places, so I am glad that I seized the opportunity to conquer the ice-walls in the Franz Josef Glacier!

Exploring the ice caves in the Franz Josef Glacier



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