Day 22: Fox Glacier

We woke up today to the sound of rain on the campervan roof. Not just sprinkles, but on and off downpours interspersed with mist or no rain at all. It didn’t bode well for our glacier hike. So we decided to wait it out, and see if the weather improved, since there was an afternoon hike option we could take advantage of.  This was wishful thinking, since the west coast of the South Island is the rainiest place in New Zealand; the town at the base of the glacier gets 5,100mm of rain a year (over 16 feet!), with even more as you gain altitude. Much much more than home (Boston gets ~1,000mm a year).

So it looked like it was letting up in the morning, so we decided to have a hike in the rainforest. There was this neat forest hike, which involved a lot of downhill and uphill treking, with wonderful dense plant life on both sides of the trail, and a really long, bouncy suspension bridge over a glacial river at the end. It did start to rain again while we were hiking, but what do you expect in the rainforest?

We were somewhat moist after our hike, but feeling generally fit and up for a half-day glacier hike. Eli was feeling better by this point (if still a little tired), and I wasn’t feeling sick yet, so we thought we’d do it.  We drove to the bottom of the glacier before the tour to check it out, and so Eli could collect some glacier pieces to fill his Nalgene with.  He’s thinking he’ll bring them back to the States with him (in liquid form, of course).

So we had a quick bite of lunch, packed our pack (with rain-resistant cover, thank goodness), and got outfitted for the trek at the tour headquarters.  Leather boots, rain pants, rain coats, wool socks, wool mittens, and a spare pack.  Plus, Eli broke down and bought himself a new cap so I could have mine back 🙂  The tour company bussed us the short distance to the base of the glacier, and it was time for our hike.  It was about an hour hike to the glacier, an hour on the ice, and an hour hike back, in theory.

In my defense, they said that this trip was for people in moderate health, and was the easiest trip they offered.  The rest were for people in good or excellent health.  Even though I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, I felt I was still in moderate health by my American standards. Apparently New Zealanders have different standards of health.

We started the trip with a nice, relatively flat hike to the base of the glacier. We got to see the streams running into the creek, and they explained a lot about the history of the glacier, how it retreated and advanced, how the surrounding valley was evolving, etc. They had just had 150mm of rain a few days prior, which had completely changed the valley and glacier. There had been lots of rockslides, and the whole cave at the foot of the glacier had closed off and the water pressure had blown an entirely new cave open next to it, much much larger than the original! Our guides told us that this is the most extreme the glacier has looked in recent history, and is a really great time to see it!  We were stoked!!  Here’s a pic of the cave, with some people standing really far away from it; probably at least a quarter mile closer to me than the ice.

So after we got some history and viewed the glacier from below, we were ready to hike up, up, up, to a point away from the face of the glacier to venture onto it. (The face is very active, and dangerous to walk on). So we went up… 800 stairs plus lots of steep path. Our guide kept saying we were picking up the pace so we could have more time on the ice… I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it to the ice.  Just about when I was ready to give up and just sit my butt down on the path, it leveled out.  Then we walked along a fairly narrow ledge with a long drop, and a safety chain to be sure we’d make it safely, and a few more steps and we were there!  I made it to the glacier!!

So we put on our crampons, picked up our alpenstocks (rods with metal spike on the end), and walked out onto the ice. It was much easier than I anticipated to walk on, since they had made nice paths for us of rough, flat ice, and the crampons made our boots stick to the surface pretty well.  We hiked past crevaces, holes, streams, and got to see the layering from processes up at the mountaintop where the ice formed.  We had a nice snack of melted ice, and filled our water bottle, since the ice is very clean, and posed for photos 🙂

We took a bunch of photos of the glacier, lots more on my photo site:

Then after an hour on the ice, and a lot more information from our guides, we trekked back, downhill and down the stairs, and back to the flat plain at the base of the glacier.  The sun was lower in the sky, and aimed directly at the ice cave, which heated the ice, so we hung around there for a while, watching pieces of the cave (some car sized, and some larger!) fall from the roof and make huge splashes in the stream.  We also got to chat with some nice folks and the guides.  Eli mentioned that he worked at sites where humans had buggered everything up… which is the truth, and the British/NZ vocabulary is a much nicer way of putting it than we use back home!

After this, Eli had apparently not had enough punishment for the day, so we took a 15 minute uphill hike to see the other local glacier, the Franz Josef (we hiked on the Fox glacier).

After this, I finally put my foot down, and refused to walk farther than a few feet as a time. So we drove down the city to find a holiday park.  However, they were ridiculously overpriced, so we decided to just drive all the way to Greymouth (well, Eli decided he could do the driving, I was bushed).  We made it there by 10, got a spot at a holiday park, and got a good night’s sleep. It was a great day, but I’m still not sure how we fit so much in!

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