Friday, November 12, 2010

Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier

Today's adventure: hiking a glacier! Like surfing, white-water rafting, and riding in a catamaran, I find it amusing that I had to travel to another hemisphere to experience something I could do at home in BC. However, as the guide Thea pointed out, New Zealand is one of two places in the world where a glacier actually comes down into a temperate zone (the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers), and the other one is in Argentina, so I guess I couldn't have this experience at home anyway.

We started the day being outfitted with over-trousers, raincoats, socks, boots, gloves, and a toque (or as they call it here, a "beanie"), which was great, because at the end of the day all we had to do was hand back a bunch of wet gear and not worry about trying to dry it all out ourselves. Then it was onto the bus, and all 55 of us were driven the 5km to the Franz Josef car park in Westland National Park, where we would begin our journey. It's funny, in the valley where the terminal end of the glacier is visible it appears to be much closer than it actually is! (It appears about 800m away, when in reality it's over 2km away). It's an optical illusion created by the size of the glacier and the enormity of the cliffs surrounding it.

Franz Josef Glacier over 2km away...

...and again actually 800m away.

Franz Josef Glacier was named by Julius von Hast in 1865, in honour of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Māori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere ("The tears of Hinehukatere"). The legend is the adventurous Māori maiden Hinehukatere persuaded her lover, the cautious Wawe, to come climbing with her up the valley. Tragically, an avalanche raced through the valley, and Wawe was thrown to his death. Hinehukatere fell down and wept in abject grief, and the Māori gods took pity on her and turned her many tears to ice, where they formed the glacier.

I love the helpful illustrations.

A view of Franz Josef Glacier (standing on the glacier!)

The geologist in me was fascinated by the striations in the rocks we passed; I am not sure if they are a product of the glacier moving through the area, or simply the type of rock from the ancient seabed that has been forced upward by the tectonic plate action that created the Southern Alps here in the south island. There were rocks similar to the ones found at home, however, which I do know were deposited by the retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Franz Josef is fast-moving; sometimes it advances at a rate of 60cm per day (very speedy for a glacier!). All the evidence we saw of this was the constant work by our guide in chopping out steps for us with her pickaxe, as the warming and melting by the sun and air necessitates daily maintenance to create accessible paths.

Cutting Steps

When we got to the glacier we divided ourselves into five groups; I, being a masochist, joined Group I, the fastest-moving group, which meant we spent a lot of the day standing around watching Thea cut out steps for the slower-moving (and less sure-footed) groups coming along behind us. Walking on the glacier wasn't that difficult, due to our being supplied with crampons: essentially, detachable metal spikes we strapped onto the bottom of our boots that made tramping over the ice a breeze. Thankfully no one had a "splat moment", as Thea called it (although two people did fall into ice cold-water up to their mid-thigh). Due to the rainy, drizzly, foggy weather (it rains 265 out of 365 days a year here on the west coast), the helicopters weren't flying, and Thea warned us to be vigilant about our footholds as she didn't want to have to carry any of us out on her back.

The kea that followed and harassed us, hoping to be fed

Climbing Ice Steps

Highlights of the glacier included the Rocky Horror, a cave-like structure we got to crawl through which beautifully showed off the blue tinge of the glacier (due to the refractive properties of the ice); MacGyver, a gully and tunnel we wiggled our way through; and The Onion, a series of crevasses in the glacier that zig-zag back and forth across its face (I figured the name came from the many layers of crevasses looking like an onion skin; MacGyver came from the guy who was digging access to the tunnel and listening to the MacGyver theme at the same time... but I have no idea about Rocky Horror).

Rocky Horror

Blue Ice

Exploring The Onion

King of the Glacier!

The view from the top

After spending the day clambering all over ice and rock and snow, I spent a few hours this afternoon/evening relaxing in the Glacier Hot Pools in the town of Franz Josef... oh-so-conveniently located across the street from our Rainforest Retreat accommodation, the quite tasteful but oh-so-snobby retreat had three heated pools (36, 38, and 40º C respectively) that felt wonderful for my sore calf muscles (which have been aching more as a result of the Abel Tasman walk of a few days ago than today's activity). I must admit, my body is looking forward to taking a few days out in Wanaka next week just for rest, as all this adventurous hiking and tramping is wearing me out and making it hard to get rid of my lingering cold.

Cold, but happy. We did it!

Or maybe that's because I stay up so late writing these blog entries instead of sleeping. :-P Night!


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