For those of us from the southern hemisphere, New Zealand is one of the best places to explore glaciers. It was for that reason it was a priority on our New Zealand itinerary. The South Island is home to Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier which are within 1 hour drive of each other, and both open for exploration. Hiking a glacier is certainly a New Zealand bucket list experience.
The two glaciers offer similar experiences, however after much deliberation we went with the slightly less popular Fox Glacier in the hope of enjoying a less crowded experience.
Choosing your experience
There are a range of ways to explore Fox Glacier. Ranging from more involved pursuits such as ice climbing and heli hiking. We chose a whole day hike from the terminal face up, as intensity wise it was somewhere in the middle. We also wanted to set foot on the glacier itself and the half day terminal face walk didn’t allow for this. Sadly due to the rapid recession of the terminal face, our experience is no longer available as the terminal face is too steep to climb, however the experience on the glacier itself is very similar to the heli hike with the helicopter being required to access an area of the glacier suitable for walking.
After a landslide blocked the Arthur’s Pass route – the quickest and usual route from Christchurch to Glacier Country – resulted in an additional 8 hours on the road, almost as far south as Queenstown, to make our climb date, we arrived early at the office to check in. Alas, the same rain that had caused the landslide, and subsequent road closure at Arthur’s Pass had also made the glacier unsafe to climb. Unfortunately this is an all too common occurrence, and we would definitely recommend allowing 2 or more days in the area. Luckily we were spending the night and were booking in for the following day. We slept with all fingers and toes crossed hoping for better luck the following day.
Preparing to depart
Success! We were able to depart on day 2. After safety presentation, we were kitted up in company supplied boots, woollen socks and crampons. We had brought the right kind of boots and socks, but after we were advised that you have to walk through rivers to get to the glacier and our feet would get soaking wet, we went with the supplied boots and very stylishly headed off for our hike!
Ascending the terminal face
A reasonable amount of fitness is required to ascend the glacier as it is essentially a big icy hill. The crampons allow you to feel secure on the ice, however care is needed. The glacier changes on a daily basis and whilst the guides take you over safe terrain, the changing nature of the glacier means that the path isn’t quite the same any two days in a row. On the guides behalf, this means they need to carry a shovel to sometimes clear or carve a new path. It also makes their job really interesting as literally no two days are quite the same!
Exploring the glacier
The guides are very knowledgable about the glacier and make sure to take you to interesting areas such as small ice caves, large crevices, and my favourite, a sinkhole (pictured above). Rest assured, our guide did cut us some stairs and ensure that the hole at the bottom of the sink hole was smaller than human size before she let us in!
The gives you around 3 hours on the glacier, which means you get to stop mid hike for a quick lunch break. I’ve never picnicked anywhere quite so unique before! It also gave the guide a chance to tell us tales of woe of plane crashes and lost explorers who have been spat out of the terminal face many years after disappearing on the glacier. Not a great way to go!
The round up
Whilst we’ve rated this experience as ‘accomplished’ it is very accessible to anyone who is mobile and with a reasonable level of fitness. You don’t have to been a mountaineer, previous experience and you don’t even have to own any technical gear.
If you’re considering trying something out of the ordinary, hiking a glacier is an unforgettable and awe inspiring experience that you really need to try!