Fox and Franz Josef Glacier each squelch, groan, grind, gouge and meander around 12 or 13 kilometres from the heights of New Zealand’s Southern Alps ending in lush rainforest. From small townships with matching names, they are among the most accessible glaciers in the world with an easy and open stroll along a marked path to any visitor to the nose or start of the glacier. For a walk on the glacier, companies with specialist guides offer excellent half-day and full-day hikes along with heli-hikes for an up-close and personal time with these massive tongues of moving ice. Glaciers are potentially dangerous areas – people who have decided to walk past the ropes themselves have died when ice has collapsed or fallen.
After weighing up various options we opt for the Nimble Fox, a full day hike on Fox Glacier. After eating and drinking a scrumptious breakfast and soaking in spectacular vistas and mountain reflections at nearby Lake Matheson, we enter the office of Fox Glacier Guiding to be fitted with leather boots, thick woollen socks, waterproof overtrousers and jackets, mittens and hats. A short rickety bus (with memories of Asia) rolled the few kilometres from the centre of the village to the start of the hike.
Dan, a spirited and laconic Scotsman (but without the heavy indecipherable accent) is our guide for the day soothing the nerves of our eclectic party including folks from Israel, Germany, Turkey and other pockets of the world. The first hour guides us through rainforest (a surprise in glacier country), over glacial moraine (the rock and rubble gathered by glaciers) and up a sharp hill for superb vistas of the S-shaped glacier. A couple of parties progress like armies of ants highlighting the impressive scale of this dramatic river of ice.
The route tumbles down the side of the hill through some moraine to an area where the group receives and straps on their crampons – simple metal shoes with spikes on the bottom to make walking on the ice easy (well, easier). Despite a few apprehensive looks, Dan explains to walk normally and confidently to ensure that our footing stays solid with the ice.
Trudging up an ice staircase, the party emerges on the glacier itself. As with all the guides, Dan constructs our own path, picking a safe and interesting route up the glacier avoiding signs of crevasses and loose ice, freely swinging his ice-axe to gouge comfortable stairs where the frozen surface may be a little slippery or steep.
Dan indicates one crevasse cunningly hidden by a thin crust of ice but with a large hole underneath, a small pebble of ice tumbling quite some distance when tossed down. In parts the ice gleams a deep azure blue, the group snaking up the glacier finding ice caves and moulins (deep blue water holes). While keeping safety in mind, the guide explains various aspects of the glacier. The glacier moves at well over one metre per day and has advanced over the last twenty five years (unlike most of the world’s glaciers). A famed aircraft crashed on a nearby glacier in the 1940s and took between six and seven years to travel 3.5 kilometres to the end of the glacier.
Over the millennia, an impressive valley has been carved, spectacular waterfalls tumbling freely down the surrounding valley wall. The walking becomes relative easy as confidence grows with the crampons and a couple hours pass as we gain impressive height. Except at the starting ice stairs our group haven’t seen another group giving a wonderful sense of privilege and isolation as we settle into lunch. While the going is quite warm (a thin coat does the job), a few minutes sitting still on a rock highlights the chilly temperatures – glaciers develop their own weather patterns.
Before lunch, our group traversed a compression zone where ice presses up together forming a smoother road-like surface. After lunch the group weaves its way through a steeper and more ragged zone of Fox Glacier. Majestic pinnacles and towering ice buildings rise erratically from the glacier floor, narrow paths weave awkwardly between the spiky formations. This is our turn around point for the day, passage becoming more difficult through the giant ice formations.
Halfway down the slope, Dan discovers an enchanting ice cave. Roping an entrance using ice-screws, individuals enter a pair at a time to see a massive ice hole tumbling many tens of metres into the glacier and possibly to the glacier floor. The glacier continues to carve and create tunnels, arches and freaky ice creations.
Fox Glacier forms part of South Westland World Heritage Area and makes for superb one-day adventure in the heart of an icy wonderland. To have such accessible glaciers makes hiking these icy juggernauts relatively easy and is one of the highlights of any trip in New Zealand.