physical education 101: glacier walk in New Zealand

A few years ago we decided to consolidate everything we owned into 8 plastic tubs and several boxes, throw them in my parent’s basement, and move to New Zealand. We’d decided earlier that year that we had to go after learning about this thing that many countries offer called a “Working Holiday Visa.” Basically it’s a way to travel through a country over the course of a year while paying for it by working in that country. The catch with these visas is that you have to get them before you turn 30. Since I was well into my 29th year, we decided it was a now-or-never deal. (If you’re interested you can learn more about Working Holiday Visas here.)

We had so many experiences in New Zealand, but hands down my favorite was doing a glacier walk in the South Island. On our tour through the island we drove up to Fox Glacier and scheduled an “All Day Walk” with Fox Glacier Guides. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth the $165 price tag, but our friend had done a similar trip a few years back and said that it was an absolute must. So on the morning of the walk we laced up our boots, grabbed our crampons and walked up to the glacier’s terminal face. It looked manageable from a distance, but standing in front of it I realized just how tall and jagged it was. Thankfully, the guide companies had built a staircase (about 500 stairs!) on the hill next to the glacier. This gave us easy access to the lip of rocks and debris leading down to the icy surface.

At 9:00am, as the sun was starting to peak out from behind a mountain, the guide, who couldn’t have been any older than 24, led us out onto the ice. He explained to us that the first couple hours would be slow-going because he had to chip away steps on the ice. All the steps the guides had made the previous day had already disappeared. He told us that the glacier was in a constant state of change. Over the course of a day thousands of gallons of water melts from the ice, flows down through crevasses, meets up with currents running through and under the glacier, and finally feeds the river that carries the water out to the sea. The melting creates beautiful natural formations everywhere, but it also makes walking on it somewhat dangerous. Sometimes he’d start a path one way but determine it wasn’t safe enough, so he’d blaze a trail in a new direction.

As we followed slowly behind our guide we took literally thousands of pictures. The sun and water had carved so many strange and wonderful details into the frozen surface. The first natural design we saw looked like a wave that had been freeze-framed just as gravity began to fold it back down over itself. As we walked on we found suncups and holes in the ice that looked like caves: the dirty white ice on the face of the glacier gradually changed color from light blue to pure aqua and on to deep navy the farther the holes went. Sometimes we leapt over fissures in the path that were pushing up clay and mud due to the pressure of the glacier’s slow advance down the slope of the mountain. Around noon we stopped to eat our packed lunches on elephant-sized boulders that had been catapulted onto the ice after a landslide the previous year. We chomped away while watching a rescue team practice descending and ascending through a large ice cave. The guide told us they have 20 or so real rescues the team needs to perform each season. It was a poignant reminder that this amazing frosty mammoth we were tramping all over could at times become a wild and unforgiving terrain.

After lunch we reached a long stretch of solid ice that was easy to walk across, so we started heading up the glacier. Our guide took us over several crests until we came in sight of the firnline. This is the highest area of the glacier where snow doesn’t melt as fast and thus makes climbing much more difficult and dangerous. There was a certain grandness to the jutting spires created by gravity’s constant pushing of the newer packed snow up against the established ice bed below. It reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a book I’d read the previous year. Jon describes his attempt at summiting Mt. Everest in 1996 during a rogue snowstorm that ended up costing eight climbers their lives. While the climax of the book was devastating, his descriptions had really created a desire in me to experience the beauty and tranquility he described of the glacial mountainside. I also realized that it’s one thing to read about someone straining against ropes anchored to ice cliffs to hold them on a slippery slope, or teetering over a metal ladder spanning a deep crevasse. But when you’re there and can actually see the obstacles ice climbers have to confront, then you truly realize how crazy they must be!

At 2:00pm we turned around and headed back the way we’d come. The sun was at it’s apex and it was time to get off the ice before the melting created any problems. We retraced the steps our guide had cut a few hours before. Many of them were already half-dissolved, and little streams were flowing in between them. The formations we’d marveled at earlier were nowhere to be found. The sun and water had destroyed them in order to make new architectural surprises in the ice.

As we walked back down the hill I was caught off guard by this feeling within me: I was very sad to leave the glacier. I wanted to stay around for many more days and explore the changes that were constantly happening there. I remarked to Jessie and my sister that if I had come all by myself, I would have gone around to all the guide businesses that same day and applied to work for a season.

That was three years ago. To this day, when I recall that experience I still find that I haven’t escaped that feeling. There’s something about the alpine that draws me. I don’t need to climb the highest peaks, but I do really have a desire to be up around them and immerse myself in their quiet majesty. So when Jessie and I were deciding where to travel after our contract finishes in Korea, we agreed that it was time to make this dream a reality. In October, after we’ve traveled the expanse of northern India for two months, we’ll head to Kathmandu. We’ll rent and buy all the necessary gear we need, and then start climbing Everest. For the next fifteen days we’ll walk to Base Camp and back, going up and coming down 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). Jessie is terrified! I’m giddy with excitement! It will be an exhausting journey but I know that the thrill of conquering it will be well worth it all.

Back when I was standing on that glacier in New Zealand I never thought that one day I’d hike in the Himalayas. But since then we’ve talked with several people and read a few blog articles (the Kathmanduo blog is great!) that have shown us how manageable and affordable it actually is. So if you have a travel dream that you’ve shoved to the back of your mind because you think it’s unattainable, don’t give up! Many of the things we think impossible today are the exact things we’ll find ourselves doing several years from now!

Fox Glacier

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4 thoughts on “physical education 101: glacier walk in New Zealand

  1. Ryan – thanks for this post. Base Camp has been a far fetched dream of mine. Nice to think it could become a reality! Have fun, enjoy every moment and I am looking forward to hearing about it!

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  2. I enjoyed reading about your glacier adventure. I’m glad that Kristen got to share that with you and Jessie also.

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  3. Pingback: physical education 102: hiking Bukhansan mountain | student of travel

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