Aotearoa: At Top Speed, The Glacier

The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are considered some of New Zealand's major attractions. They are enormous, and unlike most glaciers, they are very accessible, nearly at sea level. As they - being glaciers - are basically packed ice, it's not recommended that you head out on the glacier without a guide. Aside from being slippery, the glaciers can move at quite a speed (a meter a day is not unusual), and their features change so fast that it can be quite dangerous for people unfamiliar with the area.

The view approaching the glacier. It's about a mile walk to the glacier from the parking lot, but at some times in recent history, the glacier's been much closer than that.
Stones that have been run over - presumably multiple times - by the glacier.
Scenery on the way to the glacier. With ice constantly moving back and forth, there's quite a bit of runoff to form waterfalls.

We picked the experienced Franz Josef Glacier Guides, who had a good reputation both for their guides and their equipment. Since most people don't travel with spike-soled boots, glacier guide companies provide you with boots, spikes, and waterproof coats for sudden weather changes. The spikes allow you to actually walk, rather than slip, on the ice, but it's a very counterintuitive way of walking. You're supposed to set your foot down heavily, so the spikes can grab the ice; most of us, facing ice, tread lightly for fear of slipping. This means that while you could walk pretty fast, most people end up walking fairly timidly for at least the first hour, getting used to the shoes and the sensation of actually not slipping.

Some of the glacier-scarred mountainside. The glacier moves at a rate of about 1 meter (1 yard) a day. And you thought that moving at glacial speed meant "slow"...
Entering the glacier. This thing is huge, as you'll see below.
Translucent blue ice; the people walking over it give you a sense of scale.

Because everyone walks at different speeds and has varying degrees of fitness, they divided our group into three smaller groups, slow, medium, and fast. We stuck with the medium group, wanting to see a sizeable portion of the glacier, but not wanting to jog in order to do so.

This, as it turned out, was our mistake.

We ended up in a tour group led by a guide named Hemi. Hemi was, to put it mildly, the wrong guy to be leading the medium-speed group. We realized this when, on the one-mile walk toward the glacier, we passed by the fast group. Huh? Wait, we thought, that's the fast group! At the time it seemed mostly funny. An hour later, when we hadn't even had a chance to really stand still to see the fantastic views, it wasn't nearly as funny.

Some members of our tour group climbing up the glacier. Or being chased up it, as it were.
More ice, up close and blue.
That may look like snow, but it's all ice. Takes some practice to walk on it.

To his credit, Hemi wanted us to see as much of the glacier as we could. However, he was pretty unprofessional about getting us there. They'd told us before we left that slow people would be in front, and the group would be as slow as the slowest person, and that we'd need to accept that for the sake of safety. Well, Hemi apparently wasn't willing to accept that. The slowest people ended up bringing up the rear, and while we were somewhere in the middle, there were plenty of times when we lost sight of Hemi - so there's no way he was keeping an eye on the slower people behind us.

Some of the slower people just wanted a chance to pause to see the sights, which was one reason we were lagging; among the slowest were people who were just scared of walking on ice. Like I said above, it's a very counterintuitive thing, and not everyone can make the transition to "step down hard on the slippery ice!" at the same speed. Some need more coaching than others - but there was no coaching happening in our tour group. Well, not until we ran into the fast group on the way down, and their guide actually took took five minutes to help the scared people in our group get over their fears. It took a whopping five minutes, and they were walking fine - a little timidly still, but fine overall. The walk was frustrating for me, and I wasn't having nearly as much trouble as some of the other folks were.

Woo hoo - ice as tall as me!
And the view looking down in that crevasse - that's the tip of my shoe there.

After the third "break" - which involved Hemi waiting until he could see the slower people and then heading off again, which meant that for everyone except the four people walking with Hemi, there was no break - I asked Hemi to slow down just a little. "OK," he said, as if I was an idiot child, "We'll take it reallly slow."

Right. Because the way that a guide is supposed to respond to request to slow down the pace is by attempting to make the requestor feel guilty.

"I'm not saying realllly slow," I tried to clarify. "Just enough so that the people in back can actually rest from time to time too."

Apparently, though, I shouldn't have clarified, because "slowing down a little" meant "Go at exactly the same speed." If you can't see the slow people, there's no reason to slow down for them...

Huge icebergs - the size of the place is truly awesome.
More experienced ice climbers strapping on their gear in one of the big crevasses.
Here you can see the many crevasses cutting through the ice.

Screw it, I figured. It's not as if he's waiting for the folks in the back, so why not slow down, take a few pictures, stop and smell the packed ice? So we did, and the tour went much better once we stopped trying to keep up. We took the opportunity to take in the awesome grandeur of the glacier. Tons and tons of packed ice, slowly moving toward the bottom of the slope, replenished by snowfall up on the heights. Snow crystals pack into the clear, blue ice you see in the pictures at a depth of about 20 meters, which also gives you some impression of just how much snow and ice makes up this expanse. The glacier picks up rocks and dirt on its way down, so as you head up the glacier, it becomes cleaner and clearer. According to Maori stories, the glaciers are the tears that Hinehukatere cried for her lover Tawe, who fell to his death from the mountains; hence their Maori name, Ka Riomata o Hinehukatere, the tears of Hinehukatere.

The glaciers are a site of contrasts - smooth ice, rough rocks, blindingly white snow, dark and cragged rocks.
A hole in the glacier - but beware of going inside, as you might be crushed by the moving ice.
I just love the varying textures in this shot.

The next day, driving up toward the wine country, we played one of my favorite car games. It's the haiku game. This game is not about the poetic nature of haiku, about the fundamental things that real haikus do. It's about a simple 5-7-5 syllable scheme. You can either play it by each throwing out a line - first person does the first line, second person the second line, you get the idea - or just tossing out whatever comes into your head. One of the first times I played this, I was driving with TLFKAS and another friend, and the poems mostly revolved around poor Louisiana driving habits. This time, well -- read for yourself. And's not about the haiku spirit. It's about 5-7-5.

Hiking the mountain -
Glacier walk is strenuous.
Hey Hemi! Slow down!

Here, for once, it really does look more like ice than snow.
The glacier, the mountains, the sky - you simply have to take a moment to appreciate them.

Talonz* on our feet
Hemi goes faster -- faster --
Barbiturates now!
(* the spikey things we put on our boots - see picture below)

Chasms of blue ice
Snow crushes ragged boulders
Hemi rushes past.

Franz Josef Glacier.
Line of blue parkas walking.
Hemi, far ahead.

The texture of the ice, from being pressed down by tons of, well, other ice.
The talonz, spikes we strapped to our shoes. Like roller skates, and yet not.
The ice, one last time.

And one final one, in honor of the ever-speedy New Zealand drivers.

Winding mountain road
Cars speed past you from behind -
Hemi at the wheel!

The wine country, as expected, was much more relaxing...

10. September 2003


All text and images © 2003 NoAura Productions. All rights reserved.

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