Our gamble of yesterday morning paid off: the weather improved slightly by early afternoon, and so our glacier walk was on. This involved a certain amount of advance preparation, in part due to the fact that the operative word re the weather improvement was “slightly”: there was still a fair amount of on-and-off drizzle, which meant that we had to dress in as many layers as we could squeeze in to, plus the additional stuff that they gave us at the outfitters. The latter included woolen socks and waterproof hiking boots to replace our own footwear; a rain slicker to go on top of the rain slickers we were already wearing; waterproof pants to go on top of our own pants; woolen gloves; ski caps; crampons; and a backpack to carry the crampons, which of course we would not need until we were on the ice. (They’re hell on carpeting.) You might think we were going hiking on a glacier or something.
There was of course also a safety briefing, in which we were informed of the various things that could kill us — rockslides and floods on the trail leading to the glacier being the most popular — plus given assorted admonishments regarding, e.g., obeying our guide, and not trying to retrieve things like gloves or cameras that fell into ice crevasses. (Also, do NOT under any circumstances thaw out the alien frozen under the ice.) Thus educated and equipped, we were loaded onto a bus and driven to the trailhead about a ten minute ride away. The were about 16 in our group, which was then divided among two guides who set off separately.
The trail up to the glacier access point was about a mile and a half long along the river that flows from the glacier melt. The first half was pretty flat and easy, then become very steep and rough and very hard work, ascending 1000′ over scree and across streams flowing from the base of several narrow waterfalls. The walls of the valley were very steep, nearly vertical, which made for spectacular views, especially as the glacier came into sight, but also presented serious a rockfall hazard in light of all the recent rain. There were several points along the hike during which the guide told us to hustle along without stopping for any reason (e.g., to take photos) because of the possibility of a rockslide at that location. The streams of water down the valley wall turn out out to be a good diagnostic of the hazard level: if a given stream is clear it is relatively safe, but if it is running brown with dislodged dirt then that means that the underpinnings of the boulders have been eroded away, and a landslide is likely. And indeed, on the return hike a few hours later we saw this in action, as we were distracted by a thunderous roar and a landslide collapsed a narrow section of the canyon wall on the opposite side of the river from where we were hiking. It was a helluva sight, a rock and dirt avalanche spilling down into the river, and it went on for about ten minutes. It was a also a rather dramatic reminder that that could have happened on our side of the river.
The view of the glacier is cinematic:
If you look carefully to the right of center you will see a row of about eight teeny tiny people in a row, hiking from right to left. Now you have an idea of the scale: Fox is the largest glacier in New Zealand. And as you see all the rocks and dirt to the right of center you would be forgiven for thinking that the ice at the bottom of the photo is a thin layer of ice overlying a bunch of dirt. But it is actually the opposite: the ice is hundreds of feet thick, and the dirt on top of it is the result of landslides off the valley walls as the glacier recedes and advances.
The movement of the glacier is apparent in other ways as well. As we looked up the valley wall we all noticed that, starting several hundred feet above us was a tree line. Except that this was a backwards tree line, a very sharp horizontal demarcation running the length of the valley, above which there was vegetation, versus bare rock below it. And that marks the retreat of the glacier: it is exactly like a flood level or water line, showing the maximum height of the glacier when it moves down into the valley.
As we approached the top of the trail we reached a small flat area with a rack full of alpine hiking staffs, basically ski poles, that we would need to descend a short way down the rocks and onto the ice surface, and to help us move across the ice. Once we made that descent, we paused to put on our crampons, as you can see Alice doing here. (You can also see a few of the hiking poles next to her.)
It didn’t take more than two steps onto the ice to make it clear that crampons were very, very important. For one thing, the weather was very volatile, with the rain often picking up and a strong wind blowing up the valley, driving the rain into our faces and trying to blow us around on the unsheltered surface of the ice. One of the side effects of the rain was a thin water glaze on the ice itself; the coefficient of friction was very close to zero. Absent the crampons, we would have slid around like hockey pucks and gotten blown off the edge or into a crevasse in no time flat.
That said, walking on ice in crampons take a few minutes to get used to. You need to keep your feet a little farther apart than normal to keep from face-planting if one foot gets snagged, and you have do a little march with some weight in your step in order to plant the spikes. It comes pretty easily once you get used to it, and you quickly become accustomed to walking up and down the little steps that the guide carves in the ice with her ice axe, and feeling just a bit like Spider-Man as you move on a slight slope. (Our guide, by the way, was an enthusiastic Aussie lass in her mid-20’s named Kat, who had been doing this for only a few months but sure seemed to know what she was doing — as evidenced by the fact that we survived what she described as the worst weather conditions that she had experienced on the ice.)
The weather was decidedly not our friend, the rain sometimes becoming strong enough that I had to take off my glasses, soaking through our woolen gloves, and at one point briefly turning into driving, stinging hail to ensure that we were as miserable as possible. But at other times the rain and wind stopped for a while, the mist lifted, and we could fully revel in the otherworldly landscape as we picked our way through sinuous crevasses lined with strata of blue veins. This gives you an idea, but, absent the wind, the rain, the crunch of the ice, and the sheer vastness of the ice sheet, doesn’t really convey just what a rush it was, just how much it felt like being on another planet.
That’s our guide at the right of the picture, and Alice at left, using the hiking pole and planting her crampons. Not half bad for a pair of retirees…
One of the interesting and unexpected things about the icescape is the colors. You can clearly see the blue and white in the photo above, as well as some brown near the top from recently deposited dirt. But there are some reddish streaks as well, also from dirt — but very well traveled dirt. The red streaks in the ice (which alas you cannot see in this picture) are little samples of the Australian Outback, carried well over 1000 miles to here by the wind.
By the time we got off the ice and returned to the trail back down the valley the rain had very noticeably swollen the waterfalls and river, and what had been an somewhat awkward dance across the rocks to traverse the streams on the way up became a wet slog through the water on the way down. By the time we reached the trailhead we were soaked, exhausted, and exhilarated all at the same time. And by the time we got back to our room a half hour layer, a hot shower and a pair of Advil felt like a slice of heaven. It was a genuinely extraordinary experience, which I would not mind repeating on a much warmer and sunny day…
We were picked up this morning by bus for our ride up the coast to the town of Greymouth, where we would pick up the train (the “Tranz-Alpine [sic] Express”) across the mountains to Christchurch. The weather was a little better than yesterday, with occasional teases of blue sky, but the surf to our left looked daunting and the mountains to our right still enveloped in mist.
The train ride was nonetheless spectacular, as advertised. It ascends about 2500′ through Arthur’s Pass, one of three passes across the Southern Alps. (Recall that we came through the nearly-closed Haast Pass, to the south of here, on the way Fox Glacier. Turns out we got lucky: that pass, the one with the scary washed-out road, was closed off just a few hours after we went through it.)
2500 feet does not seem like a very great height, but it is important to understand that snow falls at very low elevations in New Zealand; most of the Southern Alps are lower than 7000′. The extensive snow caps make them look very much like the Swiss Alps and give the illusion that they are much higher than they really are. Which does not make them less impressive to behold, nor less dangerous to hike around in if you are not mindful of the very changeable weather.
It was snowing at Arthur’s Pass, and a lot of the surrounding mountains were shrouded, but even so much of the first half of the five hour journey looked like this:
Once we traversed the pass, the scenery changed to this, for most of the way down to Christchurch:
As I said, New Zealand has way too much beauty for one country.
We arrived at our hotel in Christchurch only to learn upon check-in that the main activity that was scheduled for tomorrow — a really cool jet-boat ride on a river through a nearby valley — has been canceled because of the all the recent rain. Although the weather in Christchurch is clear — and dramatically different from the west coast from whence we came, on the other side of the mountains — the rivers are nonetheless swollen to the point where a high-speed boat ride has become unsafe. This is a disappointment, no two ways about it, and we will have to find some other way to amuse ourselves in Christchurch tomorrow, probably by taking some kind of city tour. I’ll report on that tomorrow.