Home > New Zealand > Day 9: Ice Cold

Day 9: Ice Cold

08 June, 2010

Add another to the list of the most awesome things that I’ve done on this trip.

We went glacier hiking on Fox Glacier today. The weather was absolutely sublime; the rain from last night completely disappeared, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately, the glacier is almost completely in shadow this time of year, and we only go to spend a tiny bit of time enjoying that sun.


Up at the highest point on the glacier. More on this later.

We chose to use a group called Fox Guides, doing the full-day Nimble Fox glacier hike. This 8-hour hike spent about 2 hours heading up to the ice, 4-5 hours on the ice, and an hour getting back. They also offered half-day hikes, short walks, and even heli-tours of the glaciers. I would highly recommend this hike, especially over the half-day one. For only $50 extra (for a totally cost of $150/person), you get an extra 3-4 hours on the ice and, you get to see some really cool features. It also allows you to actually do some semi-adventurous stuff, as compared to the very tame half-day.

The Town of Fox

The building for Fox Guides, the guiding company that took us on our hike of Fox Glacier.

(Also, we chose to hike Fox Glacier instead of Franz Joseph Glacier for a few reasons. First, it’s slightly bigger. But most importantly, it’s less touristy. Our group had a total of six people, as compared to the 15 of Franz. Also, we were the only full-day group, as compared to three groups (each of 15 people) at a time on Franz this time of year. Our instructor also said that Franz has a set tour path—we got to make our own track depending on what the instructor thought was cool that day, especially important since the glacial features change daily.)

We started out in town, getting suited up. I was the only one in our group whose boots were “probably alright,” and didn’t have to use a rental pair. We got crampons, those little spikes that attach to your shoes to help you dig into the ice. From there, it was a quick 10-minute drive to the glacier, and we were on our way.

At the start of our hike, we had a short, 1km walk to the “terminal face,” or front, of the glacier. This is as far as you can get without a guide. The walk is pretty boring, through a rocky valley, but the view of the glacier is still fantastic.

The Glacier Crew

Kodak point, one of the highest points on our hike to go hiking on Fox Glacier. Our guide in the front, and the rest of our group on the left.

We passed through a fence (“Recommend to proceed only with a guide,”) and walked up through a wooded pass. Because of the changing nature of the glacier, the terminal face is far too dangerous to climb straight up. With the glacier moving at 3 ft/day, ice falls off constantly, and pieces can easily be the size of a house. Instead, we climbed about 600 stairs up the side of the accompanying mountain to the ice access point.

Here we put on our crampons and learned to use them. It’s surprisingly like walking regularly, except you need to kick forward as you step down to help get the spikes into the ice. They hold on really tightly, even in the hard ice that forms during the winter. (In the summer, some of the ice melts, making it much easier to dig your feet in.)


Kat in her crampons, provided by Fox Guides so we didn't slip and slide all over the ice.

We walked onto the ice just as the morning half-day group was leaving. We climbed up some stairs that they had precut in the ice (though they need to be reshaped daily due to melting and shifting ice). Within 5 minutes we had reached the top of the stairs; this is as far as the half-day group gets to go.

Steps in the Ice

The beginning of the hike on Fox Glacier. If you look closely, you can see stairs cut into the ice by the guides.

We paused for a moment as our guide (Shaun) explained some of the geology. Apparently the upper section of the glacier gets more than 50 meters (150 feet) of snow each year. As this builds up, the weight gets too much and it compresses into ice. Each 50 meters of snow compresses to only one meter of ice. If the rate of ice buildup is faster than the rate of erosion, the glacier advances, as it has done over the past 18 months. Otherwise, if the erosion is quicker, the glacier reheats. Because of global warming, nearly every glacier in the world has retreated over the past 20 years. Only three areas have advancing glaciers: Peru, Iceland, and Western New Zealand.

We started down the face of the glacier, blazing our own path. In areas where the terrain was too tough for inexperienced people such as ourselves, Shaun would cut stairs in the ice with a few quick blows from his ice-pick.


Shaun had to stop a lot to cut steps for us in the ice with his pick.

We passed by some moulins, giant holes created by the melting ice turning into running water. We even passed a few “people-catchers,” moulins just big enough for a person. A person that falls down can easily be trapped and suffocate before a rescue team can get there. (These moulins are shaped sort of like a funnel. As the person falls down with a full breath, their chest is expanded and they get stuck. When they breathe out, however, their chest compresses again, letting them fall a bit further into the hole. Unfortunately, now they don’t have enough room to expand their chest to take another breath, thus the suffocation.)

Straddling the Abyss

Shaun, our guide, straddling one of the deep crevasses (so that we didn't fall in).

After a quick lunch, we were met by another guide, Jeff. Together, Shaun and Jeff took us down into some of the crevasses along the lower face. These huge cracks in the ice can be dangerous down on the terminal face, but are quite stable (at least for a few days) higher up where we were. We climbed through with 15-20 feet of ice on either side of us. It was quite impressive.

Down into the Crevasses

Taking a hike down into the crevasses near the terminal face of the glacier.

Holes Above and Below

One of the most narrow points we had to climb through. It would have been really cool to climb down through that hole below, but it was always best to stick to the main path.

As we came to the front of the glacier, the sun popped out from behind the mountain, helping to heat up our frigid bodies. We lounged in the sun for a few minutes, trying to soak it up before it disappeared behind the mountains again.

All the Ice Upping

The sun was out for a short amount of time. This is down lower on the glacier, getting near the terminal face. Notice how the ice is getting more and more rough. If you look closely, you can see Jeff, one of our tour guides, playing on a ridge. He was knocking big chunks of ice into a huge crevasse. Whether it was to prevent it from falling on others or if he was just having fun is hard to say.

Soon we took off again, back up the glacial face. We came across a tunnel just big enough to crawl through. (This was also formed by running water.) We climbed through and explored a little bit, and had to climb back out using a rope ladder.

In the Ice Hole

Kat climbing down into the ice hole. There was a small cave in there off to the right, but the tunnel continued straight ahead to open back up to the surface.

There was also a much bigger tunnel. Apparently it was about 50 feet long a few months ago, but has since worn down quite a bit and is down to about 20 feet.

Ice Cave

The bigger cave. It was just big enough for two people at a time. Notice how blue everything is from the color of the ice.

We finished up the hike by climbing up to the highest point of the day. While it was by no means the highest point on the glacier, it still gave spectacular views. (To reach the real highest point requires a helicopter.) We even saw a crew of guys practicing climbing on the ice, something we had considered doing ourselves instead of the hike.

Ice Climbers

Some ice climbers training with a technical school of some sort. Fox Guides also offered climbing on the ice, but they tended off towards other areas of the glacier.

Glacier climbing was absolutely phenomenal and has definitely been the highlight of my trip so far. I would highly recommend it to anyone to give it a go, especially if you’re keen for hiking and adventure. And if you’re ever coming down to New Zealand, give Fox Glacier a visit. It’s the best $150 NZ ($100 USD) you’ll ever spend, and it’ll give you the adventure of a lifetime.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

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