Day 119 on the Road
Heli-hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier
Today we are exploring the Franz Josef Glacier on a heli-hike tour! If you like this video and want to see more 365 Days: 365 Activities, then consider joining our backpacker squad on YouTube!
So today hopefully we get to do the ice explorer tour and get on Franz Josef Glacier.
This morning we are waking up at the beautiful Rainforest Retreat which is a holiday park a hostel a motel it’s basically everything here. And guess what, the weather is stunning so we can actually get ourselves onto the Franz Josef Glacier. Needless to say that Laura and I super excited.
As we get to the Franz Josef Glacier Guides base Robin is wasting no time putting on his beanie and we are getting a bit of a briefing on what sort of gear we’re going to be using when we get up onto the glacier. They are providing us with everything we need for this tour. We’re getting overpants, jackets, crampons, socks, mittens, fanny pack, boots and you know what we’re getting also a free beanie which is pretty awesome. So I’m wearing it, everyone is mocking me right now but you know what when they’re going to get cold all the way on top of the glacier I’m going to be the one having the last laugh.
We also take the time to spread a really thick layer of sunscreen on ourselves because up there in the glacier it’s going to be super sunny and the light is going to be reflecting on the ice and it’s gonna be even sunnier and it’s an easy way to get a sunburn.
So with that in mind we are making our way toward our helicopter we are meeting there one of our pilot who is going to be giving a few safety instructions on how to approach the helicopter safely and after a few pictures it’s time for us to board. It’s pretty amazing and Laura is so stoked I have never seen here that happy because that is the first time ever she’s boarding a helicopter.
I am super stoked to be getting in a helicopter and we’re all distributed on the helicopter according to our weights so Robin the fatty needs to get in the back while I have prime views at the front and the views are absolutely sensational. We are flying over rainforest along a braided river and going toward the glacier where we can see the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier just up ahead.
If you guys notice the river below us is not really crystal clear blue like it is usually in New Zealand, it’s because it’s full of what is called rock flour coming from the glacier grinding itself on both sides of the mountain and creating this powder that deposits in the water.
Our pilot is showing amazing skills on landing us safely onto the glacier. Landing the helicopter is actually the hardest part of piloting a helicopter itself so picture yourself trying to do that on an icy mass like this massive glacier. It’s crazy.
Once we are getting off the helicopter we are meeting our guide for today who is called Michael and he’s getting us to kneel down to watch the helicopter fly away and then we can finally hear him for him to give us some instructions on how to put our crampons on. Which is actually pretty difficult but it doesn’t really help when we have a big distraction behind us which is a kea parrot this is the world’s only alpine parrot and you can only see it in New Zealand.
And this is under the watchful and yet cheeky eye of the kea that we are attempting to put our crampons on it is not an easy feet and we finally get there so we can get on our way and start exploring this amazing ice giant.
The awesome thing about doing a tour on the glacier is that it constantly changes, it’s pretty great for the guides because they never have two days the same. In fact the glacier is moving as fast as half a metre per day. Which means that they constantly have to carve a new path for us to go and explore it. so Michael is taking the lead in front of us with an ice pick and shovel and making sure that we have half decent steps so we can make our way up and down all the crevasses and nooks and cracks of the glacier that he wants us to explore.
Michael is giving us plenty of time to grab as many photos as possible because let’s be honest it’s not every day that you get to be stood on a glacier and climbing your way through the different cracks and going through ice caves. I’m pretty sure that he’s giving us lots of time to take pictures because he wants a break from carving his way through a glacier rather than just wanting to see some cool pictures.
So one of the things that Michael is telling us about is the size of the crevasses below so we can see these deep dark cracks in the glacier which can be as big as holding a full building, as deep as 60m under the glacier. In fact, in other glaciers in New Zealand there have been planes that have been thought to be long lost for decades that have been rediscovered in these crevasses of the glaciers. Needless to say that after hearing all those stories I am really following Michael close by. When he says walk here, I’m walking here and not anywhere else. I feel like if I were to stray off the path I would be completely lost in one of those crevasses and never be found.
But although I’m following Michael really close by it really feels like I’m alone on the glacier it’s just me and the group. I feel like I should be hearing the noise of the many helicopters moving around and all the many other groups on the glacier as well but because every single one of those thick ice walls can be as thick as 50m wide, there’s absolutely no way to hear any other noise so it just feels like a deep silence. I really really love the feeling about that. And we’re surrounded by some much ice as well, it just cools you down on a very hot day.
While walking around the glacier I’m asking Michael heaps of questions about this place that intrigues me so much and one of the things that I really want to know is why is all the ice looking so dirty. I felt like it should be looking pure blue or perfect white but in fact, it’s not dirt at all it’s just rock left from the glacier carving both side of the mountain where it’s nestled. But there is still heaps of lovely blue caves to be explored and it’s a perfect picture opportunity. By the way did you know that those ice caves are so blue because blue colour is the only colour that glacial ice can’t absorb?
Another thing we notice about walking on the Franz Josef Glacier is that it’s really difficult to understand the scale of things. In the distance there is an ice wall which is meant to be the size of a 3-story building but it just doesn’t look that way it’s really confusing. And that’s because there’s nothing really around us to compare the sizes to. Usually when you are in a city you have buildings or in the forest you have trees so you understand the size of things but here it’s just pure icy whiteness.
It’s a really awesome walk around the glacier and it feels like a stroll along with a bunch of friends because everybody is helping each other it’s a lot of fun, we’re helping each other passing crevasses sliding in ice caves taking pictures of each other the whole group is having a blast and I really love that. It’s not often that I get such a fun group for a tour.
It’s only when we reach kind of the top of the glacier that we start turning back but we also get to see the massive scale of the glacier. From there even the mountains look smaller. But did you know that glaciers are so big that there is a minimum size requirement to be a glacier. In fact, if you are less than one square km big you are not a glacier you’re just a massive pile of snow.
This place is just foreign to me it’s just so new and I can picture that the world once used to be completely covered by ice, so back in the day I mean a hundred million years ago, used to just look like that. How impressive. And even more impressive is the fact that most scientific studies agree almost 70% of fresh water reserves in the world are contained in glaciers and if they were all melting right now it would be a rise of water levels of over 80m. How crazy is that?
Not as crazy as you’re freakin beanie Robin it’s time to take it off it is way too hot now to be wearing the beanie.
At this section of the Franz Josef Glacier Micheal is telling us more about the movements of the glacier which is apparent in the jagged and sharp icy parts that we can see around us and basically the glacier is like a slow moving river. And it’s here that Michael also tells us about the ever-changing environment here and that for instance that by 2100 Franz Josef Glacier could have lost 38% of its mass meaning it could shrink by 38% that’s just incredible to think of.
And it is with this last humbling fact that Michael is leaving us at the end of this tour. I can’t believe that because of human-caused global warming, we are losing so many jewels like this one from all around the world. I’m definitely leaving this tour with eyes wide open about global warming and environment protection.
And this is a great subject to discuss with our fellow tour mates some of them are actually botanists working on some real forestation projects back in their home countries so after all there is some hope left.
As the loop finishes we are joining the rest of the groups that have been exploring the Franz Josef Glacier and we are hopping back onto our helicopter for the last thrill ride of the day back to the base.
Our pilot is definitely much more reckless than the first one that we had. He’s telling us that he loves working on the glacier because he gets to fly helicopters all the time and unlike most other places in New Zealand where he used to fly fixed wing aircraft which are much less maneuverable and have no chance to land on such a rugged glacier and a thrill ride it will be.
And it seems that we have now boarded onto a roller coaster ride as we are making our way back down from the glacier doing some super sharp turns all the way down back to base.
Back on land, we are still buzzing from the experience we just had. I can’t believe that we just have been walking in and under and around a giant glacier this is an opportunity that we rarely get to have so we are super stoked.
I don’t know if it can get any better than today be maybe it just get better tomorrow we’ll see but we are doing some skydiving over the top of Franz Josef Glacier we are going to be doing the highest skydive in New Zealand. How epic is that? I’ll tell you how really epic. Fantastically epic. I can’t wait I want to go skydiving. We want to go skydiving. Bahhhhh. Right, see you tomorrow.