Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Franz Josef, New Zealand

Posted on February 3rd, 2005

Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are a snowballs throw from each other on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Both are very unique in that the ice descends to very low levels into decidedly warm rainforest areas, even at the height of summer, and by glacial standards they haul ass. They can advance or recede as much as 2.5 meters (eight feet) per day. This is ten times faster than typical glaciers. Plus, you can spend the whole day running around on them half naked like I planned to do.

I was advised that Franz Josef was the better of the two glaciers. No reason was given. It was just better. Not being a stickler for details at this point, I engaged blind faith and arranged to take the ¾ day hike up the Franz Josef glacier, four full hours on the ice, on my second day in Franz Josef, a quiet, six square block town with nothing but hostels, motels, restaurants and glacier tour operators. Before departing, we were each issued with hiking boots and socks. The “boots” seemed to have been rescued from an abandoned WWI military barracks. The insides gave about the same foot support and comfort as gravel. Putting your feet in these boots meant immediate, arresting pain. Some people doubled up on socks to cushion themselves, but by the end of the day we were all limping. Additionally we each received a pair of “talons” (baby crampons) which we would strap onto our boots before starting up the glacier and a wind/rain jacket, which we never used as it was a gorgeous day.

Having repeatedly learned my lesson about the strength and the improbable times (and places) that one can get sunburned in NZ, I slathered every bit of exposed skin with sun block and made sure my lips were liberally covered in Chapstick as well. Also, after having been the victim of numerous, vicious sand fly attacks, miles from beaches in some cases, I rolled on a layer of bug repellent. I was slimy and stinky, but I was covered for every eventuality.

The walk from the parking lot to the base of the glacier was about three kilometers (45 minutes). While this lengthy trek got the boot blisters going nice and early, the walk itself was amazing. After a short traipse through the forest, we emerged into Waiho Valley where the Franz Josef has been doing its glacial boogie for thousands of years. The glacier’s runoff keeps a constant stream of fresh water going down the middle of the valley that you can drink if you’re feeling bold. The rest of the valley is a pile of sheered-off rocks, broken off the surrounding mountains by the friction of the Franz Josef and scattered around the valley during various ebbs and flows. As recently as 1999, the glacier was creeping halfway into the valley, but La Nina had started a receding period that is still going on today. When you look up the valley walls, you can see where the tree line staggers at the level that the Franz Josef occupied before turning around just five years ago.

We clamored over the loose rocks, crossing the winding stream twice, as we approached the immense glacier face. The Franz Josef has also succeeded in birthing a few wicked waterfalls which snake down and empty into the valley at various places. We diligently stopped to take numerous photographs as we made our way to the staging area. As we strapped on our talons, our group of 37 was broken down to three groups. “The Macho, He-Man Group,” which would go first and fastest up the glacier, the “Less Macho, But Still Respectable Group,” which would go up next and the “National Geographic Assembly of Slowpokes” that went last. When volunteers were asked for the He-Man Group, the nine studliest men in the group fearlessly stepped up and marched off, with their guide, a disturbingly macho woman. I hung back with the second group because I wanted the leisure to stop and take copious photos, plus all the cute girls were in the second group. I bet the Macho He-Men didn’t think of that while they were strutting off for their four hours of testosteroni with extra cheese solitude with no females to witness their heroics! Ha ha! Meanwhile, I got seven phone numbers from the girls in my group. Not really, but I told the He-Men that after the hike anyway. Actually, in a bizarre twist, there were six girls in our group from Minnesota! Several from Minneapolis. They were young, goofy college kids, seemingly on their first trip away from mommy and daddy, but they were nice and I got to talk about home with someone for the first time since my last encounter with a Minnesotan, over a year ago in Paris.

We strapped the talons onto our boots and started up the glacier. With the way the Franz Joself melts and pushes forward, the front edge is virtually a straight drop, so the very beginning of the climb is by far the most challenging, butt-puckering part of the entire day. Our guide, Leanne, was a compact, blond Christchurch native whose greatest joy in life seemed to come from using her pick axe, which was about as long as she was. Sometimes she hacked at the ice steps to make them more even for us, one time she insisted on chopping down an ice pillar that looked sturdy enough, but she assured us it was moments away from collapse, but mostly she just chiseled at anything she could reach as she walked along. I quietly wondered how much of the glacier’s retreat was due to La Nina and how much was due to Leanne.

We were lead up the steep, ice steps that Leanne leveled for us, while clinging to a rope that was the only thing keeping us from a fatal fall if we slipped. According to our supply cards, gloves are usually part of the glacier walk equipment, but for some reason our group had not been supplied with gloves, so we had to steady ourselves on the ice with our bare hands, freezing them instantly. Every few feet we’d encounter little streams of runoff water that splashed over the steps and ledges that we were scooting across, adding to the panic-factor and our freezing hands.

Once we had conquered the face, the going was slighter easier, but we still had to stay vigilant as we walked. For every single step you had to orient your foot and the talons in a way so they would bite into the ice and keep you upright rather than both feet flying out from under you and plunging into a 30 foot crevasse. If that weren’t enough to keep your attention, while most of the glarier was ice, rocky patches were peppered over the entire area. Stepping on the rocks in the same way as you were supposed to step on the ice, foot forward, talons out, would mean disaster and vice versa. Several people’s asses hit the ground as we adjusted to this protocol, including Leanne’s. Twice. She tore two little holes in the butt of her shorts, revealing, very un-sexy black, grandma underwear.

After about two hours of skittering over ice mounds and between tight chasms, we stopped for lunch. The fantastic surroundings were agreeably enriched when all of the tank-toped women sat their asses on the ice and all their high-beams switched on in unison, if you catch my drift. I almost took a picture. Leanne tried to keep the group talking by quizzing us one-by-one about our travels. As usual, my travel writer story got people all atwitter about how I was living everyone’s dream. I managed to just smile and nod sheepishly without whining about my recent bouts of exhaustion, hateful roommates, loneliness and travel apathy. In just the past few days I had come to the conclusion that stints of seven and eight months of non-stop travel simply were the wrong way to go about it. I planned this trip thinking that this might be my only chance to see this side of the planet and I wanted to get as much out of the trip as possible, but now I realized that anything over three months of uninterrupted travel without a significant, recuperative break was pure lunacy and I would plan future trips accordingly. If it took three trips to see an entire region, then so be it. Better to pay for three heinous plane tickets than hit the wall half way through the trip and have the gratification of the remainder of the trip suffer as a result.

View from our lunch spot

If anyone asks, that axe is mine and I know how to use it.

I impulsively grabbed Leanne’s axe for a photo opportunity after lunch and unintentionally started a 15 minute run of everyone else doing the same. I think this is how I got on Leanne’s bad side. I got the feeling she didn’t like anyone else playing with her axe. Oops. We continued up the glacier after lunch stopping frequently for pictures and to watch Leanne do a lumber jack on the aforementioned pillar of ice that she declared to be very unstable, but then it took over 20 minutes of her red-faced chopping to bring it down. I bet it could have waited another day or two, but clearly she wasn’t happy unless she was demolishing something.

Our going was greatly slowed by an older German couple that should have stayed back with the National Geographic group, or perhaps even back on the bus. They labored along slowly and nervously on hands and knees where most of us could tramp up with no hands. As we had to stay single file the entire way and they always seemed to place themselves in the middle of the group, they were responsible for splitting the group up several times, forcing Leanne to stop and lecture us about sticking together.

Leanne doing what she does best.


After spending 20 minutes making our way back down the glacier, Leanne radioed her buddies only to learn that the He-Man group weren’t moving along a fast as expected and they were still way up the glacier. This resulted in us getting a bonus hike to the far side of the glacier as we waited for them. We took our time, Leanne razed more random piece of ice and many photo opportunities were had. By this point, I was feeling quite confident on the ice and having a great time leaping around from mound to mound, while we loitered. All grumbling aside, I was having a ball. So much so that I didn’t notice that the thorough layering of SPF30 that I had applied to the top of my recently shaved head had worn off or evaporated or whatever and my head was turning seriously crispy. I wouldn’t discover this until later when I casually reached up to scratch my head and the scratched area felt like someone was holding a blow-torch on it. I sighed, knowing that I was in for days of pain and unsightly scalp peeling.

Finally the He-men caught up with us as we reunited with the National Geographics and we all inched down the face in one huge group. Going down was even scarier than going up. The distressing clear view of our potential death-fall notwithstanding, the nice ice steps from earlier had dwindled due to melting and the talons of 100 other people using them during our time on the ice. There were several near-slips on the steps, but everyone managed to get down in one piece.

I hadn’t noticed while I was in the throes of glacial euphoria, but the mild discomfort of the boots at the beginning of the day had upgraded to full-on misery once we were on the valley floor. The 45 minute walk back to the bus seemed to go on for an hour and a half. Some people actually took off their boots and hobbled part way in just their socks, which couldn’t have been very pleasant with all the sharp, loose rocks we were walking on, but I think at that point they would have opted for any other kind of pain rather then wear the boots for another second.

I returned to the hostel and immediately climbed in the hot tub. Even though the sunburn on my head and the backs of my legs (stoopid reflective ice) were already causing me to overheat, I was determined to get into the water to ease the pain in my feet and legs.

After a delicate shower, I sprayed aloe on my burned bits and headed out to eat a well earned, extravagant dinner. The next morning, I was on the crack-of-dawn, ball-busting full day bus ride across the gorgeous South Island Alps, to Christchurch, where I would catch my plane to Rotorua to start my fleeting tour of the North Island.

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