Spending a full day (6 hours ice time) hiking on the Franz Joseph Glacier on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island was something I'd been looking forward to for months. It was fully my intent to do the full day hike, however…
About 3 days after I had completed the Tongariro Crossing (remember that 12-mile volcanic tramp?), a walking tour of Wellington, and various little bus-stop scenic walks, I had started to feel pain in my left leg. I couldn't quite place it – possibly a calf strain, or something with my knee, though the pain was different than what I was having earlier in the year. I was limping around quite a bit though it was bearable. On my deceptively long walk to the beach for the sunset in Barrytown, I felt a shooting pain that seriously concerned me. Clearly the Ibuprofen pills and topical gel I'd been using weren't helping much.
Given the 4-hour half-day glacier hikes seemed lame, I opted to upgrade to a heli-hike. Basically, you get a scenic helicopter ride up the glacier (higher than where the regular hikes go), hike around for 1.5 hours, and then get a ride back down. I had been eying a helicopter ride for Queenstown, so I figured why not kill 2 birds with 1 stone. I knew my left leg would thank me.
The helicopter ride up was awe-inspiring. Fantastical. Much smoother than I expected, and not scary at all (I secured the front seat both ways!). My photos will not do the glacier justice, however I tried all the same. Once we landed, we put on cramp-ons and began to follow our glacier guide around. Regardless of how you get on the glacier, the hikes are all at a slow pace as the guides cut out steps and paths, and scout the terrain.
Franz Joseph is 1 of only 3 glaciers in the world residing in a tropical environment. Seeing it from afar, surrounded by rainforests was surreal. Being on it, and seeing the vegetation growing along the cliff walls as waterfalls spouted hundreds of feet was amazing. The whole glacier felt alive – organically changing – drips of meltwater formed little streams which turned into waterfalls as they went down deep holes in the ice. I'm quite sure those streams turned to full flowing rivers deep down. We saw ice collapse higher up the glacier and tumble down (the hikes occur on the lower half, which moves slower, and is thus presumably safer).
Bonus Video: Helicopter Off the Glacier
(the “whoa” at the end is when the pilot did a steep bank turn to the left as we crossed the ridge – I must get in a helicopter again!)