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Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Glacially Frozen Bum

Travel dates: May 14-16, 2010

Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, Lake Matheson

After 6 nights with the Organic Family in Wanaka, NZ, fellow german wwoofer Manny & I set off for the West Coast on Friday for a long scenic drive through mountains, beach and rainforest. Can you imagine all three sceneries in a matter of 4 hours drive? The latter was seen through thick rain, however, as the West Coast (of the South Island) gets more rain than any other part of the country. Manny & I played English-German games while driving, which generally included lots of “Was? Was? Scheize!,” bad pronunciation, and hilarity.

We drove 2 hours to cross the magnificent Southern Alps Mountains, pushing through eye-popping hairpin turns and several stop-offs at magnificent waterfalls. Another 30 minutes put us overlooking the Tasman Sea (the sea that divides Australia & New Zealand), then 2 hours to reach 13 km long glaciers! How splendid!

That night Manny slept in his tent (aka station wagon) while I stayed in a 4-person backpacker’s hostel which I shared with an Irish guy (James), English guy (Joe), and German gal (Jill). The four of us got along famously, and this was probably the most comfortable I have felt during any of my hostel travels! Occasionally we had to use a bit of translational help though, due to the language differences. You may think, yep, the German girl… Umm, no, wrong. This was between me & the Irish & English guys! James & Joe understood each other well (for the most part), but I said at least 5 times the first night, “I have no idea what you just asked me…” to both guys.

One conversation:
Joe to Jessie:    Where are you from? I detect a bit of a septic accent.
Jessie:              ??? What?
(Repeat this three times because I could not understand his accent for the life of me!)

Joe:                  I detect a bit of septic.

Jessie:              Huh?

Joe:                  Septic. Septic tank. Yank.
Jessie:              OH. Yes. America. I’m from America.

Side note: The English, Kiwis and Aussies all call the load of Americans “Yanks.” I’ve tried to explain the regional differences to start a language revolution (because I don’t take too kindly to being called a Yankee), but have failed every time. I’ve gotten used to it. They like to call all Americans’ Yanks’. “Yes, I’m a Yank.” Whatever.

Enough Yankee business, let’s get back to the glaciers…

What is a glacier? A slow moving body of ice, drawn by gravity down a valley.
Reflecting views on Lake Matheson
There are three glaciers in the world that are situated in a rainforest… Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, and some other one in Argentina. The Fox & Franz Josef glaciers are about 18 miles apart, and are the only glaciers that come within mere miles of the sea. The first full day in the tiny town of Franz Josef, Manny & I explored the area, walked to the mouth of Fox & Franz Josef glaciers, hit several hiking trails, and took the must-do loop around Lake Matheson, by far one of the prettiest lakes in the world. On a clear day Lake Matheson perfectly reflects Mount Cook & Mount Tasman in the background, lending spectacular views.

Crampons, a fanny pack, and 6 layers!
My second day in Franz Josef village, I spent the entire day –On–The–Glacier–! Excitedly, I signed up for a full 8-hour guided glacial walking and ice climbing tour, as did Joe, Jill & James! Glacial access is restricted to highly experienced ice-climbers and guided groups; I obviously fell into the latter half. The companies suit you up in the coolest gear to keep you ultra warm and dry, or at least a semblance of warm and dry. Big ol’ boots, crampons for the boots (awesome!!), waterproof pants and jackets, mittens, warm socks and hat. I looked like a bloated, woolen, 5-layered mess – sweet as!

Before you start the glacial ascent, guides ask you to self-sort into 4 fitness groups: Group 1 is the most active or lots of hiking experience. Group 2 & 3 a little less, and Group 4 is left for those that partied too hard the night before and the elderly. Feeling confident with my hiking skills, I threw myself into Group 1, and was the sole female amongst 14 males. Odds were not so bad… Charge on!

Basically Group 1 was the very first people that day to touch virgin ice, with the guide chipping out tiny foot steps for the group. Each subsequent group guide carved out a little more of the step, so that by Group 4 the chip was more like a perfect set of stairs. My Group 1 guide would chip out the tiniest step, about 6 inches x 3 inches and say, “That’s good enough for you guys, come on!” I nearly squeaked aloud a few times when I saw where my huge boot and crampons had to step… both feet into one 6 inch divot, yeah right. How was I possibly going to place my foot there, stretch-reach to the next divot more than 2 strides away, jump over a two foot wide crack in the ice after that, and still manage to find the next mini-foot step?

This embarkation was turning out to be not only physically challenging (expectedly), but also very mentally challenging. With a self-proclaimed fear of falling down, but thankfully no fear of heights, this glacier hiking with dullish crampons seemed unsteady and questionable, at best. It was not for the faint of heart. Considering my regular walking down the road and tripping nature, it seems odd that I would have a fear of falling down. Alas, it’s true.

During the glacier hike, it took nearly 5 hours until I fell down, and when I did I saw my life flash before my eyes. I was the second person after the guide at a tricky loop where there were huge ice cracks on either side of us.  By cracks in the ice I mean 3 foot wide, 20 foot long, and about 30 feet in depth "cracks." These things could swallow people whole without barely hearing a scream. What happened next? My second crampon missed the divot, I slipped, one leg swung up somehow and planted into my forearm, and my arms flung widely gripping the slippery ice. No one had seen nor heard me fall that was in front of or behind me. I have no idea how I managed the bottom of my foot to my forearm on the ice, nor how I grabbed hold of the slick glacier to save my life. What I do know is if I had not been wearing 5 upper body layers, including a thick outer raincoat, I would have completely punctured my skin. I managed a bruise the next couple days darker than dark!

With that slip, I was rattled, but not defeated. I had 3 more hours on the ice, and I intended to make the best of it. It took some thankfulness and deep breathing time. After a few minutes relaxation returned, and I was once again grateful of the beauty and experience before me (and under me!). After all, I was walking on a glacier! For the first time ever, I ate lunch on a glacier, lost a mitten, which I inadvertently through down one of those mammoth 'crack' crevasses, and found a dead baby bird on the ice (less than 1 week old), which perplexed me for hours how it had wound up there. (Apparently dropped by a carnivorous larger bird.)

Seeing a glacier up close is like seeing the waves of the sea pocked with rolling water, just frozen in this case. The color is unbelievable, kind of like the marvel of seeing the great deep ocean somewhere far and remote, sparkling beautiful turquoise and blue. Last summer my old roommate & I painted our apartment “glacial blue”, but until this day, I had not truly understood the beauty of that color. The ice was streaked, bubbled, rippling, compact, dense and beautiful!
Close-up glacial ice
Truly, these three days were simply amazing. I hope that each of you, if you are never able to have this experience, can imagine it through my words. Breathtakingly beautiful.

Drive from Wanaka to & through the Southern Alps:
Franz Josef Glacier hike
Fox, Franz, Lake Matheson


  1. Jessie,

    I just read this for the first time after seeing your link to your latest blog post on FB and wondering... Quality stuff! Such a good few days, and such an awesome place. It was cool to meet your Mum in Wellington too!

    I've bookmarked the blog and I'll come back and read about all your adventures since then as soon as I can - as they look beyond epic! And yeah, apologies about the 'Yank' thing... my bad :)

    Take very good care yo, and I hope our paths cross again someday.


    1. JOE!! Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic! Writing about my travels helps me digest, absorb, and remember my experiences better, and provide a little entertainment to others simultaneously.
      You were the object of some of my stories... good thing it was positively amusing! ;) ha!
      Equally, I hope that our paths will cross at the three moons again, too.
      Sincere wishes-- Jessie