NEW ZEALAND punches above its weight and size in many respects . . . not just in rugby.
Scenically, the country also holds many world records. We recently explored one of them ... inside out. The Franz Josef Glacier on the South Island’s West Coast is the world’s steepest and fastest-flowing commercially-guided glacier and it also happens to be one of the most accessible on the planet, terminating at 350 metres above sea level in a temperate rain forest, 18 kilometres from the wild West Coast. The foot of the glacier is just 4.5 kilometres from the township of Franz Josef so you can drive, cycle or even hike there.
But the terminal face of the glacier is unstable and the lower reaches are covered in shingle so if you are expecting to see crevasses, caves and dazzling blue ice, a helicopter flight to a landing site high up the glacier is the ideal way to explore this mighty river of ice.
The weather forecast for the day of our expedition was promising but when we first arrived at NZ Glacier Guides’ base in Franz Josef township,the cloud shrouding the mountains was stubbornly refusing to lift. Then about midday, the white duvet tucked so snuggly into the valley miraculously thinned and vanished to reveal the Southern Alps in all their snowy mid-winter splendour, allowing the pilot to fly us high up the glacier to the ‘Pinnacles’ with our expert guide Tim Bluett.
After Tim made a thorough check of our boots, crampons, poles and protective clothing, all supplied by NZ Glacier Guides, we spent an enchanting four hours exploring the spectacular landscape.
Swinging his massive pick axe to recut steps and remove hazards, Tim led us deep into a maze of blue marble crevasses so narrow we had to rotate our upper body to be slim enough to squeeze along the gashes in the ice. He guided us up ice staircases with fixed lines, between jagged peaks that looked like stiffly-beaten egg white, to the highest point of our climb, directly below the icefall where the glacier fractures and tumbles in massive chunks over the edge of steep terrain. We heard the occasional crack and boom as the millions-of-years-old ice river strained and groaned, grinding its way down the valley.
The pace was as leisurely as we liked with Tim stopping en route for photographs and to educate us about ‘his’ glacier. The Franz Josef - named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865 - descends from a height of 3000 metres above sea level to 350 metres in as little as 11 kilometres, moving at a rate of one to two metres a day in the winter and three to four metres a day in the summer. Shaped like a bowl at the top with a névé area of 32km2 and an overall size of 35km2 the Franz Josef is New Zealand’s fourth largest glacier.
Each year, an average of 30-40 metres of snow accumulates at the top of the glacier, the weight of which forces the ice downhill. Despite advances in 1983 and 1999, overall, the Franz Josef has retreated about three kilometres since the late 1880s. Since 2008, the glacier has been in major retreat mode, losing 800 metres in length. In 2012, a dramatic change occurred on the glacier. A hole in the ice resulted in the loss of over 250 metres of ice from the terminal face in just over 12 months.
Tim also told us the origins of the Maori name for the glacier, Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere - The Tears of the Ice Maiden, a legend handed down to him by Ngai Tahu, the kaitiaki or guardians of the land.
Hine Hukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Wawe was a less experienced climber than Hine Hukatere and one day, an avalanche swept him to his death. Hine Hukatere was broken-hearted and her many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.
As the setting sun gilt-edged the mountains and the temperature began to drop, our helicopter returned. Within five minutes we were back at base where Tim handed us over to the masseuses at the spa and beauty centre. After a sublimely relaxing massage, we spent a blissful hour soaking in a private pool at Glacier Hot Pools, a beautiful complex surrounded by rainforest and birdsong. The ultimate indulgence.
| LUXURY FACT BOX|
*Justine Tyerman visited Franz Josef Glacier, and Glacier Hot Pools and Spa courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism www.ngaitahutourism.co.nz who own Franz Josef Glacier Guides NZ www.franzjosefglacier.com Glacier Guides NZ tailor expeditions to suit their clients’ fitness and interests such as photography, ice-climbing, ice-hiking. Weather permitting NZ Glacier Guides operate every day except Christmas Day.
*Justine stayed at Luxe Houses Jagged Edge in Queenstown
*JUCY Rentals provided land transport. www.jucy.co.nz
Justine Tyerman, 17/3/17