I’ve been lucky enough to do some pretty amazing things in my life. But I can safely say that nothing even comes close to a Heli Hike on Fox Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island.
The day before we had begun our adventure in Christchurch and spent the day driving Arthur’s Pass from the east coast to the west coast and then down to Franz Josef where we ended up spending the night. It took us only about 30 minutes from here to arrive at Fox Glacier which lies just slightly south. There are several different ways to experience the glacier but as this is Style Hi Club, obviously hiking from the ground was not an option. Instead we had arranged a somewhat pricey “Heli Hike” experience hoping it would be worth the extra money.
Before all that I had never in my life heard of the term “Heli Hike” but apparently this is taking a hike so extreme that you need a helicopter to the starting point – like the middle of a glacier. Our adventure began at a helipad station in the shadow of Mount Tasman and New Zealand’s highest point, Mount Cook.
I was ready to cast the ring into the fires of Mordor as I looked upon these intrepid peaks but instead we were given a safety briefing, special boots and divided into groups. Two helicopters ferried us up in groups of six to the actual glacier. Waiting our turn was practically excruciating but finally we were on board and, of course, sitting in the front seat. Flying over the glacier was nothing short of breathtaking. At some points it was actually literally breathtaking as the pilot would bank turns and ascend or descend very quickly for a dramatic ride.
Glaciers are something that I had never really thought all that much about. They are kind of this epic concept that’s hard to visualize in reality that get credit for things like…oh i don’t know, creating land. It’s hard to imagine or even conceive of that sort of force, or how powerful nature can be…but fly over a glacier in a helicopter and you will instantly grasp it.
Apparently Fox Glacier moves fast as far as glaciers go, 1-4 meters per day – that’s 3-12 feet! It may not seem like a lot but anything that large moving at all is nothing short of miraculous! Our pilot took us over the glacier and then up to the upper part of the glacier, called the neve where the glacier seems to begin and then up and around the astounding mountain peaks that surround it crowned with countless waterfalls flowing out and down onto the ice. After a bit of a roller-coaster ride we spotted the other groups of people already on the glacier – they looked like tiny specs on an endless white sheet – a frozen white lake almost complete with waves and ripples. A “helipad” was marked with rocks in a big square and as we touched down the rest of the group was crouched with their eyes averted to avoid being knocked down and blown away by the power of the helicopter, or get ice in their eyes kicked up by the wind. Suddenly, we were standing on a glacier. On a glacier i say!
Fox Glacier was a slippery sonofabitch so the first thing we did was put on crampons which are basically just special spikes that strap to the bottom of your shoes that enable you to adhere to the ice. They don’t sound like they would work all that well…but they work incredibly well. It probably took me about 30 minutes to be fully used to walking in them, landing my feet flat with every step but once i got it down I could practically run on the ice without falling.
The view of the upper glacier “pouring” down towards us was stunning. Our guide, told us a few facts about the Fox Glacier like how beneath our feet were 40m (120 feet) of the type of ice we were seeing. Then below that, another 210m (630 feet) of even denser harder ice. That’s 750 feet of solid ice beneath us that has been forming for millenia! Incredible.
The terrain on the glacier was sort of like what you’d imagine the moon to be like. If that is at all helpful. Lots and lots of very bumpy ice with the occasional crevasse of unknown depth where all you can see is a mystifying blue hole to infinity. Water runs through and across the glacier in small streams and collects into larger streams and eventually finds a hole and plummets down through all 750 feet of ice in a spiral pattern.
Our hike on the glacier lasted about three hours and during this time we leaped over crevasses, drank from the glacier water, saw ice caves that are formed by waves in the ice as the glacier moves downward and got super good at walking with crampons.
If you ever have the chance to heli hike fox glacier – absolutely, absolutely do it! This was by far the better way to do it then just a normal hike from the base where the glacier is crowded and fairly dirty as sediment is pushed forward by the glacial force. We went with Fox Glacier Guiding and were very happy with the overall experience and also the quality of the guides. I can’t stress enough how awe inspiring it was to see nature’s sheer power creating a new landscape practically before your eyes. Really incredible. Nothing I can really say can capture this experience, but hopefully the photos can.