You have no idea how much we were looking forward to paying a visit to the famed Fox Glacier while planning our South island New Zealand travels.
If the idea of sitting on a helicopter and walking on ice doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat, what will?
The night before we were scheduled to fly, we experienced torrential rain. We were hoping that this fierce rain could wash the sky away of clouds and reward us with a clear day the next day. Despite our crossed fingers and touching of wood, the skies weren't letting up even on the next day. New Zealand's rain has so much stamina, we could only resign ourselves to fate.
We reported to the reception for the weather check 15 minutes before our scheduled timing, hoping that against all odds, there may be a glimmer of sunshine through the thick grey clouds. With a dismayed sigh, we retreated back to our campervan when we learned that all the flights were cancelled that day.
We sat ourselves down and discussed the possible alternatives. Stall for another day hoping that the weather might turn for the better the next morning, or skip this tour entirely and move on with the rest of our South island itinerary as planned? The answer was evident. We wouldn't let the weather gods play us. Seeing that all of us were so fervently looking forward to what might be our first and last time being atop a glacier, we couldn't just let this opportunity go.
We made the best of our day through the intermittent rain and shine by visiting the terminal face of the glacier at Franz Josef on our own, complete with its own set of spectacular views of the glacier and sky-high waterfalls. More in this post: See New Zealand's Glacier For Free!
How are glaciers formed?
Fox Glacier is the largest and most fluid of the West Coast glaciers. The névé or snow catchment area of the Fox Glacier is about 36 square kilometres long.
Large quantities of rain or snow is collected in the névé, a catchment area at the upper part of the glacier which collects snow that has not yet been compressed into ice.
Gravity caused the snow to be compressed from the névé down the glacier valleys. During this process, the snowflakes would decompose and be compressed into what you see at the glacier - hard blue ice that are hundreds of metres deep. The high snowfall continuously push ice down the valleys and turn into ice. Gravitational force forces the moving masses of ice to gnaw at anything in its path to reach the terminal face at the bottom of the glacier. When the glaciers flow over uneven bedrock on the valley floor, the ice break up, forming mazes of crevasses, arches and pinnacles that we now see on the surface. This entire process takes anywhere from 15 to 25 years.
The surface ice structure is so fluid and dynamic, it never stays the same at any one day. What you see now would differ from summer, and again change next winter. Because of global warming, the ice is melting rapidly. From the markings on the surrounding valley walls, we could see how much higher the ice used to be.
The Fox Glacier Helihike Experience
We were then taken to the helicopter landing zone for a 4-minute helicopter ride up to the glacier. You cannot imagine how exhilarated we were, sitting on a helicopter for the first time in our lives! It's quite a moving experience for me, being so close to Earth and yet so high at the same time. It felt like I was in my own space capsule.
Take this journey with us in this video as we fly from the base to the glacier and back!
The first obstacle we faced upon landing was not how cold it was, considering we were 700 metres above sea level, but how difficult it was to walk on ice. Even ice skaters have skates. So we quickly fitted on crampons, which made walking on ice become a breeze. No longer do you see ballerinas twirling around the frictionless ice.
Armed with an ice axe in hand, our guide led us on a journey of ice discovery.
The glacier reaches up to a height of 2800 metres, but where we were walking, it was only 700 metres high, with the ground ice that go as deep as 30 metres.
Imagine falling through the deep holes caused by the punctuation of running water, which has really happened to the phones of several selfie victims. The glacier can both be fascinating and terrifying, which is why the guides were present to ensure our safety.
At this altitude in May when we went, temperatures are about 5 degrees, though it feels much warmer than we thought, because we are also closer to the sun. All that snooping around the ice crevasses trying to fit in the little caves also works up a sweat!
If you notice the ground ice, there are parts that are bluer than others. The darker the colour of the ice, the denser the ice is, while the white parts of the ice signifies the presence of air pockets.
The water that flows through here is also some of the purest. So pure, you could drink it straight from the streams that flow down.
Over the course of 2-3 hours, we went through, over, under, on and between the different ice formations at Fox Glacier. We watched the only living organism survive in these extreme conditions. We drank from little pools of ice water. We watched ice melt and flow down the névé. We climbed up and down the deep pockets of ice structures. If we were still enough, we could hear the echoes of mini avalanches as huge blocks of ice tip over deep hollow spaces.
"So was it worth it?"
It was such a rewarding experience, learning about how glaciers are formed and actually being on the glacier itself. We felt so fulfilled after a long morning of ice hiking, that not even an afternoon of heavy shower that came after could dampen our mood that day.
For more of my adventures in New Zealand, click here.