On the west coast of the New Zealand South Island in the Alpine range sits one of 3 glaciers, Fox Glacier. The proximity of these peaks to the sea in part gives New Zealand one of its most iconic and beautiful landscapes. On the Glacier you have options of activities you can do from viewing, hiking, climbing or helicoper rides; In my case I chose Ice Climbing. This was 8 years ago. It was my first time viewing a glacier and my first experience ice climbing. Despite the years that have passed the 3 nights staying here and my day on the glacier are etched into my memories and I made notes which I recently found on an old hard drive of my experience.
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The Glacier and Climb
Fox Glacier like many around the world is officially in a state of retreating.
With Aoraki sitting at 3724m the glacier drops about 2600m close to the peaks. It is fed by 4 smaller alpine glaciers, draping dramatically from the peaks. It then feeds into fox river then cook river before heading out to coast. I chose to do the hike and climb for this tour which to this day is one of the best experiences of my life.
It was really rainy as soon as I got close to the western side of the South Island on the Tranzalpine train two days before; and it had no sign of clearing. If you are familiar with the landscape and weather you will realise experiencing 4 seasons in one day in NZ is very literal. Once I arrived I went to the I-site and Fox Glacier Guide hut to check in and make sure the tour was still going ahead. When I arrived they informed me that the weather was going to be really poor, with bad visibility expected and I had the option to get a refund should the tour be cancelled or change dates. I was disappointed to come such a long way, especially when seeing the view of the dramatic scenery along the entire journey across the alps and along the west coast. But I did have two days I could play with (my original booked date and the following one should I or they need to postpone).
The next day I turned up to the hut to check in and get kitted up. I saw lots of people walking out and heading to a nearby lodge and bar, discussing their cancelled tour. However when I spoke to my guide (who was awesome btw), he said they will still go ahead in these conditions but mitigate risks so may need to reduce the time, distance or location of tours (or they may just reduce down to a partial hike alongside on the bush walk with views of the glacier, which would be safer). They tend to have the attitude in areas like this where if the guide is happy from a calculate risk and safety point of view then they will go if the customers want to and are aware of risks.
This was music to my ears, I said I was happy to do whatever they seemed safe enough to run, I didn’t want to miss my chance at seeing a glacier or getting on a glacier, plus ice climbing was something I’ve always wanted to try. I didn’t mind if one or two of those had to be sacrificed (they offered to refund the difference in charge should they modify). Plus the cold, rain and lake of visibility didn’t worry me (I’m nothern English after all, we live in an almost perminant state of winter).
As I was getting my gear ready people were coming in and cancelling there tours, asking for refunds or opting to change dates to later in the week or month. I was so excited I kept laughing nervously as people just glared at me like I was a little insane to still be wanting to head out. After getting the extra layers and waterproofs on I’d hired from the guiding company, been given a overview / brief, two men came in that were part of my group.
At this point all others from my group had called and cancelled; these were the last two. They were asking to cancel their trip and get a refund after seeing the live webcam footage of the poor visibility from the screen and the cold, rainy weather in general. Just as they were being handed their refunds, I called over and suggested they should still come and give it a go. The guide joined in an said ‘I’m going up either way, if its that bad we can come back and get your refund but i’m taking her up to the glacier to try and get a climb in’. At this point the two guys looked at each other discussed this with another guide stood at the desk then I heard one of them say ‘if she’s gonna go then we sould go, she’s a girl’. So that was it, off we went. We were taken in a big landrover up to the glacier entrance and we headed out along the adjacent trail towards an acess point for the glacier. As we headed up the trail, the guide was brilliant and we were educated about the local flora, fauna and wildlife. He explained to us about the formations of glaciers and what was going on underneath
When You First View The Glacier
- Be prepared for the change in temperature (it was a pretty cold day anyway but the closer you go to the glacier the more of a chill came off the glacier).
- The view you see initially isn’t the icy crevasses and blue ice caves you see on lots of pictures (the top layer and even more so on this initial layer has lots of rock debris that has fallen and been pushed lose by the glacier, which forms a dark layer on top).
- Even in poor visibility you can see the sheer scale of the mountains towering over fox valley and the glacier seems endless.
- The noise of the glacier is slightly eary, you will hear the water echoing as it runs under and through the ice and you will also hear loud creaks of the ice making small movements (which is a little haunting).
- We saw a large mass of the glacier break away from the front and fall with a loud crash, just as we got closer to the mouth of the glacier from the trail (creating the sound similar to that of an earthquake or violent thunder). This was amazing to see but also really upsetting when you realise the the effects of global warming is having on accelerating this process.
When we got further up the trail (about 40 mins of walking) we turned to head onto the glacier. It isn’t safe to head on to glaciers too close to its end as there is a greater risk of instability (which after witnessing the earlier break this was pretty self explanitory). We spent about an hour on the glacier using our crampons and navigating along avoiding dangerous crevasses. We entered into a few small blue ice tunnels and arches. We also got to see some of the glacier melt that is running through the ice and creating tunnels.
We then reached the areas we were going to climb. We were taught about the the ice, identify the right areas to climb and not climb (and a bit about why), how to climb using axes and crampon technique that wont exhaust us too quickly and following some practices traversing an ice wall, we then climbed vertically up a few smaller routes. The weather was becoming increasingly cold with visibility lessening as the day progressed. We stopped to have some warm drink under a parachute to try and warm up and shield us from the increasing cold wind. We also decided to skip lunch but had a quick snack each in between the next climbs to avoid wasting time. We then managed to get three slightly longer climbs in (each about 30m) that the guide had set up whilst we were having our warm drink and food.
Following this we soon got a radio call from the fox glacier guides base that we needed to start heading back as there was a storm on its way. So we still managed to fit in almost 2 hours of climbing which felt pretty intense considering. I can only imagine how exhausting and fun this would have been having the full 7 hour day (instead of our 5) and the views with clearer visibility.
If you haven’t done ice climbing before, it is really fun but also very tiring. Here are a couple of tips:
- Work on your grip endurance regularly if you get chance prior to this (and different grip ranges to prepare).
- Expect a similar forearm ‘pump’ to that of doing overhangs when rock climbing, and aching shoulders and back (the lattisimus dorsi muscles especially) by the timeyou start to tire you are most likely going to over exadurate the movement with the axe and compensate here.
- Also expect some soreness in the toes from kicking your crampons into the ice.
- Don’t forget to take a dry bag for your camera or phone (the guys I was with had waterproof cameras but they still got moisture in and died after being exposed to hours of atmospheric damp and cold).
Obvious Tip: Don’t forget when your tired and walking with crampons to pick up your feet. I learnt the hard way and managed to cause to fall on my knees when walking down (I’m sure i’ve mentioned my clumsiness in other posts, it’s a reoccuring theme).
Fox glacier is both the name of the glacier and the small town 6km away from the glacier. If you have been or are planning to visit the country you will realise there are quite a few town names that are also named after a place of interest (or it could be the other way around); and there counties are self explanatory in most cases (Far North in Northland on the North Island, West Coast, Southland etc).
The town of Fox Glacier reminded me of a european alpine ski village but on a smaller scale and slightly more modern architecture. The highlight of the town is the glacier but there are also a number of tramping trails nearby as it mountains are covered in bushland and forest including:
- The Minnehaha trail.
- Lake Matheson is a short route from the town with the reflection of Aoraki on a clear day.
- There are also some glow worm caves not too far from the town which you can walk to.
- Another experience I’d love to do is skydiving here.
I stayed overnight in the Fox Glacier Pod Hostel and Inn. It was clean, comfortable and the staff were lovely. It cost me about £15 per night in a shared dorm (in summer). Although they advertise as mixed dorms, they purposefully try to fill with the same sex and you can request but are not guarenteed. This is the cheapest place in town from a recent check.
If you have a slightly more modest budget, I met some lovely people on the coach (that I am still in touch with) who recommended Fox Glacier Lodge and Lake Matheson Motel.
How To Reach Fox Glacier
- If you have come via arthurs pass (Route 73) head south down Route 6 and continue till you’ve passed Franz Joseph and you will eventually hit Foz Glacier.
- If you are coming from Wanaka or Queenstown again stay on the route 6 and head north.
Either way stop a lot and really enjoy the views at pull over points (don’t just take pictures if you can take your time).
Via public transport
- I took the Tranzalpine train from Christchurch – Greymouth via Arthurs Pass
- Then from Greymouth I hopped on an Intercity coach down to Fox Glacier
I had pre booked this and I had a flexipass with intercity (I will expand upon that in another article for those of you planning big trips to NZ or working holiday), it was just that simple. There wasn’t much waiting around in Greymouth. Transport links in New Zealand are geared up for tourists. The timings of coaches on the intercity network are timed to allow for rest stops in towns along the way and to connect with ferries and the three trains (Tranzalpine, Transcoastal and Overlander). Some of the major stops and tours start times are aligned with these too.