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Franz Josef Glacier

February 22, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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After saying our goodbyes to Queenstown, we began a spectacular drive to the small town of Franz Josef where we planned to hike the Franz Josef Glacier. Along the way we stopped for many incredible photo opportunities, and also decided to made a pit stop to hike up the basin of Fox, another well known glacier in the area.

After a couple of hours on the road we found ourselves in a little town, home to New Zealand’s Fox Glacier. Being thirteen ms in length, this glacier is the longest among all of the awe-inspiring glaciers found in the west cost of New Zealand. Unfortunately we weren’t able to see the enormous 36 sq kms neve found at the top, which is said to be larger than the entire city of Christchurch, but we were able to self hike our way up to the incredible funnel-like glacial valley. Previous to this, the only glacier both Tyler and myself had seen was from miles away, so being our first up close and personal experience it spiked the anticipation for our hike in the morning even more!

Early the next morning we got up to head out for our hike on the Franz Josef Glacier. This glacier is known to be the gem of New Zealand as descends from the high elevation of the Southern Alps to less than 300 meters above sea level into a temperate rainforest region. The glacier is also a meer 19 km from sea making it one of three glaciers in the world that comes close to the coastline.

The Maori name given to the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere meaning “the tears of Hinehukatere” arising from a local legend… Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe to climb with her. Wawe was much less experienced than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her until an avalanche came and swept him away from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was heartbroken and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.

The hike began with a trek through the rainforest showing you the the unique plush environment located just beneath the ice and snow capped glacial mountain. As we began the hike on the glacier we were given crampons (spikes) to attach to our shoes in order to grip the ice, which were pretty tricky to walk in at first, because you had to keep your foot straight forward at all times to prevent breaking your ankle or falling over. But as we continued on and began to squeeze through the tight blue crevasses and slide through the amazing ice caves we forgot all about the tricky crampons latched onto our feet. It was spectacular to be surrounded by beautiful blue ice and look down at the intriguing pattern of the layers of ice formed naturally throughout the years.

Interestingly enough New Zealand actually allows you to hike the glacier on our own for free with the only requirement being to have the proper equipment (never would that fly in the States). However, it is extremely dangerous to do without a high level of glacial experience as the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are retreating very quickly, making the area even more susceptible to collapsing ground and avalanche. You would be surprised how many ignorant people were up there in their slippery tennis shoes and flip flops too! Our guide stopped to tell each of them it wasn’t safe like that and to turn around, but once we passed by they just kept going. I guess they don’t realize what happens when you slip and fall down into one of the crevasses… You get stuck at first and then when you take a breath as you exhale you slide further down and the process repeats until your a part of the glacier, how horrifying! So trust me if you ever do this, go with a professional guide and wear the right gear on your feet. As enticing as free sounds it’s just not worth the risk here.

Unfortunately, scientists are predicting in a mid range scenario of warming that by 2100 the Franz Josef glacier will retreat by 5 km and loose 38% of it’s mass. So as you can see visiting these unique and beautiful glaciers is very valued and special as they may not be here around forever. The incredible experience was something we will definitely never forget. So that’s the extent to our visit in Franz Josef. Our time was short and sweet, just long enough to visit the primary attraction of the area… The incredible glaciers!



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