We’ve booked a 2pm half-day hike with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides, “Next to the Mobil Service Station” on Route 6. We pull out our hiking boots. This will be my first real need to use them – I’ve got a pair of sturdy shoes that have handled all the terrain I’ve encountered so far, but I knew leaving home that they wouldn’t handle the Big Ice, and so I made room for the Big Boots.
At the Glacier Guides office we’re pointed to the little outfitter room behind the sales desk where we’re handed walking sticks, clanking metal ice talons, scratchy woolen socks and hard leather boots that weigh about ten pounds apiece. We store our own footgear behind the counter.
- Leave the boots at home.
I clomp out to the reception area to wait for the van. The ceiling TVs are tuned to live coverage of the America’s Cup championship in Auckland, where New Zealand’s black boat is leading Italy’s Prada in race four of nine, and threatens to take a commanding advantage in the series. Naturally there’s a lot of home-field attention, and most in the office have at least on eye on the broadcast. A battered Toyota minivan wheezes up to the building and the tour group adjourns to the parking lot.
Sam is our guide, a tall, lanky Kiwi (as they all seem to be) with an easy smile and a cheerful “Righty ho!” as the van coughs uphill toward the glacier. The van stops in the same lot where we pulled in upon first arriving yesterday, but rather than take the quick overlook trail we clatter onward toward the rocky floodplain.
Reading about these rainforest glaciers in the travel guide months ago I envisioned trekking through ferns and palm trees until the great wall of ice appeared before us, and then… I don’t know… leaning an extension ladder against the long side of the glacier and maybe hacking up the blue ice with picks. The reality of the approach is less dramatic. Thanks to global warming the glacier has retreated about a mile from the parking lot, and the ten of us stomp across the gray rocks in our heavy boots and scratchy socks, pausing every few hundred yards for Sam to scratch illustrations in the dust with his hiking stick. The valley is dimmed by a layer of cloud, but the very top of the glacier (actually it’s a bend in the valley, judging by one of the dust illustrations) is under a patch of blue sky and shines a blinding white. It’s still warm and we all wear shorts, but most carry sweaters or jackets tied around the waist.
Sam lifts up the yellow danger rope and we descend onto the dusty riverbed. The glacier’s edge looms closer, until the light gray dust turns a dark wet gray, and we begin to see blue ice beneath the gravel. After a brief scramble up the first few snowbanks we run out of gravel, and stop at a pair of wet carpets spread on the ice to attach the ice talons to our boots. Red for right, green for left, and the sharp metal teeth dig right into the surface. We plant our feet carefully, as the boot soles will not twist a bit, leaving our ankles to fend for themselves. We’re given a brief lesson in guiderope management and the uphill cross-step – watch those bare calves – and Sam leads us up, righty ho, re-anchoring the guideline pegs as he goes. It’s a good bit colder here, and most have donned those sweaters and jackets. The ice stairs cut by the morning guides are just wide enough for a single boot and have been hacked to slurpee ice by the previous tours. The talons are gripping well but the farther we go the farther we could fall, and these are some steep slopes. It’s a little disconcerting.
Soon it gets really disconcerting. The ice shears and splits vertically, and we need to cross a few 2×8 planks over deep crevices to make progress. This is an uncomfortable proposition for those not keen on heights. I don’t want to look down, but I must – this is a talon-chewed board I have to walk across in heavy boots not of my own choosing. The group pauses as each member confronts this private little hell. When it’s my turn I take a series of tiny geisha steps, inching toward the opposite side, until I feel I could at least fall forward and make it across. Then I take the big Ice Man steps, decline Sam’s offer for a hand, and proudly bang my head into the entrance of the ice tunnel on the other side.
We pass through a number of tunnels and ice crevices on our way up. The passages are blue, damp and cold, and convey a bit of a claustrophobic pinching feel. It’s almost a relief to get back to more open climbing.
After about forty minutes we reach a broad flat area and fan out for pictures. This is our destination – we pause to let a few of the all-day groups pass on their way back down, and explore the area. The sound of rushing water is everywhere, well below our feet. There are many little pools and bright blue cracks filled with clear ice water, much of it deeper than my walking stick. I hear the sound of drainage and strike off toward a three-foot hole in the ice, drawn by the falling water.
Sam would rather I stick closer to the group. Righty ho… that’s probably in everybody’s best interest.
Melanie and I would really like to take another route down. Maybe via chopper. But Sam begins hammering the guide ropes back in, and we gingerly cross-step back toward solid ground. It’s not as bad on the way back as we’d feared.
Back in town we pause at the Blue Ice Cafe to steady our nerves with a beer and some reggae music on the deck. Yes, it was more strenuous than we’d expected. No, we probably wouldn’t do it again soon. Yes, we’re glad we did it anyway.