Franz Josef Glacier, NZ to Fox Glacier, NZ

15.1 mi / 8.2 mph / 1802 ft. climbing
Home: Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park

Two and a half days of extreme rain will be followed by two more days of less-extreme though still-significant rain. But in between, we were granted a single day of dry, sunny skies. The two glaciers here in “Glacier Country” flow surprisingly-close to sea-level, but not close enough that you can just walk up to them (especially with their recession over the last century). But a gaggle of helicopter companies run a brisk business of transporting tourists directly to the ice. It’s a tremendous extravagance, and an especially-embarrassing one since the carbon emissions from the flights are helping to speed along the glaciers’ shrinkage. Nonetheless! It’s been a while since we’ve splurged on such a recreational extravagance, and we’re unlikely to find an easier way to walk atop a glacier in our lives (spending three weeks in Glacier National Park last August without coming close to sniffing a glacier informed us that this is not a common opportunity), so, we’re flying in a helicopter today!

Yesterday we had initially attempted to book a flight from the town of Franz Josef Glacier (that’s literally how the towns are named) to Franz Josef Glacier, but our unconfirmed booking came back as unavailable a couple hours later. So then we switched to a company operating out of Fox Glacier (flying to…Fox Glacier) for an 11:50am flight. That meant we needed to ride on to Fox in the morning, which is only 15 miles away, but has three 500 to 700 foot up-and-down hills in those 15 miles. This was enabled by our awesome host at the Chateau Backpackers, who, in recognition of the challenges cyclists have with the weather, had told us on check-in that if we needed to move on earlier than expected in our 4-day booking (since the rain period had shifted forward), he would be willing to refund a night. He increased our esteem for him even further when, as we sat astride our bikes in the street ready to roll, he ran up with our Chromecast remote control, which we had left sitting on the bed in our room. Whew!

Coming to the bridge over the Waiho River for the fourth (and final!) time.
Climbing hill #1, we’re glad to see the helicopters are flying today, which presumably means the rain didn’t wash the glaciers away.
Much of the climbing was 6% grades like this, but we got socked a couple times with 12% sections. So even if we hadn’t had a glacier hike to do today, we might not have moved any further than Fox Glacier.

Rett had been stressed about making the distance in time, but we arrived in Fox Glacier an hour and a half before check-in. So even if my soft rear tire had required a full tube change (rather than the one mid-ride pump-up I allowed myself, which seemed to hold), we still would have been ok. We changed out of our sweaty bike clothes in Fox Glacier Guiding’s bathrooms, and then grabbed some hand pies from the grocery store across the street for an early lunch.

We got a safety briefing, got equipped (they provide socks, hiking boots, rain jackets, and backpacks), and then took a short shuttle ride to the heliport. There were 24 in our group, and Rett and I were assigned to 6-passenger helicopter #4 (flying in a helicopter is one area where serious weight discrimination still exists!)

While waiting at the helipad, we had a nice view of Mount Tasman, the 2nd-highest mountain in New Zealand (11,473 ft.)
A group ahead of us taking off from the helipad heading for Fox Glacier.
We’re inside a helicopter! And one that is about to rise straight into the sky and fly away, not just one sitting in an aviation museum!

Neither of us have flown in a helicopter before, so the flight was a big attraction of the whole excursion, and even though it was only a 4-minute flight each way, it was really cool. We swept up the valley along the right edge, so we were face-to-face with the tops of waterfalls, and getting up-close views of totally-inaccessible cliffs. Even closer to the base, it was a marvel to simply see the top side of the forest that we have gotten to know so well from the bottom.

Fox Glacier, viewed through the window of a flying helicopter.
Our golden helicopter flies away to leave us alone on top of this glacier. In our safety briefing, we were told “when you exit, just walk calmly and carefully across the ice, you’re not in an action movie, the helicopter isn’t about to explode behind you.” But looking at this scene can you really say we’re not in an action movie?!

The landing zone was just a flat(-ish) spot on the ice with a set of equipment crates, and suddenly I was back inside our Oculus Quest VR headset, playing National Geographic Explore VR, which has you spending the night in a tent on Antarctic ice in a nearly-identical setup. Despite the not-quite-photorealistic graphics, the game felt incredibly “real” to me, but what basis did I have to judge that? Well, now I know! (in the case the weather went to complete garbage and they couldn’t fly us off the ice, they have tents and equipment to keep us overnight on the glacier, and the guides say they stay up here regularly for fun…uh how much for us to join that package?)

We’re on a motherfucking glacier.

The first step was to get crampons on our boots (now I understand why the microspikes we got for snow-hiking in Washington are called “micro”spikes!), then we all (split now into two groups of 12) grabbed a trekking pole, and we were off following our guide, Flavia, up the glacier to who knows what? Since the glacier is constantly flowing down the mountain (and these glaciers move especially fast), the surface features are always changing. And with the rain accelerating those changes, plus keeping the guides off the mountain for those days, everything was “new”, even to them.

Our group of nine begins heading further up the ice.
Behind us, a clattering and then a cloud of dust alerts us to a sudden rockfall. The dark spots are probably 100 lb. rocks bouncing down the slope like deadly basketballs. Over our travels we’ve read dozens of interpretive signboards explaining how glacial valleys are formed (or just wondered “how did these rocks end up here along this hiking trail?”), but this is the first time we’ve witnessed the kinetic process with our own eyes. Similar falls happened several more times, and in different places, during our 150 minutes on the glacier.
When viewing glaciers from a distance in the past (like yesterday!), it’s been frustratingly impossible to understand what the scale of the ripples are. Now I know, because I’m standing amongst them! Rett and I of course wanted to get up to the “top” there (which is actually nowhere close to the top), and while we didn’t get there, I was surprised how far up the ice we did make it given our slow-moving group.
A different group explores a different line of the glacier, closer to the ice’s edge.
The blue underside reveals this to be a sheet of solid ice, not just a layer of snow like it might first appear.
Rett climbing up some of the “steps” cut in with our guide’s axe. The crampons provide an incredible amount of traction, so in many places the work of creating the steps seemed unnecessary to me, but I guess they need to keep it accessible and safe for a range of physical abilities.
Looking deep into the throat of another blue mouth opening on this living ice.
A small red-winged plane flies over an enormous jumble of blue ice.
While the glacier got (and deserved) 90% of our focus, it was also important to continually remind ourselves that this valley would be a world-class place to hike even if the glacier didn’t exist.
Another group again providing that scale that I’ve longed for.
Flavia cutting in steps. At one point she even installed a rope (tied to an ice-screw) to help us up a steep pitch.
Here’s a mouth that goes straight through. There were also streams of water everywhere running across channels on the surface, sometimes tumbling down as small waterfalls, and in one spot, a “spring” shooting straight up out of the ice like a water fountain.
On any other day, this scene, which doesn’t contain a hint of ice, would be the cover photo for that day’s entry.
Rett happy to be eaten by one of the blue mouths.
Descending more steps. Here they definitely make sense, because although it sort of looks like you could just tumble/slide down the slope and land softly in the snow, that ain’t actually snow, that’s rock-hard ice everywhere.
Our first big feature discovery, a cave big enough to stand in. Due to the undulations, this thing basically wasn’t visible until we were right on top of it.
Hi, we’re inside the mouth of a glacier!
A rare species of glacier-bunny.
Mountains of rock, mountains of ice.
Much like the icebergs that we watched on Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park, there is a surprising variety and creativity in the forms of the ice; it’s not just a basic pattern repeated across the field.
Photo op #2, this one a true ice-tunnel that we could walk through.
Rett exiting a tunnel whose walls and roof are all made from the same solid block of ice.
Descending in a final rush (down a well-established path) to catch our flight home.
Our golden helicopter arrives, bringing our ice-exploration to an end.

We were on the ice for two-and-a-half hours, which was long enough to be satisfying, without wearing anyone out. The weather was nearly-perfect, with some clouds rolling up off the humid rain forest just as we were boarding the helicopter. On departure we slingshotted within arms-reach of the raging waterfall output of Victoria Glacier, and then hugged the valley wall opposite of our arrival.

The last big expensive guided-tour thing we spent this level of money on was our week-long kayaking trip in Baja, Mexico. This one was “only” US$400 per person, but the per-minute cost (US$2.65 per person) exceeds the burn-rate of just about anything we could do with our money besides literally lighting a stack of it on fire. So was it “worth it”? It’s really difficult to say, because numbers like that are so unfamiliar, it’s like trying to judge the scale of a glacier’s ripples from three miles away (oh, hey, that’s no-longer an applicable analogy for us!) But I certainly didn’t feel cheated, and it will surely be another highlight memory from our time in New Zealand. And hey, I guess a first-class airfare costs more per-minute, and doesn’t return nearly the same value as hiking on a goddamn river of ice!

To keep the high slightly rolling, we got dinner at Betsey Jane’s, the high-end place in town (the “town” of Fox Glacier is a small grocery store, a cafe, a couple of pubs, and like five helicopter companies), which was also very good. Then a short roll further off the highway to our three-room standalone accommodation, the first time we’ve stayed under a roof at a holiday park (which generally have at least as many “cabins” in some form as campsites).

Because rain is coming again. Everyone (the guides, the waitress at the restaurant) has been saying how lucky we were to be doing the hike on such a briefly-perfect day amongst a stretch of clouds and rain. Well, no. Maybe for the other people on the tour it was luck, but for us, our luck came years (or decades) ago, and is continuing to pay off today by allowing us to arrange our lives such that if (and only if) a perfect day comes along, we can schedule ourselves to land on a sheet of blue ice with a golden helicopter in a green-and-gray valley, those colors all delivered via the white sun overhead.

The view from our holiday park unit, looking back toward the Fox valley.
Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, at 12,218 ft. Four hops ago, a fellow camper looked at a distant snow-capped mountain and mused “is that Mount Cook?” Nope, not even close. Two hops ago, a driver confidently informed me that the glacier-clad mountain I was taking a photo of was Mount Cook. Wrong again. This here is finally Mount Cook, made obvious by its extreme whiteness. It’s peak is ~17 miles from the ocean, a remarkably short distance for such a tall mountain.

Days 2 and 3

The rain came as predicted, though slow-arriving enough to allow us both to do the half-mile ride to the grocery store without getting wet, but then quite heavy in the afternoon, and continued unceasing until the afternoon of the third day. As always, we’re glad that rain made the extra expense of the roof “worth it”, especially since this is another West Coast building with a big covered-porch/carport where I was able to do a whole bunch of deferred bike maintenance (rotated Rett’s tires, replaced her brake pads, cleaned out her gravel-sticky kickstand, fixed my slow leak, patched other tubes using the sink to find leaks I hadn’t been able to find by sound/feel alone, and finally used the Springs Junction-acquired Loctite on the pad-adjustment bolts of our Tektro Spyre mechanical disc brakes to hopefully keep the brakes from loosening as we ride).

Unit 67 at Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park (bicycles not normally included).
Heavy rain turning the drive into a shallow stream.


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