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!
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!)
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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).