HOME AT FIRST'S-
Glacier Hiking in the
FOX GLACIER •
SOUTH ISLAND •
Photo Gareth Eyres - NZ Tourism
New Zealand's got better
rides than a theme park.
Over the years Ive
walked glaciers in various parts of the Swiss and Austrian Alps, but until recently I had
never been on the vertical parts, tip-toeing among the crevasses, pillars and ice caves.
But last March I visited this world on the West Coast of New Zealands longest
and most accessible river of ice, the Fox Glacier. I joined about a dozen other folks of
all ages most with no prior glacier or mountaineering experience for an
improbable 3-hour hike in the remote middle of this slowly moving, grinding, cracking ice
Photo Location: about a mile up, and within sight of 10,000 high snowcaps and the
the ocean that separates the West Coast of New Zealand from Australia, 1,000
miles to the west.
Photos in this article © Home At First, except where otherwise credited.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY
APPEARED IN AUTUMN, 2001.
MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.
The morning began under luxurious coverlets at
Home At Firsts very popular
(sadly, now defunct) about an hour north of Fox Glacier. Climbing out of bed was easy, though the
promise of hosts Grant and Bev Muirs famous breakfast was an inspiration that made
my stomach talk.
I would have enjoyed
luxuriating an extra day in the care of this extraordinary New Zealand couple, who somehow
manage to find time to be perfect hosts while also managing their sizeable elk and deer
Home At First's
(Grant) and teaching a
full day at the local
elementary school (Bev).
But an adventure awaited.
Highway 6 is a major
road in New Zealand, running the length of the South Island, primarily along the west
coast, from Blenheim in the rich Marlborough wine producing area of the north to
Invercargill on the islands Antarctica-facing southern coast. Along the way Highway
6 passes through some of the greatest of New Zealands fabled South Island scenery:
the rugged mountains southwest of Marlborough, the active earthquake canyons leading to
the sea, the dramatic West Coast itself with magnificent ocean vistas and sudden stunning
glimpses of snowcapped alps.
The road is good,
permitting easy driving at 60 mph, with enough curves to make things
interesting and keep the scenic surprises coming. Among the surprises
several one-lane bridges — some of them of
The Southern Alps rise over 12,000'
from the beaches of Westland.
100-yard variety, but others over a
quarter mile in length—which cross numerous rocky channels where the
melt-water of the Southern Alps and the run-off from the Westland rain
forest enter the flood plain, heading towards the Tasman. Some of these streams are noted
fishing creeks and rivers drawing fly-casting sport fishermen from around the world. At
least one flows into broad Okarito Lagoon before entering the Tasman. The lagoon is the
scenic breeding grounds of the rare white heron. Little Okarito village maybe a dozen
houses has a shop with an excellent selection of Maori crafts
artwork, especially jewelry made out of the
So, with both scenery and shopping distractions we needed two hours to make the
less-than-one-hour drive to Fox Glacier. But we got some great photos and some unique
souvenirs. Maybe it was good that we signed up for the noon glacier walk instead of the
There are two great accessible glaciers
in the Westland (Tai Poutini) National Park. They descend the west flank of the Southern Alps dropping
about 9,000 feet in about 8 miles, carrying the compressed snows from the highest of the
Southern Alps westward to the Tasman. The Franz Josef Glacier, about 12 miles north of Fox
Glacier, is reachable just beyond Okarito. Both glaciers have become cottage industries of
tourism. Both empty into moraines (despite a few ebb years, Fox Glacier has been
principally advancing since 1985) above namesake hamlets of motels, souvenir shops and adventure tour operators.
Our glacier hike
arrangements were made with Alpine Guides Fox Glacier Ltd., which operates Fox
Glacier Guiding out of a
good-sized storefront of shops and offices like something you might find in the American
West or the Canadian Rockies. Fox Glacier Guiding sells souvenirs, clothing and
specialty gear for hiking and climbing at their Hobnail Shop in Fox Glacier and the
Glacier Shop in Franz Josef Glacier. The clever retailing in these shops gets you coming
and going. We saw folks buying gear prior to their
Fox Glacier descends
miles from its snow source
New Zealand's highest
to its terminal
moraine in the Westland rain
250' above sea level.
glacier adventures, and
the same folks buying souvenirs
counter at the Fox Glacier Guiding building was the check-in counter for
their many guided glacier experiences. Mike and Carrol Browne, directors
of Alpine Guides Fox Glacier Ltd., have created a menu of adventures
with something for everyone and almost every pocketbook. The most basic
and least expensive adventure is a two-hour "interpretive" walk to the
lower end of the glacier, costing about NZ$49 for adults and NZ$35 for
kids 8-15. On the other end of the scale, Fox Glacier Guiding offers a
NZ$1795 3-day (2 nights) Browne Fox Alpine Skills Course to introduce
technical alpine mountaineering skills.
Our adventure was
one of Fox Glacier Guiding’s most popular offerings, the
Flying Fox Glacier Helihike. This 3-hour experience costs
A red-and-white chopper
appeared, rotated once,
and softly put down on
the concrete landing spot.
NZ$399/adult (kids from 9 years old permitted, but pay the same as
adults), and requires basic fitness, agility, and no fear of flying.
From Fox Glacier
Guiding’s clean, modern headquarters a less-than-modern, less-than-clean
bus transported us about 5-minutes to a one-room cinder block building
on the flood plain flats outside of town. Here we traded in our shoes
and socks for warmer, woolen socks and sturdy if well-used hobnail
boots. Our guide urged us to quickly put on our borrowed footwear and
join him outside by the helipad. Within 5 minutes a bright red-and-white
chopper appeared, rotated once, and softly put down on the concrete
landing spot. Quickly the pilot’s door opened and he helped his five
passengers clamber out. As soon as they came through the gate by the
blockhouse, five of us were shepherded to the helicopter. Without
backpacks and cameras, we were helped into the chopper. We were shown
how to belt ourselves in and how to put on our headphones so we could
speak with our guide-pilot.
Then our cameras and backpacks were handed up to us
and the pilot himself climbed in.
The rotors gained rpm,
and it became noisier. The machine wanted to leap
into the air. The pilot hurriedly requested and received
clearance. We levitated maybe six feet, and spun half a rotation towards
the mountains. Then our nose dropped, the rotors went into full steam
ahead and we raced away from our cinder block airbase. The weather was
cloudy, with some broken patches showing blue sky. Visibility was
excellent, but there was a ceiling at about 8,000-9,000 feet, hiding the
great peaks of the Southern Alps, Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook. We followed
the rocky streambed of the Cook River east, over a shoulder and then
over the moraine to the base of the Fox Glacier, which formed a Big S on
its way uphill and into the clouds.
A continuous stream of
chatter came over the phonessome between pilot and base about future shuttles he
needed to plan that day, and some between pilot and passengers, as we got the blow-by-blow
of the remarkable environment we suddenly found ourselves in. Tail up so we could readily
see out of its Plexiglas nose, the chopper swung from side to side. Like a bumblebee in a
field of flowers, it shunted in stuttering flight to whatever caught our attention. We
explored the steep rock embankments which contain the glacier. We soared to the upper
reaches of the Fox where, for a precious moment, the clouds parted to reveal a cobalt blue
sky and serrated snowcaps of 3000 meter high mountains. Then we seemed to free fall
alongside the steep upper descent of the glacier called Victoria Falls before hovering in
a spin over a little anvil of ice in the middle of Fox Glacier. Below us, visible only as
black specks among the wrinkles and crevasses, were people. A few hundred yards above
them, it was hard to imagine how they got
Now we descended with
skilled purpose, spinning, spinning, looking for threats to our safe touch downwind
shear, probably. Touch down?! We barely placed both runners on the anvil, which could not
be much larger than a billiard table. The rotor stayed hot, and the pilot opened his door.
But he stayed in his seat. We were met by our glacier guide, who helped us with our belts
and our packs and our footing as we made the long step from chopper to pack ice. I
suddenly knew why some agility is required for this trip.
The chopper pilot was in a hurry. He had more people to ferry including five more for
our trip and he was impatient to end his balancing act on this altar of
ice. No sooner did
No sooner did our fifth
down into the arms of our
than the helicopter
leapt about ten feet
into the air,
then rolled right, plunging
down ice for the two-minute
straight run to the pick-up point.
our fifth passenger scramble down into the
of our glacier guide
than the helicopter leapt about ten feet into the air, then rolled
right, plunging steeply down ice for the two-minute straight run to the
cinder block pick-up point.
ON THE ICE
Suddenly it was very quiet and still.
And slippery. Waiting 50 feet beyond and below us were the five who came up before us.
They were standing in a depression next to a wooden box and what looked to be a stack of
firewood. Slowly, carefully, we inched ourselves down the incline to join them. In another
fifteen minutes the chopper appeared again, touched down briefly enough to drop off
another five persons, then dropped out of sight.
Our glacier guide assembled his charges by the
Our glacier guide,
quite a figure — handsome,
athletic, even cheery — as he
wended his pick-axe in one
hand deftly carving out stair
steps without breaking
stride or a sweat.
cordwood. "Im Pierre," he said in an
Aussie-French accent. Pierre is not his real name. Ive forgotten his real name. But
I will not forget his accent. Not a keeper.
Pierre handed out the contents of the wooden box: steel-toothed frames for our hobnail
boots elementary instep crampons. Then he passed out the logs, which turned out to be
wooden poles tipped with galvanized steel points alpenstocks! Next came a five-minute
lesson on how to walk in our slippery environs. Then, like a mother duck, Pierre led his
fifteen goslings up out of the depression and into terra incognita.
For the next two and a
half hours Pierre easily the youngest of us, certainly the fittest of us, and, oddly,
not the only one of us in short pants led us on a glacial scavenger hunt. We
collected as many glacier-walking experiences as he could assemble for us. We nervously
climbed ridges, squeezed sideways between ice walls, stepped gingerly over crevasses,
slip-slided through ice grottoes, ascended crowns, stared down mesmerized into
chasms, all with Pierre’s running commentary of light
patter and minor levity designed to put us
at ease. He cut
figure — handsome,
athletic, even cheery — as he wended his pick-axe in one hand deftly
carving out stair steps without breaking stride or a sweat. He made it
known he was professionally trained and has tackled the toughest
challenges of the Southern Alps, and some of the northern Alps, too — he
earned his unique accent in the French Savoy.
Most of us were
fit savvy young daring enough to take on every challenge Pierre threw at
us. Even the loud reports from the glacier cracking in the late summer warmth didnt
put us off. Pierre kept spirits buoyant, even when we would venture into an area without
an outlet and had to retrace our steps. One of us, however, was not right for the trip.
Like most of us, she was a flatlander and a first-timer on a glacier. But she was clearly
eldest (except for her like-old husband) at about 60 years old. She was an Aussie on her
first trip to New Zealand. I dont think she had ever seen snow before, let alone a
sloping, moving river of ice. She had the most difficulty
We climbed ridges,
ice walls, stepped gingerly
slid through ice
grottoes, ascended crowns,
stared down mesmerized into chasms.
credit - Legend Photography - NZ Tourism.
with getting in and out of the chopper, learning
to walk with the ice aids, and overcoming her fear of slipping and falling. Pierre paid great attention to her, making sure that her
experience was as positive as possible, seeing to it that she did not
become too worried that she was spoiling things for the others, helping
her stay at ease even when her tendency was to panic. Thanks to Pierre,
the woman was a danger neither to herself nor to the others. But she
should not have been there.
A simple test will tell you if you should be there: are you afraid of falling in a
slippery environment? If "Yes" is your answer, pick another adventure. Fox Glacier
Guiding has something suitable for you.
BACK IN THE AIR; BACK ON
By 2:30 PM we were feeling accustomed
Just when the braver,
of us began to drift away
from the group,
our guide Pierre
declared it was time to
to the chopper pick-up point.
to our ice legs. Just when the braver, bolder, more
foolish of us began to drift away from the group to see if we could get a better photo
angle of some imposing ice structure or other, Pierre declared it time to descend to the
chopper pick-up point. Amidst all the hills and rills, and the endless gray-white with
ice-blue and chocolate-chip-brown accents, somehow Pierre pick-axed a path right to the
drop zone. After 2.5 hours on the Fox, the only quasi-flat spot we had seen was the anvil
the chopper landed on. And it would no longer be there tomorrow.
No sooner had we shed our crampons and
pointy sticks than we heard the approach of the chopper. Scrambling into the helicopter
proved no easier the second time. The pilot showed us some last remarkable scenery during
the descent. Our arrival at the blockhouse reminded me of the end of an aerial tramway
ride in the Alps. Except without cables. Changing back to civilian shoes felt a lot like
taking off ice skates: for the first few minutes conventional walking was something of a
new and amusing experience.
I don’t remember the bus
ride back to the headquarters. But I do remember I was the only one of
our group of fifteen who did not end up buying a souvenir. I was
tempted. It would have been a gratuity purchase, however. That is to
say, it would be a way of saying "Thanks for this experience. It was
worth the NZ$395 and
more." Instead, I made up my mind to tell you about the trip. Next time youre
with Home At First in
Westland, be sure to look up
Fox Glacier Guiding. Ask for
Gareth Eyres - NZ Tourism
IF YOU GO:
alpine guides fox
menu of activities packages, with something for almost every
age, fitness level, budget, and time constraint:
Two-hour, Four-hour, and
Six-to-Seven-hour Guided Glacier Walks
Half-Day (4 hours), and Full-Day
Guided Helicopter Hiking Trips
Various Ice Climbing, Overnight
Heli-Trekking, and Mountaineering Training Trips
You can add a
fox glacier guiding
experience as part of your
HOME AT FIRST
independent New Zealand Fly/Drive itinerary. There is no extra
charge to have us make all the arrangements for you.
TO westland NATIONAL PARK:
The village of Fox Glacier is about 2 minutes drive
HOME AT FIRST's
Because the weather can be a determining issue for
glacier walking — and especially for heli-hiking — many
visitors wish to make their bookings within two days of
their arrival at Fox Glacier. However, because these
trips are very popular, you risk not being able to join
the activity of your choice without advance
Tasman & Mt. Cook — New Zealand's
two highest mountains — lord over the
rain forests of Westland National Park.
Few natural spaces are as
uniquely varied as New Zealand.
Home At First offers lodgings
in regions across the length
of New Zealand.
Our exclusive "New Zealand Activities
Guide" has hundreds of suggestions for things to see
do when you travel with Home At First
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