To the glacier in a helicopter

I have already mentioned that I have a secret list of experiences that I would like to try once in my life. Indeed I created this list before setting off to my round the world trip, hoping that I could cross out a couple of positions. Many points on the list at the time seemed rather impossible – say, sky diving – I never thought I’d have the nerve and the opportunity to actually implement them. Others seemed rather trivial – horse riding for example. But there is this special effect in the Universe. When you charge your brain with some task, it starts to look for ways to put it into action, quite subconsciously. And almost by itself out of chaos the way emerges to reach your goal. That’s why it is so important to actually have goals, to write them down clearly for yourself. It is also often very difficult to implement a complex objective without proper preparation, and an ill-prepared attack can easily result in failure. But if you build your way in small steps, gradually increasing your abilities and expectations of yourself, we can reach things that seemed impossible to us before.

One line in my list was to fly on a helicopter. Somehow I’d never done it in my life. A couple of times in South America and in Australia I almost managed to get on a flight, but every time there was a last moment cancellation – usually due to insufficient number of participants.

One of the key stops on the Kiwi Experience route down the South Island is a small town of Franz Josef. It is famous for being next to the Franz Josef glacier and allowing easy access to it. Easy access is a metaphor though, the only way to actually get onto the glacier is to fly there in a copter. The ice walls of the glacier itself are too complicated to climb for those without extensive climbing experience.

We reached Franz Josef late in the evening. The day was unusually sunny for these parts – almost no cloud in the sky. Therefore immediately we signed up for a helicopter excursion to the glacier for the next day. The bus stops in Franz Josef for two days specifically to allow for such an excursion. As instructed, the next morning I got up to be ready for a 8 am start. But as I looked out the window, I saw the sky fully covered with fog and clouds. And indeed in the flight centre we were told that all flights for the day are cancelled. And yet our driver did not give up and told us to register for a flight the next morning. If the flights were to take place, our bus departure would be delayed as needed. And that’s what we did.

In the afternoon I decided at least to take a look at the glacier from the ground, particularly as the sky cleared up. You can reach the glacier valley by bus, it is about 5 km from the town. The start of the walk to the glacier:

From the car park it is about 2 km on foot to the actual glacier. This is what you see as the walls of the valley open up gradually:

Mountain streams fall down the valley walls:

Moss covers the walls:

Little by little the panorama of the glacier reveals itself to you. The glacier is actually retreating. In years past it was covering all this space that is now open for walking. I’m not sure if the retreat is due to global warming or to local temperature cycles.

A look back. All of this was under the glacier just 10 years ago.

This is the furthest point you are allowed to reach on foot. Further there is a risk of an avalanche.

As I returned to the car park I noticed several other walks that lead away from the glacier but actually offer better views – as I knew from talking to the microbus driver. I explored some of these views:

This one is like a fairytale:

The next morning the flights were on! We dressed in warm clothing, sturdy mountain boots and arrived on the helicopter pad. This copter is taking some of my mates to the glacier.

Going, going, gone!

And the next one was for me. Check! The view from above:

Approaching the glacier:


Another group is already there:

Our guide on the glacier. A young guy from Christchurch. He is closing the door of the helicopter after we arrived.

The copter goes back to Franz Josef. We were told how much it costs to rent the helicopter – the company rents them literally by the minute. Some crazy price.

And up we go to the glacier.

These are cramp ons – they are specially mounted on the shoes to allow to move easily on the ice without sliding.

A look back to the glacier:

The ice really has this amazing blue colour.

The glacier is called Franz Josef after the emperor of Austria Hungary. The glacier was discovered and mapped by an Austrian in 19th century and he gave it the name after his emperor.

Through the crevasses in the ice! Our guide stops from time to time to create steps in the ice with his axe. The ice is changing form every day and so the walk on the glacier is unique every time.

This guy is not with any group, he stays on the glacier to watch its condition and to warn in case of deterioration or avalanche.

Looks damn impressive.

Pretty fantastic walk, come to think of it.

Finally it’s time to go back. Honestly speaking I got really cold up there – even though we were wearing warm clothes and I had a couple of layers of my own, in the wind on altitude on the ice it was terribly cold. The guide is down on his knees to protect himself from the departing helicopter – I am sitting inside.

The last look at the valley. Incredible!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *