::Fox Glacier, New Zealand::
I’m not what you’d call the most graceful person in the world. Fact: I trip a lot. I also walk into things (walls, lampposts, et al). It’s a miracle I have walked the lengths of Rome, Paris, London and other such cities with moderate success, considering the plethora of obstacles just waiting to hold hands with gravity and put a not-so-awesome spring in my otherwise steady step. I thought I was on pretty solid ground in New Zealand – so few motor scooters! No post boxes in the middle of sidewalks! No flummoxing cobblestones!
My euphoria cooled somewhat when we booked our first big activity about a day and a half after arriving in Queenstown. A glacier climb. “Oh goodie,” I thought. “The chance to fork out $109 for the chance of a lifetime to slip and slide my way across a mass of frozen water in front of numerous fellow tourists, a guide and any local wildlife!” Not exactly what I’d had in mind.
But book we did. After we arrived in the quaint town of Fox Glacier Township and checked in, I was about to throw in the towel and tell my friends that me and my chicken toasty were just peachy keen sitting in Fox Glacier Guide‘s Hobnail Cafe while everyone else scrabbled around atop the wily ‘berg. But something inside refused to allow my two left feet to defeat me, so a-climbing I would go!
Here’s where I give a major plug to Fox Glacier Guiding. It is to their credit that not only did I not fall over once on the ice (though I did awkwardly crawl around a bit in an effort to avoid such circumstances) but enjoyed myself so much that I can proudly say this is one of the top 5 coolest (literally) things I have ever done. We had signed up for the Fox Trot, a 4-hour excursion that includes about 1 hour on the ice itself.
A group of about 20 of us gathered in a small room lined with benches for a pep talk, safety instructions and to collect our gear for the half-day expedition. Sam, one of the guides, explained how the trip would go and some of the dangers of being on ice, then instructed us on proper attire. Layered in a sport top, sweatshirt, North Face jacket and another coat, I lined up with everyone else to trade my sneakers for heavy-duty boots, grab a set of detachable metal crampons and snatch up one of the snazzy-looking Fox Glacier rainproof jackets, as the gloomy day looked unpredictable at best.
Boarding a bus (hello, summer camp 1990) we bumped through town and turned down a narrow service road that wound through a jungly thicket as our second guide, Dean, talked knowledgeably and at length about glaciers in general – glacier movement, behavior, causes, history and relation to weather patterns – and about the particulars of Fox Glacier, which recedes and then moves forward in cycles of about 4 years each, taking essentially one step forward and two steps back over time. Currently the glacier is in recession, which would mean a nice smooth surface for us to walk on (as opposed to the heavily-crevassed version when it is moving forward). When the bus pulled into a small lot we found ourselves in a flat ravine snaking its way between cliffs on either side – the glacier was just ahead, but we had to hike to it. Breaking into 2 smaller groups, each with a guide, we set on our way, lumbering along maladroitly in our cumbersome rented boots.
Over rocks and across streams, we stopped occasionally for more short lectures about the glacier by Dean, whose enthusiasm was quite catching, even for the few grumpy Europeans in our little band. Glaciers truly are enchating in their own mysterious way, but I never knew how captivating one could be until suddenly ahead of us I spied it – an enormous white mass slithering silently down between the mountainsides, beckoning as we walked ever closer. Nearing it, we stopped to tightly strap on our crampons – metal spikes that fastened under the instep of our boots to give us much-needed traction on the ice – and pick up ski pole-like walking sticks for extra support. And up we went, climbing a short path of ice-pick carved stairs (chiseled further by Dean as he went ahead of us) until we reached the top surface of the enormous Fox Glacier.
From that moment on I was in a preternatural icy wonderland. We stomped around the surface leaaving our marks in the hard ice, climbed into blue-tinted caves and through glistening caverns, roped into slushy-floored holes and back out again, sipped real glacier water from small melted pools and maneuvered wondrously around various formations as Dean pointed out nuances in the incredible, frozen structure. Finally it was time to head out of our glacial paradise and hike back to the bus. We took off and stored our crampons and as we hiked back down the rough, rock-hewn trail we heard a roaring BOOM that sounded like an angry clap of thunder – I was glad the rain had waited until we were off the ice.
But I was mistaken: that boom was no thunder, it was a tremendous chunk of ice detaching from the glacier and tumbling to the earth below in a heaping mass. Everyone froze (pun intended), looked at each other for a split second and then raced back up the embankment all at once to see what was happening. The fresh ice laying in a pile at the gaping mouth of the glacier was telltale proof of the breakage that had just happened, but even as we stood, awaiting more action, it appeared to be done. So we headed back down, only to hear another BOOM, this time twice as loud and twice as long, and back up the embankment we went! We arrived just in time to see a mighty deposit of fresh ice – the entire face of the glacier was beginning to crumble! We stood a good long while, determined not to miss any more, but all we heard was a continued ominous crackling noise from within the giant mass. We had a great story to take home with us, that’s for sure.
Back in town and relieved of our gear, our proud guides personalized certificates for all of us, certifying that we “did visit the mighty FOX GLACIER, did brave the inclemency of the South Westland climate and did endure the rambling discourses of the guides.” Maybe they should have added to mine “and did stay upright for the duration of the climb.” I had conquered my graceless tendencies, at least for that day, and as I thawed on our drive north to Greymouth, we all marveled at what was most certainly the coolest thing we’d done…maybe ever.Fox Glacier Guiding **highly recommended for outstanding professionalism and great Kiwi humor** 44 Main Road, State Highway 6 Fox Glacier 7859 New Zealand http://www.foxguides.co.nz OR check ‘em out on YouTube