Monday, May 08, 2006

How we spent our hump day...

Wednesday. Hump Day. When I was at work it was my favorite day; by the time you left work it meant you were more than half way home for the week. (At least in theory). On the trip, actual days have a lot less meaning as the only time days of the week seem to come into play is if something is closed or you've got to be someplace as a specific time.

What does this have to do with our trip to Fox Glacier, New Zealand? Honestly, not a whole lot. But as we sat at the high point of our day trek onto the Fox Glacier, I looked at my watch and thought to myself that this was a much better way to spend a hump day than sitting at my cube plugging away. I'm going to have to keep memories like this fresh in my mind for when I eventually come back to the working world (I refuse to call it the "real world" because every day we live is real).

But what memories they are. Along the west coast of New Zealand's Southern Alps lie two of only three glaciers in the world that come down into and through temperate rain forest: the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers (the third one is in Argentina). Though we had heard good things about both, Franz Josef was supposedly a bit "more commercial", which meant there were more companies bringing people up on the ice and it was more expensive. Combine that with the facts that we were impressed with Fox Alpine Guides and we had heard that Fox the town was quieter than Franz Josef and we were Fox-bound.

Of course this being New Zealand, Franz Josef being busier/noisier meant that the township consisted of four blocks instead of the two in Fox. Not quite the Aspen-lite we were imagining. However, Fox Glacier lived up to all our mental images. As I mentioned previously, we elected to do the full day hike. The heli-hike sounded cool but was way too spendy and we really wanted more time on the glacier proper so it was a pretty easy choice in the end.

The science of the glacier is very interesting. The glacier itself is constantly both advancing and retreating with the net gain or loss dependant on the season. This movement creates great stress on the ice and because of this, the guides deal with a continually changing environment. Our guide told us that the trails they take people on never stay the same for more than a day or two. As a result, they are always seen with their pick axe in tow (better to cut a couple of foot hold/steps for the dicey spots) and end up making things up as they go. The guides from Alpine Guides were great, very informative and willing to answer all sorts of questions of varying intelligence from the group while making sure that people didn't wander off towards a deep crevasse.

The full day hike was a great opportunity to fully explore the glacier. Despite an area known for its rainfall, the weather gods smiled on us and provided a beautiful sunny day. We started off with a hike through the rain forest to the edge of the glacier where we slapped on some crampons (my first experience with them) and then headed up onto the ice. The crampons were ok to get used to once you mentally adjusted to the fact that you could just dig your foot into the ice at any angle and take the next step without falling (and you remembered to walk with your feet about a foot apart so that the crampons didn't catch on each other...5 bucks said Becca wasn't going to make it through the day remembering that!). It did make for some tricky mental moments on downhills but after you got used to it there was a tremendous sense of freedom/security.

One of the great things about the full-day hike over the 1/2 day one is that you are quickly taken off of the baby-trails on the ice (the places where the guides have cut every step) and set off cross-country. Jason the guide was always looking for interesting crevasses to walk us through, ice caves to explore, slopes to climb up/down, or places to try and get across however possible (cool pic to click on). The walk culminated in a fantastic view of the lower ice falls, an intimidating, beautiful mass of jagged ice, some pieces six stories high.

It was really good experience and a great day. Like in Europe there was a certain sense of personal responsibility with your conduct (mainly you're a responsible adult so act like one and don't do something stupid/careless that will get you hurt) so many times we were left to climb over significant gaps in the ice or along ridges while the guide continued to break trail. It made for a good atmosphere where people took care of one another and enjoyed the view while keeping safe. In all we spent around six hours on the ice. A physically and mentally demanding time but not so much so as to take all the fun out of it. Definitely one of our highlights in New Zealand to date and it also allowed us to justify a big huge burger, chips and a beer at the end of the day. :-)

If you want to see more of our little adventure check out all the cool pics (including Becca's best Georgia O'Keefe homage) we took on an amazing day on the ice.


Editoral note: the first couple of fox glacier pics in the link above are from later that evening, checking out the gorgeous sunset over Lake Matheson

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