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Flight to Fox

When I decided to visit the glaciers that spill out of the west coast of New Zealands South Island, I found myself faced with the weighty decision of choosing. Not a claim that many countries can make, New Zealand boasts two beautiful and highly accessible flows. Unfortunately for many, choosing which glacier to explore is often left to where one can get a good booking or whom has better marketing. Franz Josef does have more hostels, hotels, and amenities but I would like to make a case for the Fox Glacier instead.

The most commonly heard reason for continuing south to Fox is less crowds on the glacier itself. Don’t fret though, these things are big, so there’s plenty of room on both. Another reason making the rumor circuit was the Franz Josef had the only available ice caves in summer, which I later found to be completely inaccurate. The best reason I found to visit Fox was the stunning views of mounts Tasman and Cook. The summits were clearly visible from the elevated portions of Fox, and her lateral moraines.

I came by coach. Inter-city and Kiwi Experience stop daily both north and south-bound, but I found ride-sharing to be very easy as well. I arrived on a Tuesday morning to a light drizzle. The weather had been dodgy for days, and would later play havoc with our schedule. As I passed through Franz Josef and crossed the lower mountains to Fox, I was greeted by an enchanting rainbow that spanned the entire valley. The colour was vibrant, unlike any bow I had seen before or since. I remember thinking how it would bode well for my trip. I foolishly forgot from what a rainbow is borne… RAIN!

Yes, the rain caused unforeseeable delays to our summit attempt, as the helicopters won’t fly unless they have visual contact with the various landing sites. So, upon my arrival and check-in with Alpine Guides, I was placed in the holding pattern. The other climbers in the group were a day late, the weather was bad, and the pilots weren’t going up the glacier. There was even a group farther up the glacier hiking out, because they couldn’t get a clear landing site. So I headed back to Ivory Towers to settle in for the wait. The hostel was a great place to stay, and I would highly recommend them. Dale was wonderful, I met fantastic people in the communal kitchen, and they had many of the little amenities like videos, room heaters, made beds, and laundry service. The only negative was a broken spa, however that could very well be repaired by now.

I would forewarn travelers to a few key aspects in order to enjoy your stay. The township has no bank or ATM’s. Some shops accept travelers checks, but this not guaranteed. Alpine Guides will perform a cash advance on VISA credit cards, but they incur a 5% service fee. An EFTPOS card will come in handy, but bring cash just in case. The food and bottle shops are able to charge a regional premium, so supplies are a bit dear. Save yourself some money and stock up in Hokitika or Greymouth, that’s what the locals do. With a bit of preparation you will be ready to conquer the floe.

The next day I met the group I would accompany up the Glacier. Tony, a relaxed red headed kiwi would be our guide. Lolita, who joined the group at the last moment, hiked extensively in French Polynesia, and had been to the Himalayas. Di, an airline attendant from England was traveling with her mate Martin, both of whom had considerably better experience and equipment than me. That would not prove difficult to overcome though, Alpine Guides provided everything required to undertake the adventure. That they did, following another days delay due to weather.

Come Friday I awoke to a briskly cold morning. The night before my friends and I visited the near-by Lake Matheson. Boasted as the most photographed parkland in New Zealand, it is truly beautiful. I had gone to bed thoroughly discouraged however, believing the weather wouldn’t break. It had been unfavorable for over two weeks. Yet my spirits soared as I peeked out the door leading out to our porch… blue skies! I spotted Di prepping some gear in the car park across the way. She grinned devilishly and exclaimed ‘looks good, you ready?’

I nodded emphatically as I ran to Alpine Guides visitor center. Tony was out getting supplies, but another guide confirmed that flights were indeed going up the glacier. I ran back to the towers, gathered up my gear, and hustled back to the lodge. Tony arrived shortly with assorted goodies for our excursion. Along with another guide whom would accompany us, they began to outfit us with the specialized gear we would require. It was then we met Jade, a guide from Alaska, who planned on joining us just for the day on our summit of Chancellor dome. He and his guide would return to the township that evening if they could get their helicopter pick-up. Our escorts loaded everything into a van, and we were off to the lower landing site.

I had never ridden in a helicopter before, and it was very exciting as they came in for a landing to pick us up. Very early you will hear them begin ferrying people up the glacier. If the morning air is clear, the valley between the each moraine resembles a military airlift zone. There is plenty of traffic going in and out, up and down. Our group was split in two, and we loaded into the cramped compartment. As soon as the belts were buckled and headsets donned we were off. Off the ground, that is! Climbing into the valley with the Fox just below us I felt as if my breath had been stolen away. What a sight to behold. Mother nature in her raw element, carving the land. People below us traversed the lower icefall, resembling ants in a giant sugar bowl.

We approached the Chancellor hut, a historic cabin in an alpine meadow above the glacier. Setting down on this precipice, we piled out and made our way to the hut. The D.O.C. maintains many throughout the region and accommodation arrangements can be made through information centers, booking agents and local guide organizations. We stowed our overnight gear, double checked our summit equipment, then set out on a winding path up into the heart of the firnfeld. Surrounded by blossoms of all types and colours, we stopped for spectacular pictures and breathtaking views. After a few hours of this and a short hike through stone and scree, we reached the snowline. We hiked up the snow fields, and along the ridge of chancellor dome. The snow and stone appeared interspersed as we neared the summit. Some of the deep running rock had been split by water freezing and expanding within the cracks. Tony dropped a small stone down one, and we heard it fall for what seemed like ages!

The final leg of our journey was a thin sliver of jagged shards that lined the edge of the ridge. After roping in one by one, we crossed the shale fringe to summit the cramped dome. The view was stunning and I stared awestruck of the view from 2000 metres. As I reached the narrow peak I was greeted by Buddhist prayer flags set there by Tony’s mates to remember a fellow guide they lost in the Himalayas. Perhaps the grandeur of Mount Cook and Tasman were a fitting epitaph for one who must have loved the mountains that sadly embraced him forever. I took a moment to reflect on it, and the little Tony had told me. I then gathered my thoughts and began taking in the sweeping vistas, madly snapping photos like paparazzi in Hollywood. All to quickly it was time to go. I rose and crossed back over, affording someone else the opportunity to come up.

After a lunch just under the surprisingly warm peak, we set out to descend. What’s the quickest way down the snow field? Ski, of course. But we had no skis! No dramas… bend your knees, lift your toes, and away you go!!! But keep tight hold of that ice axe, you’re going to need it. I had to ‘self-arrest’ 3 times after falling on the steep slopes. We were flying, but too fast and it’s right over the edge for a long trip down. Didn’t want to get down that quick.

All the while our guide pointed out native plants (yes, there were blossoms on the peak, as well as mosses & lichens) and animals. The pesky Kea, a mountain parrot native to New Zealand, will make off with your gear so don’t leave your knickers lying about. Shammies and tars (hardy mountain goats) bounded the cliffs, showing us who the real mountaineers were. And of course there were heaps of insects that have adapted to the cold. The glacier is flanked on both sides by thick, sub-tropical rainforest, just below the meadows. Massive waterfalls carve their niche through emerald fields into stone, cascading down to the glacier below. The bellowing roar surpassed only by the thunderous ice falls splitting away. These we heard quite often, even while on the glacier itself! This was evidenced by freshly exposed ice easily recognized by the sky blue colours locked deep within the white. I can see why the Lord of the Rings trilogy is being filmed on location in New Zealand. Vertical Limit was shot on the very slopes of this spectacular parkland.

We returned to the hut and saw Jade and his guide on their way. As it happened, they had to descend to a lower pick-up location, because the mists had settled in on our higher elevation. After a night of memorable stories in the rustic cabin we settled down for a cold night illuminated by a bright, full moon. Our stomachs were full of stir-fry chicken and vintage Chardonnay which Tony had doled out generously. Snug in our goose-down bags we slept off the days taxing activities.

The following dawn we set off early for a descent to the glacier. We had the requisite fright when Diane was crossing a stone face carved by running water and covered with moss. Just a small misstep, and sliding, sliding, sliding. Not far, but far enough, she spilled down the rock… right into the waiting arms of our expertly positioned guide! However, being a true-to-form novice I reacted and made a grab for her as she fell. Of course, I slipped as well and barreled right into both of them, nearly sweeping Tonys legs right out from under! His axe firmly anchored one foot while he scooped us both up. An axe firmly anchoring his foot he scooped us both up. He never even chided me for making things worse. He smiled, let out a long breath and set on down the track. About half an hour later and 50+ metres below he exclaimed “well Di, this is where you would have been”. Looking up, we saw the shear drop lined with razor like shale ending in a mound of evil, toothy stone. We had only been half a metre from the edge when Tony caught us. It took us another hour to reach the glacier (and Dianes nausea to subside) but in the end we had a good chuckle over it.

At the northern lateral moraine of Fox, we donned our crampons and climbed onto the glacier. Tony deftly led us around the gaping crevasses and over narrow ice bridges. The air was clean, the weather was great, and the day was shaping up as one of my best in N.Z. We explored ice caves that glowed neon blue as sunlight filtered through the dense, old ice. Meltwater carved wondrous ribbons and hollows into the ice. We filled our canteens with the purest and best tasting water on earth. Below, the meltwater lubricates the flow, contributing to the remarkable speed at which Fox travels. Both glaciers boast some of the fastest advancing rates in the world, with movement that can be measured daily! However Fox is currently in a state of recession at the terminal moraine. Several signs mark the various locations of the terminus in the past, some more than one hundred years ago. You will also finds signs on the lower track with illustrations, explanations, and photos which date far back to Fox’s heyday.

Continuing on, we found a smooth patch of glacial till and settled in for a lunch amidst the icefall. The group took in the blue-white band running behind us and up into the mountains. After, we geared up and found some sheer faces for a crash-course in ice climbing. Hard work, but what a feeling when you reached a pinnacle. After an hour or so the vapor began to rise in the valley. Like a fog seeping through the mossy banks of some primal swamp, our visibility was quickly becoming obscured. Tony packed up the technical equipment and called the Alpine Lodge for our ‘taxi’. We walked down to a location known as the flat where we geared down and awaited our ride back to warm showers, hot pizza, and cold beer. The helicopter made its presence known with the tell-tale whoop, whoop, whoop… and like a phoenix from the sun she appeared out of the mist for a spectacular landing on the ice. We loaded the chopper, piled in and donned our head sets one final time. Seeing the sadness in our faces, the pilot took off and crossed the valley to give us one last look at our icy playground. He banked along the cliffs taking us over the spectacular Victoria Falls, then pointed the whirlybird toward home. As we left, we couldn’t wipe the grins off our faces. We had fallen hopelessly in love with Fox glacier.

Information; Alpine Guides (Westland) Ltd. – PO Box 38, Fox Glacier 7951, NZ Phone (03) 751 0825 Fax (03) 751 0857 Email Web Chancellor Hut Adventure – D.O.C. Visitor Information Center (03) 751 0807 or 0858 Ivory Towers BP Sullivan Road, PO Box 30, Fox Glacier Phone (03) 751 0838 Email

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