Franz Josef Glacier Heli-Hike

We climbed a glacier last week.

Those aren’t words I typically put together in a sentence, but since I can, I am going to.

We also rode in a helicopter last week.

Suffice it to say, it was an awe inspiring day.

The start of a crevasse in the glacier.

The start of a crevasse in the Franz Josef Glacier.

I think if you had to describe Ben and my travel responsibilities for our time in New Zealand, you could say he is more about the nitty gritty, day-to-day itinerary details of the trip while I’ve focused on finding our lodging and organizing excursions to well-known sites.

I’ve had a list of big things that I have wanted to do during our time in New Zealand and Ben has filled in the days in-between with fun adventures. Towards the top of my NZ “must-dos” was to experience a glacier.

There are many reasons I wanted to see a glacier. I am very familiar with ice and snow since I am Minnesotan born and raised, but I didn’t know very much about glaciers, and how better to learn than to experience? I’ve seen photos of blue ice which is created by air being squeezed out of the ice by the heavy layers of snow above it, but I wanted to see it in person. And, unfortunately, I am not sure how much longer glaciers will be a part of the world that we live in, so I wanted to make sure I could experience their beauty and magnitude while they are still around.

The helicopter that brought us to the top of the glacier was the same kind of helicopter that has landed on Mount Everest. It is specially made for those mountain conditions.

The helicopter that brought us to the top of the glacier was the same kind of helicopter that has landed on Mount Everest. It is specially made for those mountain conditions.

There are two well-known glaciers on the South Island, so we focused our research between the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier, just 30 km from each other. While both glaciers offer a long list of pros it worked better for our schedule to visit the Franz Josef Glacier.

We found a company that had a list of four different tours we could choose from and we selected the one that would fit us best. I will be honest that after our goat path fiasco, I was a bit nervous to walk on snow and ice again so soon. Figuring that in, we choose a tour with a bit more helicopter time and a bit less time on the glacier. We knew this heli hike was going to be a splurge, but believed it was something we had to do while we were in New Zealand.

When we arrived in Franz Josef, we checked in with our guiding company and were sent to another location to gear up for our trek. We were outfitted with water-proof pants, a tough water-proof jacket, boots, crampons, and a bright red fanny pack to carry our water, camera, and snacks in. We were told that the glacier could be sharp, and they provided most of the gear so that we wouldn’t damage our own equipment.

The axe was just for show unfortunately.

The axe was just for show unfortunately.

Once we were all decked out, it was time for us to each step on the scale. Since there were 22 people on our tour, they had to put us into four groups for the helicopter rides. The groups were determined by weight so that the helicopter was balanced appropriately. Our group had five people in it, a couple on their honeymoon from Singapore, and a solo traveler from Korea.

We walked across the street and through some dense forest until we got to a clearing where the helicopters were. We boarded the second helicopter and set out for the first part of our trip, the view from above the glacier.

The view from above the glacier didn't stink...

The view from above the glacier didn’t stink…

We were a bit disappointed that this portion of the trip only lasted about 15 minutes. The marketing materials made us believe that we would have nearly an hour of helicopter time. However, the 15 minutes that we did have were incredible!

We lucked out with a beautiful day to be on the glacier. The sun was shining and the sky was blue with only a few clouds. This allowed us to see the glacier perfectly along with the snowcapped mountains that surround it.

It was a perfect day to experience a glacier!

It was a perfect day to experience a glacier!

When we landed, our guide Adam told us that he hadn’t been on the glacier for two weeks because the weather had been so poor. We chatted about how lucky we got with the weather as we laced up our crampons.

For the next two hours we climbed, slid, and crawled over and through parts of the glacier. We learned about how the glacier was formed, the different parts of the glacier, and how the glacier was named.

A stream of water near where we started our hike.

A stream of water near where we started our hike.

Interestingly enough, it was named after Franz Ferdinand’s nephew who was apparently very wealthy. An explorer named Johann Franz Julius von Haast (say that five times fast) set out to explore parts of New Zealand in the 1800s. It is rumored that he was nearly out of funds when he came across the glacier. In an effort to bolster his bank account and continue his explorations, he named the glacier after Franz Josef, a wealthy friend of his. This was done in the hopes that Josef would pay him for this honor. He apparently did that as Haast continued his exploration, and continued naming things after himself (towns, mountain passes, etc.).

All the while, we were listening to and seeing rock falls and avalanches take place on the mountains around us and higher up on the glacier. It was an experience unlike anything we’ve ever done before.

The cloud of dust in this photo is actually a rockfall happening. We saw several rock falls and an avalanche of ice and snow on the glacier while we were there.

The cloud of dust in this photo is actually a rockfall happening. We saw several rockfalls and an avalanche of ice and snow on the glacier while we were there.

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