The Franz Josef
GLACIER Our guide Jara leads us through a blue ice cave.
Words and images by tim warrington The Franz Josef Glacier or ‘tears of Hine Hukatere’ is an ancient tale of love and loss. The legend, passed down by the local Māori tribe NgāiTahu, has it that Princess Hine Hukatere loved climbing in the mountains with her lover, Wawe. Hine, mesmerised by the beauty of the Southern Alps, left Wawe behind and an avalanche swept him away. Hine was broken-hearted and cried a river of frozen tears that flowed down the mountain and formed a glacier. Today, this ancient monument to lost love calls romantics from all over the globe … and at least one single journalist. As we muster at base camp I am acutely aware I am the only solo climber. David and Irene, a young couple from Madrid, are on their honeymoon and Ariane and Brendan are from Perth. The weather is perfection: sunny, still and surprisingly warm. Layers are shed and mittens stowed. A foot of snow fell overnight, which has turned an incredible experience into pretty much a once in a lifetime encounter. This great icy artery, which dissects Westland TaiPoutini National Park, can at times appear grimy and grey as it collects rocks, debris and dirt on its descent, but blanketed in 12 inches of snow it is crisp, white and radiant. The only way onto the ice is by an ‘over-beforeyou-know-it’ helicopter flight. The glacier is every bit as magical as I imagined and a little bit more: snow-whipped peaks of white awesomeness. And we’re deposited right in the thick, landing on a small square of compacted snow not much bigger than a bedspread. We gear up, hikers all around me, giddy with excitement, chattering in whispered awe as we drink in the glorious icescrapers soaring skyward all around us. We grab our poles and crunch through the fresh snow and up steps carved into the ice.
A helicopter soars into the sky after leaving behind its payload of eager climbers.
Spanish couple David and Irene tread carefully, holding standard issue poles.
Ariane tastes the pristine snow.
Ariane and Brendan pause for a short break and a snapshot on top of the glacier.
It’s not long before out cheeks are pinched with a warm glow. A couple of us have forgotten our water bottles but even those who haven’t are devouring chunks of pristine snow for refreshment. I look around the group. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is loving it. Crunching on a foot or so of fresh snow is a delicious way to hike and we all sigh with relief that we don’t need to use the crampons still slung about our necks. The hike, for our group at least and perhaps on account of the snow, seems less of a gruelling climb and more of a gentle stroll. Occasionally we pass through small ice caves and arches, or engage a rope to ease our descent, but it never feels dangerous or beyond the ability of anyone in the group. Our guide, Jara, accommodates the comfort level for everyone. Walking on ice can be a punishing duty of concentration. But the delicious and reassuring crunch of fresh, soft powdery flakes underfoot is far more forgiving, particularly when you tumble, which we do often during our three-hour trek. Franz Josef Glacier strides across the landscape as if to pronounce ‘this view belongs to me’. And after seven thousand years, maybe it does. But each year tens of thousands of visitors heli-hike onto the ice to share the experience and sneak a peek. Since 2012, choppers have ferried daytrippers past the unstable terminal face. It’s unusual for a glacier to be so close to the coast. Rare too, to find a temperate rainforest garnishing the foot of a glacial valley with lush foliage, speargrass andgigantic ferns. Named Franz Josef after Austria’s penultimate king emperor, the world’s steepest glacier snakes 12 kilometres up the valley to its source: a high-altitude basin. Historically, in a constant cycle
of advance and retreat, it’s been in a steady retreat since 2008. The glacier is 20 percent shorter than it used to be, having receded about three kilometres since the 1800s when German geologist Julius von Haast named it after the Hapsburg royal. “The white unsullied face of the ice was before us, broken up into a thousand turrets, needles and other fantastic forms,” he wrote. So I have high hopes for Franz. And he has not disappointed. Jara warns us about rock and ice falls, and avalanches. Despite the heads-up when we witness all three at various times throughout our hike – albeit at a safe distance - the thunderous rumble of cascading tonnage is both awesome and a little terrifying. We pass crevasses and several times along the way we halt while Jara secures the path ahead by compressing snow or testing the route with his ice pick. The radio at his hip periodically crackles commands from HQ and he keeps one eye fixed on the horizon where clouds begin to muster. “It’s going to turn to custard,” Jara says. But not now. Not for us. Now, the return helicopter’s rotors roar into life, whisking us high above the valley. “I’ve never seen Franz so amazing,” the pilot’s voice crackles excitedly over the headphones as we gaze down on the snaking expanse of snowcovered ice. My mind is buzzing: overwhelmed by what I’ve just experienced and the scale of the glacier, and the purity and rawness of the environment. Camera lenses pressed to every window, snapping wildly at this otherworldly ribbon of crumpled snow and ice. As we walk back to HQ nearly everyone in the group resists the temptation to hurl superlatives.