Worth the Splurge: An Epic Heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier
With our savings from the kiwifruit packhouse, Emmett and I were looking to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime New Zealand excursion. After some careful consideration, we decided the best way to do that would be heli-hiking up onto Franz Josef Glacier with the aptly named company Franz Josef Glacier Guides. Why a heli-hike? Well, Franz Josef used to be accessible by a short hike up the valley. But because climate change is real and there has been some intensely rapid melting of the glacier in the past decade, it's nearly impossible to get on the glacier without a helicopter. Also, it's safer to go with a guided group.
On a Sunday afternoon with perfect weather, we arrived at the base for Franz Josef Glacier Guides in the teeny tiny town of Franz Josef. There we suited up, adding waterproof pants, jackets, and sturdy boots to our outfits. Along with the six other tourists in our crew, we headed over to the helipad.
After a safety briefing on how to approach helicopters, we boarded and strapped ourselves in for a stunning but quick 4 minute ride up onto the glacier. (Click on any photo below to see a larger version).
On the ice, we collectively tied on our crampons and then set off with our guides. As we crunched into the steps they had made earlier that day, the guides explained that the glacier is constantly changing and most mornings they have to carve new paths through the ice. As we approached our first crevasse, they explained that they chip ice into the crevasses to create a filled path (see below).
Over the next few hours, our guides took us all over the ice. We squeezed through countless frosty blue crevasses, crawled through holes in the ice, and even saw a small ice fall on the upper part of the glacier. It was fantastic & gorgeous. My favorite part, though? If we stood still, we could hear the creaking of the glacier as it moved ever so slightly beneath us.
Just as some clouds began to settle on the glacier, our hike came to an end. As we waited for the helicopter, one of our guides who was of Maori descent told us the legend of how Franz Josef came to be. Apparently, hundreds of years ago there was a woman named Hinehukatere. Hinehukatere absolutely loved climbing mountains. She fell in love with a man named Wawe who was more of a staying-at-sea-level kind of guy. As a result, she sadly found herself spending less and less time on the peaks she so loved. One day, she persuaded Wawe to climb up into the mountains with her. Because he loved Hinehukatere, he agreed despite his inexperience at climbing. When Wawe followed Hinehukatere into the mountains, he got caught in an avalanche which unfortunately resulted in his death. Hinehukatere was heartbroken and full of guilt for convincing him to join her. She sat upon a mountain top and cried endless tears. The gods saw her crying and decided to freeze her tears as a memorial to her grief. As you may have guessed, those frozen tears became Franz Josef Glacier. That's why the Maori name for the glacier is Kā Roimata o Hinehukatere or The Frozen Tears of Hinehukatere.
If you're ever in New Zealand and want to spend a pretty penny (heli-hikes are $450 NZD or $330 USD per person), I would highly recommend Franz Josef Glacier Guides. It was so worth it. Plus, their staff was really knowledgeable and I enjoyed spending time with them up on the ice. As a Floridian who is more accustomed to warm weather and flat landscapes, I was ecstatic to be able to get up close and personal with a glacier. It felt like such a truly foreign place. I genuinely loved every minute of the hike and the chopper rides to and from Franz Josef.