“Is everybody all right?” said the guide.
Panting, I flattened myself against the freezing sheet of slippery ice at my back, digging my toe spikes in hard to try and find a purchase on the narrow ledge.
“Yeah, yeah… I’m okay…” I said. I twisted my neck awkwardly to the right, struggling to keep myself hard into the cliff face as I glanced behind. Then the next member of our group came into view, puffing hard as they heaved themselves up over the precipice.
“Everybody’s coming now… Shall we try to push on or stay here?” I said.
The sun glared in the guide’s glasses. Silently he considered the stragglers clinging to the rope fixed into the glacial face.
“Carry on. I’ve cut some steps, but be careful – they’re only narrow enough for one boot, so make sure you dig in hard so you don’t slip.”
He didn’t need to tell me twice. My breath still hadn’t slowed to normal and my nerves were jangling from that last desperate climb.
Two hours ago I was safe, standing on flat, dry ground at the foot of Franz Josef and the dirty undulations of the glacial face. As we slowly made our way from rocky escarpments onto ice-encrusted terrain, I was forced to go against years of English school playground training and take long, confident strides onto the glassy slick. Years of bruised buttocks, wet patches, humiliating triple salcos and grazed knee skid stops came back to haunt me as I tentatively tested the ice hiking gear for the first time.
And oh, the joy! So long as I stamped my feet with each stride, going forward and staying upright was a cinch. The glacier rose shallowly and evenly, and the jagged metal talons strapped to my boots drove easily into the rudimentary steps cut by previous climbers.
Undeterred, our guide surveyed the ice in front, seeking out what seemed the safest route and swinging his axe expertly in smooth arcs to chip out footholds in the crystalline face of the glacier. He looked like he knew what he was doing, so we happily followed him like so many goretex-clad ice lemmings over the frozen mass until he stopped short and motioned for us to do the same.
We were about to cross our first real obstacle – a narrow metal plinth wedged into the ice, bridging the depths of a deep chasm that yawned away into chilly darkness.
“Just take it slow, one foot in front of the other, and don’t let go of the hand rail… When there are ropes, you must hold onto them. Do not let go for any reason. And make sure you keep your arm straight and outstretched in front of you – that way when you slip, you have less distance to fall and your shoulder is less likely to dislocate.”
Looking like Shane Warne taking a vow of celibacy, the group sombrely shuffled across one by one to the sheer ice wall opposite. The ice was about to get vertical, so heeding the advice of the guide, I tried to insert my numb fingers between the twists of the nylon rope and the slippery chill of the ice.
With no real slack to speak of, every time somebody pulled the rope taut to heave themselves from freshly-chipped foothold to tiny toe grip, my fingers were caught and dragged sharply over the serrated surface of the glacial wall.
By the time we’d made it to the top of the first steep climb, the skin around my cuticles was red raw and gently oozing from a hundred tiny ice-blade incisions. But as I rubbed my fingers to regain the sensation and stem the blood flow, my attention was suddenly directed away from the raspberry slushie I was inadvertently creating to the awesome scenery unfurling beneath us.
Icy electric shock
Rainforest carpeted the valley sides to the right and left, and below, the glacier spread unbroken like a white rug until it met the valley floor in a flurry of rock and water. There was no wind at all and the bright autumn sun glared off the white ice, dazzling my eyes and warming my bare legs.
The rest of the group started to move off and, shoving my shredded fingers into my pockets, I goose-stepped forward confidently, putting complete trust in the ice talons pinning my feet securely to the glacier. The harder the stamp, the better the grip, and so intent was I on my Third Reich footwork that I crashed straight into the guy in front of me.
We’d come to an ice cave. There was a blue hollow in the wall ahead. One by one we made our way through, tip-toeing around pools of glacial melt and blocks of ice.
It was amazing – invisible icy rivulets cascaded down the walls and ceiling, forming big droplets that fell onto my scalp before diving down my neck. Each fresh drop was like an icy electric shock, and I emerged on the other side laughing manically and twitching like Michael Jackson at a Wiggles gig.
After swapping stories about frozen droplets in indecent places, we continued to climb. Each steeply shelved incline presented a new challenge to conquer. I was really starting to get the hang of it. Bit of a bummer that it was nearly time to turn back…
As we neared the crest of our climb, the glacier continued to sweep away up to the mountain peak above us and the memory of my helicopter flight earlier that day came flooding back.
After some dire warnings to steer clear of the chopper’s tail, I was bundled in with some fat middle-aged Australian tourists and spirited up the mountain in a whirr of rotor blades and expletives.
It was my first time in a helicopter, and as we tipped forward and the ground dropped sharply away, I realised that the key to getting airborne is weight, or more accurately, the lack of it. If something went wrong, we would crash and burn in a horrible explosion of twisted metal and incinerated flesh.
However, I consoled myself with the thought that at least the fat Aussies would provide me with a soft landing in the event of a crash. Then I stuck my face up against the window to fully appreciate the vast snow-covered panorama.
As we neared the peak, the pilot took us in to land on pristine virgin snow. We scattered excitedly out of the chopper, though he warned us to not to go beyond the plateau. “Lots of crevasses up here… Got to be careful…” he said.
For a landscape steeped in danger, and with an inexhaustible repertoire of ways to injure, maim and kill a person, the Franz Josef Glacier really is a lot of fun.
Coast With The Most
Plenty of people make a beeline for the promise of ice adventures and turn a cold shoulder to the rest of the South Island’s west coast. This is a glacial sized error. Not forgetting the spectacular coastal drive through wild and wondrous scenery – Punakaiki’s weird pancake rocks are a must-see.
A night of heavy rain meant the quad biking in Greymouth would be cancelled. Or so I thought. But “the wetter, the better,” they claimed, and they weren’t wrong. I felt like a six year-old jumping in puddles while my parents weren’t looking – only I had a four-wheeled metal monster growling underneath me. We roared our way through knee-high ponds – formerly puddles – and slid, skidded and bounced up and down mud hills. All marvellous, muddy mayhem.
In contrast with all the gung-ho outdoors frivolity, the Just Jade Experience makes a relaxing and highly satisfying change. Much better, surely, to have your own symbol around your neck rather than one dreamed up by a marketing executive.
In Hokitika you can design your own jade pendant – a stone coveted by early Maori. Gordon Wells uses his 25 years experience to lovingly shape the stone, using great skill and
a dentist drill.
The muscular Arahura River, near Hokitika, looked angry. And it was. After learning the ten rafting commands, including “Oh shit!”, we were shepherded by the heroically calm Dean, who had four “swimmers” in his last five trips. We rode the class-five rapids as if each one was to be our last. I somehow found myself at the front – where you get wettest – and was close enough to kiss a very hard rock at one point as we took off like an aeroplane and bounced back the way we’d come. It was thrillingly high-tempo, hairy and hilarious.
Photos: New Zealand Tourist Board, Sebastian Wahsner