I got up and signed in for an all day hike on the glacier, then grabbed breakfast at a cafe across from the Glacier info center. Tony had already left on a really early hike. The weather was nice and sunny.
Twelve of us piled into a couple of shuttles and headed up to the glacier; Jørrin and Lee included.
After de-bussing in the parking area, our guide Tamara took us over to check out the stream of glacial melt nearby. It was a milky gray color, but tasted fine. The glacier didn’t look that big, but we were still a long ways off, and the apparent size of things here in New Zealand is often deceiving. In order to get onto the glacier, we would eventually have to hike up along the steep forested slopes to the left in the photo below.
Fox Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world that is currently growing. This may be because wind patterns have shifted, and New Zealand gets hit with the air coming from Antarctica. There’s no land between them to shelter them from the cold air. Snow that falls at the top of the mountain fills in a large basin. Since it’s too high and cold to melt, it just accumulates. Each year, more and more snow builds up and presses down on the snow that’s below it. The layer of snow that fell seven years ago has been compressed into ice by the weight of the snow in the years since, and more snow continues to fall. This weight pushes the ice down the valley, and as it moves down the valley it acts like a fluid, only in slow motion. Cracks form to relieve stress, and allow some areas to move more quickly than others. It is a river of ice.
Just as weight compresses snow into ice, there are thousands of tons of ice moving downslope, which grinds away at the stone that forms the walls and floor of the valley. This process creates the characteristic U-shaped valleys we saw in Milford Sound.
Of course the ice also melts, and that water tunnels and flows through, around and under the glacier. Eventually, it comes out below the glacier. The area where it exits the glacier often melts quicker than the other ice at the front, so there is often a cave at the base of the glacier. The front edge of the glacier is very unstable, and large chunks of ice fall off without warning. Here you can see that the entire cave mouth collapsed, and there are some hikers in the foreground for scale. Keep in mind that the hikers are still a long way from reaching the front of the glacier.
There were a number of places along the trail with signs saying “NO STOPPING NEXT 300m.” Looking uphill, we could see why; valleys filled with loose rock funneled directly at that section of path. Tamara showed us a boulder below us on the valley floor, and the divot next to our path that it had left when it “bounced” on its way down last year. Considering that the rock was about twice the size of a refrigerator, and you could park a Mini Cooper in the hole it made, I decided that I’d keep my eyes and ears open for any suspicious activity up hill. The path continued up, and eventually entered the rain forest.
Fox Glacier is also one of the only places on earth that glacier meets rain forest. Of course it’s a temperate rain forest, rather than tropical, but on this day, I was comfortable in shorts, and a long sleeve shirt, and the sun was still shining which was apparently unusual.
The path was only about a couple of feet wide in most parts and for a while there was a very steep drop on one side. A chain had been anchored into the cliff side that we were told to hold onto as we made our way along this section. There was a short stretch in the forest which was directly downslope from a very unstable section of rock. A system had been set up to warn us if rock began to break loose and come tumbling down toward us. We had to pass through this section only four at a time. Tamara was watching the sensor. Her instructions were simple, “If I say run, RUN!” In other words, “There’s a freight train of big rocks coming straight at you, and you don’t want to be in its way.”
After about an hour of uphill hiking, we were along side the lowest section of the glacier. Looking down we could see how the ice had cracked to relieve stress as it was pushed down the valley. Pulverized rock dusted the surface near the shore of the ice river beneath us.
To give you a sense of the size of what you are looking at, you can see a set of stairs that have been cut into the glacier for hiking access. They stand out against the rock dust in the lower portion of the photo, and the black mark at the top of the stairs are two people beginning to descend. There is also a group of people out on the glacier in the distance, just right of the center of the photo. (Note: the current banner photo is a detail of this group) This is about as far up the glacier as you would want to go. Above the group you can see what looks like a wall of ice. This is an enormous ice fall, a giant step in the valley floor, and the ice moving down the valley from above falls over it. Of course, unlike in a waterfall, it does that very slowly, chunk by building-sized chunk. As you get closer to the icefall, the terrain gets more and more difficult to navigate, and this is where we were headed.
To get from the stairs to the location of the group, it took us about three hours, with a stop for lunch.
We made our way down to the edge of the glacier, strapped crampons to our boots, and started up the set of stairs that had been chopped into the ice by the guides. The stairway needed to be maintained by every guide, or it would slowly melt, or be washed away by the tiny flow of water that followed along beside it in a trough. Up we went, with Tamara hacking way with her pick; fixing this, leveling that, making sure the water was flowing in the channel. The terrain leveled off, and it was easier hiking. Tamara led the way, cutting a few steps whenever we came to a steep incline or footing was questionable. We followed a meandering path across the glacier, and settled down for lunch on a patch of rocks sitting on top of the ice. Black rocks in the sun, even if they are sitting on ice, make a warmer seat than bare ice.
Tamara was really pleased about the weather. Apparently, she only gets a day like this once every two months or so. It’s usually cloudy, windy, chilly, raining, or all of the above. As you can see we’re on the far side of the glacier relative to the previous photo.
After lunch, we regrouped and started off up the glacier towards the ice fall. After a couple of hours we were at the limit of reasonable progress, so we stopped for a group photo, then started back.
To give you an idea of how far we came, here’s a view looking down into the valley. Although the stream is the same stream in the first photo, you can’t see around the corner to where it was taken.
Fox Glacier, like all glaciers is subject to climate change. In the late 1800’s the glacier was much larger. It filled up the valley as high as the small ridge that is about even with the right side Tamara’s hat, and what is now valley floor was under hundreds of meters of ice. In fact the small wooden shack that acted as a base camp for hiking the glacier is still up there, but watch out for that first step off the porch! The valley floor is a long way down.
I’m really glad the weather was so nice. It was much better to have rain in Auckland and sun in Fox Glacier, than the other way around.
We hiked back down to valley floor, without getting crushed by runaway rocks, then out to the shuttle. It was a long day of hiking, and I was ready for some food. So the market was my first stop after handing in my gear at the Glacier Center. Between the market and the hostel, I met a woman named Ruth from South Africa. We made dinner and shared a beer. She headed off to her room to shower and bed, because she had to catch an early bus. I edited photos.