Coming from the UK, my understanding of the word ‘hike’ is a 30 minute stroll to the nearest pub. Anything longer would be a ‘pub crawl’, so when I arrived at Franz Josef Glacier Guides for the famous Heli Hike, it would be fair to say I felt a little ill prepared.
It’s funny what a new wardrobe can do for ones confidence, and after being handed a fresh mountaineering outfit, I felt like a modern day Edmund Hillary (first person to climb Everest, fyi). Unfortunately, the phrase ‘all the gear but no idea’’ couldn’t have been more fitting.
After a quick safety briefing next to the landing pad, our helicopter approached. If you’ve never been on one before, imagine riding on your drunk friend’s shoulders – wobbly and unnatural, but you have no choice than to trust them. The helicopter however is 1000m higher and the views are significantly better.
The first sight of Franz Josef Glacier from above is truly breathtaking. 12km long, it descends from a height of 2700m in the Southern Alps to less than 300m above sea level, making it the world’s steepest and fastest flowing commercially guided glacier (for you fact nerds out there). It’s only when you realise the mosquito sized dot in front of you is in fact another helicopter that your brain is able to appreciate the sheer size of the glacier.
Our guide, Scott, met us on the ice and readied us for action. Crampons on, pole in hand, we began our assent. Slaloming through a maze of ice canyons, corridors and caves, the hike is an experience like no other. Each section of the glacier offers something different, whether it’s blue ice, crevasses or glacial mud, you never know what’s coming next. What did come next certainly wasn’t in the script…
Clouds swiftly rolled in over the mountain, leaving helicopters unable to reach the glacier. A sense of uncertainty filled the air but Scott simply pick-axed a new path for us to enjoy as we awaited our escape. A window of opportunity finally arose and much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, we were told to ‘GET TO DA CHOPPER!’ and flew safely back down to the valley floor.
Six unforgettable hours later, we reached the base, stripped out of our gear and left with one of New Zealand’s all time greatest experiences under our belts.