Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fox Glacier

I never felt a yearning to go ice climbing on a glacier. Sometimes though, when an opportunity arises, you find yourself going ice climbing on a glacier in New Zealand. That is what I did yesterday. I think it's one of the most incredible things I've ever done in my life.

First, since our flight was a bit late, to kill some time, a couple of the guides took us about five minutes out of Fox to get a beautiful view of the glacier and all the peaks. The day's weather was absolutely perfect and clear!  These two specific guides weren't assigned to my tour, their job was to go up on the glacier and clear some paths with ice picks to make it easier for the ice hiking groups later in the day. Anyway, one of them hops into the drivers seat, I think he's Irish, and promptly reports back to us sitting behind him, "Alright guys! I've never driven a bus before but this should be fun!"

Aaaand so our journey begins. (Don't worry, they're all extremely trained. Just apparently not all on bus driving.)

This is a cool device that has all the peaks listed on the stone, and you move it around to look through, and you know which peak you're looking at.

This one is Mt Tunsea I think. The bigger not to the right is Mt Cook. I think. I learned about so many mountains that it's hard to keep track. Fox is out of view, to the left, in that valley.

My group for the day included our guide, Passang, who is from Nepal originally and has worked at Fox for about ten years; Michael from Germany, Suze from England, and me. My friend Sarah P who works with the touring company, met up with us on the ice a bit later. It was really nice having such a small group because we became comrades pretty fast, and within hours, trusted each other with our lives.

(This is the end of the day, see we all survived, don't worry.)

We were equipped with: helmet, ice pick, harness, socks, ski-like boots, backpack with stuff in it, and cramp ons. Then we and the gear were all weighed in and calculated to make sure weight would be distributed properly in the helicopter...and then I rode in a helicopter for the first time.

Once we disembarked the helicopter, not on the set up helipad by the way, but just "that looks like a good spot" a little ways up the glacier, we learned how to attach our cramp ons and not totally fall down on the ice. You have to walk kind of funny in them, feet a little out like a duck and stomp moderately hard to get a good grip. It snowed recently so there was a good bit of snow in many places, but other parts were just frozen over pools of water and other slick ice, especially going up or down little hills.

And we started walking around on the ice! It's so incredibly pretty, my pictures hardly do it justice! The sun wasn't up yet, or at least not over the mountains to reach us, so it was a bit cold, probably around freezing since it was 28 when I woke up an hour before. Once we got moving though I warmed up pretty fast. Passang brought us to a small wall of ice, maybe about twelve feet high, and he taught us the basics of how to ice climb. It is very difficult and unlike anything physical-wise I've tried before. Yes it is similar to rock climbing, but only in weight distribution I think. The mechanics of how you decide where to place feet and ice picks are really different. (In my non-expert opinion.) Unfortunately, I quickly learned being out of gym shape since my accident in February reallllly sucked for ice climbing. I would have become a lot less exhausted, had the energy to climb more, if I was still in good muscle shape. Well, there's always next time once I've built it all back up again...

At this time a Kia bird appeared and hung out a few feet over our head on the ice. A Kea is like a mountain parrot, it is native to New Zealand and only lives in alpine regions on the South Island. It squawked at us for about ten minutes and tried to peck our helmets. I did not get pictures because I was, well, hanging onto a wall of ice.

Then we walked farther up the ice for a bit and Passang set up our first climb spot. This is where Sarah P joined us and she helped out to belay, etc. At this point too is where the sun finally appeared and immediately blinded me to everything in site. Sunglasses donned, we all made our first real ascents.

This is the adventurous Michael. 

Sarah P made sure I didn't fall on my first climb.

Taking a break for lunch. My butt froze every time I sat down, but it was worth it for my muscles to rest!

Then we walked around some more and climbed another, taller, harder wall of ice.

See? Nothing to it. I was not scared one bit, and I promise I'm being truthful. Exciting, yes. Scary? Not even when I looked down to the ground, or all the way down the glacier or anything.

Okay at this point I was exhausted. It was very hot and all my muscles hurt. We all decided to walk around more to see some caves and crevasses.
Passang found us a good cave and set up an anchor so he could slowly lower us down into it. It goes horizontal for a couple meters, but then takes a drop down to water, which we all decided was a good stopping point.

So I went in....


And deeper...

And hung out for a bit. Managed not to drop my phone into an abyss. We threw large pieces of ice down there and heard it echo clunk around down down for about 15 whole seconds.

I was very surprised...I was not really claustrophobic in this tunnel. It was full of blue light and no creepy crawlies, and I had a rope for someone to pull me out on if worse happened. So I felt very safe. I also felt like I could just keep sliding and sliding down, but then there's, "Hm. I have to backwards slide it all up again."

Next we found some running water down it, and of course I drank from the glacier. Best water I've ever tasted.

Then we walked around some more and found some crevasses!! Oh boy. This is the fun part. Aka: the part where I freak the fuck out.

I asked to go first because I had a feeling that if I waited till after Michael and Suze went, I would chicken out. One look down there...I knew I had to do it, and I also knew I'd never want to again afterward.

Oh look how innocent and pretty they look! (THEY HAVE NO BOTTOM.)

Suze was strapped into an anchor nearby so we could take turns taking pictures of each other without falling in ourselves.

I could tell if I kept going down I would have a panic attack and seriously mess up the trip for everyone else, so I climbed down to my comfort zone level and hung out, then started the hard climb up. This ice was frozen SOLID. Very very difficult to kick your toes into as well as swing the ice pick hard enough to pull yourself up on. It was extremely difficult and I only went down a couple meters. When I came back up I literally hugged the ground for a full minute.

Michael on the other hand, went very deep to where he touched both sides. Suze went to just above this pic here, but once Michael got past this point, I wasn't going to keep leaning over to try to see him. Nuh uh.

As the clouds started appearing and 4pm approached, we headed back to the heli pad.

This is me being excited in the return helicopter flight, and Suze keeping her English-cool.

What a memorable day.

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