“Just a little further” our guide called out. Then with one mighty swing of his pick, he’d carved a new path into the ice and we began to advance.
Decked out in crampons, boots and an assortment of over-sized cold weather clothes, we’d left the small town of Franz Josef (with a population of just 300) and made our way into the heart of New Zealand’s Glacier Country. Home to the reflective lake Matheson, the mighty Southern Alps and the twin Glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef, the region has become the subject of recent folklore – with the constant creaking of these moving remnants from the last ice age creating an unnerving echo around the region.
The Franz Josef Glacier bizarrely takes its name from a former emperor of Austria-Hungary and is one of the world’s most scenic and fastest moving glaciers – having been known to travel by up to a metre a day. As a result of this each journey across it is completely unique, with new ice features forming on a daily basis, while others dramatically collapse into the thick rainforest below.
We began climbing slowly up, moving away from the grounds dissolving slush at the bottom of the ice mountain and passing a series of carefully placed signs warning of the dangers of trekking unaided on the glacier.
Spiking our crampons deep into the ice and being sure to tread the carefully constructed staircase our guide was carving, the neighbouring outlines of the southern Alps including the peaks of the Cook and Tasman Mountains were soon in view.
As we stopped to capture the stunning mountain ranges, our guide, noticing the absence of heavy footsteps behind him came bounding back towards us.
“It’s great isn’t it – welcome to my office” he beamed.
“Some of you might have seen it before, like the rest of New Zealand’s highlights it featured in Lord of the Rings.”
Having completed the obligatory photo opp we progressed further up the Glacier, with the darkened ice evolving in colour into an almost mystical deep blue.
We walked round deep and seemingly endless crevices, passed melting ice still dusted with snow and climbed further towards the clouds until we came to our first and extremely narrow ice tunnel.
Twisting ourselves sideways, one-by-one we navigated the the long passageway,forced to duck and weave past low hanging icicles before we could successfully make it to the other side.
As we continued further up the glacier, our route taking us into more gapping ice caves, past glacial waterfalls and up to the sheer faces of electric blue-white ice mountains, the summit path began to creep steadily into view. We paused for a moment, both to catch our breath and allow for our guide and his trusty pick to make some minor adjustments to our path. Then feeling like the first visitors to a foreign land, we dug our crampons into the ice and proceeded to the top.
There were cheers and high fives a plenty as we stood at the summit.
“Good Job Guys, Good Job.” our guide called out.
We perched down on the flatter parts of the summit, from our elevated position we were able to trace the Glaciers various retreats and advances over the last thousand years, with the recent effects of global warming having notably pushed Franz Josef almost two miles away from the coast.
Then, with a series of pre-historic creaks echoing around us, we gazed down into the illuminated blue depths of the Glacier below and began our descent.