On Boxing Day, after spending most of Christmas Day hiking around Fox Glacier, I actually went onto Fox Glacier, though a half-day hike with Fox Glacier Guides. I had already been hiking on Franz Josef Glacier, but I was interested in getting on the ice at Fox as well – and I was also interested in how the tours actually ran from a client’s perspective. Going up on a glacier as part of a job interview was definitely unique, if ultimately unsuccessful – but I was interested to see how the tours actually work. The guide I went with was Richard – who incidentally also works, in the Northern summers, for Mica Guides on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.
Two things impressed me right away about the tours – first, that our group actually stopped at a few places before we even got to the glacier, to talk about what we were going to look at, and how the glacier had carved out the valley we were walking through. I actually learned a few things about valley glaciers that I didn’t know (and considering that I’ve worked as a glacier guide myself for two years now, I think that’s a great sign that the Fox guides definitely know their stuff).
The other thing that struck me was how crowded the glacier was once we got onto the ice. There were probably around seventy-five to a hundred people on the ice, in groups of a dozen or so, all walking around stiffly with our rental crampons and alpenstocks. Possibly, the fact that it was crowded explained why we stopped as often as we did on the hike – knowing how to stagger group arrival times being a crucial skill in tour guiding in any continent. I don’t recall Franz Josef Glacier being quite so crowded, but I think this is more a fact of the time of year, and differences in the geography of the glaciers themselves. Franz Josef is supposedly one of the steepest commercially guided glaciers anywhere in the world, and it felt like there were a lot more crevasses and steeper terrain. Fox Glacier, by comparison, was mostly flatter and more open. In some ways, the ice landscape was less dramatic that the constant cliffs and crevasses on Franz - but I can appreciate that the group management aspects must be a lot easier. The open terrain also made it easier to see the other groups on the ice, which contributed to the feeling of the glacier being slightly more crowded than I had expected a glacier (even a commercially guided one) to be. There was an initial climb up ice steps to get onto the glacier, but after that it was pretty open, sort of like a high, ice-covered meadow. From where we were, I could see the a further line of crevasses and ice cliffs farther up the glacier – apparently the full-day glacier tours have the time to hike all the way up to the base of the cliffs – but where we were, we mostly walked around and explored some features lower on the glacier.
|Hiking up the side of Fox Glacier. You can see the guides further up, cutting out steps with their ice axes.|
We checked out a few of the smaller crevasses, including one that the Fox guides had helpfully roped off, so that we could look down into it without actually falling in. Most of the crevasses we were looking at were exit channels for the surface water that was melting off of the glacier. Our tour got very lucky with the weather – it was sunny and warm (though that’s relative on the glacier; we were all wearing fuzzy layers and windbreakers), and the ice was nicely pliable under our crampons. The crampons, I noticed, weren’t quite as easy to put on and off as the crampons I had at Franz, but other than that, I have to say that my impression is that Fox Glacier Guides is the better company. On the other hand, Fox Glacier appears to be an easier environment to guide in – and, as I’ve noted here before, in guiding adventure activities with safety concerns, the higher the safety concern, the more resources, training time, and focus of the guide goes into dealing with that safety concern, often to the detriment of other aspects of the tour. This is by no means a criticism – if a company can’t address the safety issues relevant to the tours they run, they have no business running tours in the first place – but it is a basic fact of life in adventure tourism.
We got back to Fox township in the early afternoon, where it was back to t-shirt weather, and the aged Nissan and I took off down Highway 6 back to Haast. The highway has a great view of the Southern Alps for most of the drive, partially due to the fact that much of the road is built right overtop the Alpine Fault – the divide between the Indo-Australian and Pacific continental plates. It’s that fault that has built (and is building) the mountain ranges on the island’s west coast. The mountains are still growing, about as fast as your fingernails, is the oft-quoted figure. I stopped for coffee again at the salmon farm, and again at a place called Bruce’s Bay, where I attempted to figure out how to use the self-timer feature on my camera. I did figure it out, but I also dropped my camera into the sand while the lens was open, completely jamming the motor that lets the lens extend and retract. (Later, I successfully resuscitated the camera using a penknife and the motel vacuum cleaner, but the motor still makes noises, possibly indicating that the camera’s day of reckoning has merely been postponed…)
Incidentally, I’ve learned that the chain of mountains running the length of the west coast are not, technically, all considered the Southern Alps, which is how they’re listed in most general travel books. If you begin looking at topographical maps, or tramping guides, these authors subdivide the mountains into an inordinate number of miniature ranges – Fox, Balfour, Mataketake, Leibig – leaving the official ‘Southern Alps’ designation to the line of highest summits right in the middle. Most of these so-called ranges are small enough that in Alaska at least a few of these so-called ranges would more likely be classified as a single mountain with a couple of false summits added on. I don’t know if this specificity in nomenclature has any geological basis to it or not – possibly there were just a lot of people in the late 1800s that had an interest in naming mountain ranges. Coming from a country where the average mountain ranges are sometimes hundreds of miles long, it’s a little baffling that I can pass four different so-called mountain ranges, all in a forty-five minute drive to Jackson’s Bay. With all of these mountain ranges around, it’s still a little disappointing that there aren’t actually any mountains near Haast. The best we can do is a large-ish outcrop of basalt on the north bank of the Haast River, which goes by the charming (and, unfortunately, accurate) name of Mosquito Hill.
One final thing I learned from my road trip is that Britz campervans are by far the scariest motor vehicles on the road. I think it’s the industrial-strength side-view mirrors. The vans are made by VW, but the body plan has more in common with a Mack truck than with any other model of motorhome. Also, the the fact that they weigh about six times as much as my Nissan. I feel like diving into the verge every time I see one in the oncoming lane. They’re like tanks, four tons of German engineering barreling along the lefthand lane, and possibly being driven by a retiree from Ohio who still hasn’t gotten used to the turn signal being on the wrong side of the steering wheel. (In New Zealand, you can tell when a rental car is about to make a turn – the car slows down and the windshield wipers turn on. I did this a lot when I first started driving here.)
Thankfully, not all of the campervans here are the size of the Britz models. Mostly, New Zealand has wholeheartedly embraced the idea of campervans that are actually van-sized. Here, you can rent a motor home that’s the size of a Honda Odyssey. They look a little claustrophobic. There’s room for a dining room, which converts to a bed, which converts into a sofa, and it all fits in very handily, and makes great use of the tiny available space. The problem is that most people who rent campervans actually want to put stuff inside them, like clothes, or fishing gear, or spouses. The vans I see driving around always look like some sort of combination suitcase/grocery bag explosion – there just isn’t room for the people, plus the people’s stuff, plus the campervans. You’d be better off to rent a station wagon, and keep a foam mattress and sleeping bags in the back – you’d actually have a lot more space.