Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hiking in Franz Josef

            In deference to the abysmal weather forecast, I did not go backpacking during my most recent days off.   Instead, I drove up to the glacier town of Franz Josef, and managed to find a trail that kicked my ass just as effectively as backpacking would have.    I hiked up to Roberts Point, which is a viewpoint above Franz Josef glacier, a round trip of 12.3 kilometers, with 600 meters of elevation gain.  I have discovered in the course of my time in New Zealand, that trails in this country come in two different varieties – the scrupulously maintained, and the feral.   Figuring out how hard a given hike is going to be has less to do with figuring out the mileage and elevation gain than it does with figuring out where your trail sits on the domesticated/feral sliding scale.   I first discovered this when I went hiking along the Moeraki River in January, along a trail which was in such bad shape that, had it been a trail in the US, hiking guides would not consider it an actual maintained trail.   I have also discovered that mainstream tourist guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet, are not always a good indication of difficulty.   Any time my Lonely Planet guide says ‘check track conditions before starting out’, it basically means ‘abandon all hope, all ye who hike through here’.   

            The Roberts Point trail was pretty feral, although not as bad as the Moeraki trail, since most of the rivers were actually bridged.   With this trail, the main problem was that the places where landslides or floods have washed out the trail, there hasn’t been much effort into rebuilding or rerouting the path.   The first half of the trail climbed up and down the side of the hill to the north side of the Franz Josef glacier’s outflow stream.   I would climb up and up, and then the trail would drop right back to the riverbed to get around a cliff or some other obstruction.   In one place, the DOC had bolted a scaffold made of pressure-treated wood and airplane cable to the side of a cliff.    So, there were definite indications that before the big tourism slump, this trail had received some serious attention – but there doesn’t seem to be the budget or manpower to maintain it very much.   I did note that sometime in the last two weeks someone had come through with a weed whacker, because there were lopped off ferns all over the place.   

            About halfway along the trail, the route started seriously climbing the hill, and I realized that the ups and downs earlier were really just warm-ups.   A lot of the trail was on bare rock, liberally covered with striation marks from when the glacier was covering this area, a half-century or so earlier.   At the top of the climb, incongruously enough, was a park bench.   I’m guessing the bench got put here because the terrain is open enough that someone could bring it in with a helicopter.   Sitting on the bench, I could see all the way back to the car park (which did not look far enough away considering how much work it took to get up the hill), and the little ant trail of tourists going back and forth along the glacier access trail.    

            Since the area near the park bench is so open, almost like an alpine meadow, it gives the impression that you’re near the top of the whatever-it-is you’re hiking towards.   But, like the fake-out climbs at the start of the trail, this is actually not the case.   It turned out, Roberts Point was a further hour and a half away.   And the condition of the route got worse in a hurry.   As soon as I left the meadow, the trail diverted up a  series of rock chutes, which were wet, shady, and infrequently-traveled enough to allow for a for a light coating of moss to grow on all of the rocks.  The rocks were very slippery, but I kept going, sure that at any moment I would get out of the chute and see the much-acclaimed Roberts Point glacier view.

            Thirty minutes into this, I passed an American woman, who told me it would be another thirty minutes to the top.   I believed her.   Unfortunately, I did not take into account my mother’s rule of thumb for judging the accuracy of time estimates provided by other hikers, which is, for every visible bulging muscle in the hiker’s thighs, add another thirty minutes to whatever time they’ve told you.   I pressed on over the slippery rocks, and crossed two unbridged creeks.   Twenty minutes later, I met a German couple coming the other way, who were hiking (‘down-climbing’ might be a more accurate term) down another long rock chute.   They already looked very tired from the hike, and were nearly sliding down the chute, mostly because they didn’t seem able to summon up the energy to find dry footholds and check them before committing their full weight.   I waited at the bottom of the chute, because the Germans were sliding so often that I felt it was in my best interest to not be directly below them, just in case they fell.   When they got to the bottom, the couple told me that it would be another thirty minutes to the top.

            Wondering if I had fallen into some New Zealand rock-chute time warp, I continued up the trail.   After passing a few more bluffs that looked like the summit but weren’t, I finally reached the top, five minutes before my get-down-before-dusk turnaround time.   There was a great view of the glacier, although this particular day most of the higher elevations were hidden by clouds.   I could see the long line of Franz Josef’s impressively thick medial moraine – the rock and debris that the glacier is carrying down with it, to deposit in the valley below, like a slow-motion conveyer belt.   I could also see the tiny figures of the guided glacier-walking tours, the dots appearing and disappearing as the hikers made their way around the cliffs and crevasses.   I didn’t stay very long at the viewpoint, as it was getting late, and I didn’t like the idea of being the last person on that trail, when I had to down-climb all of that slick rock that had nearly taken out the German couple.   I got down the slick rock without incident, only to fall while climbing into a gully where a flood had taken out a forty-foot section of trail.   I tried to lower myself down using a tree root, only to discover that I couldn’t support my own weight with my arm at that particular angle.   I ended up at the bottom of the gully - just by a more direct route that I had planned.   I got back to the groomed trails near the entrance area just as it started to rain.   

Franz Josef Glacier from Roberts Point.  The thickness of the moraine is very noticeable from this angle.

            At the hostel that night, I watched an episode of BBCs Frozen Planet, watching a pale blue David Attenborough huffing his way around the north pole and the Antarctic ice sheet.   I think it says something about the tourism segment that visits New Zealand that a documentary on ice would attract mosh-pit-like crowds in the backpacker hostel’s TV room.   

            The next day, the weather was no better, so I did a shorter hike out to the face of Franz Josef glacier and back.  This trail, unlike Roberts Point, is dead flat, well-groomed, and generally overrun with tourists.   I am happy to report that the pouring rain did not seem to deter even the least well-equipped of the glacier sightseers.  There were a lot of people wearing garbage-bag-like disposable ponchos, plus a lot of people taking advantage of the enormous picnic umbrellas that the ritzier Franz Josef hotels provide for their guests.   The problem with these umbrellas is that in the wind they’re liable to take off in unexpected directions, and also don’t offer much protection for the rain being blown sideways.   Since the cold air over the glacier actually its own wind, there is sideways rain on the access trail pretty much all of the time.   One woman was holding the umbrella out in front of her, speed-walking past her fellow tourists in the manner of a crusader with a battering ram.   A six-year-old boy was wearing an adult-sized red rain poncho, the hem of which was dangling cape-like around his ankles, making him look like some sort of Gore-tex superman.   He seemed far less interested in looking at the glacier than in jumping in all the puddles along the trail.  There was also the usual percentage of idiots wandering off trail to get closer to the ice, or to take photos of family members standing under the unstable rock cliffs.

The glacier access trail at Franz Josef.  

            Before driving back to Haast, I replaced a windshield wiper on the Nissan, which had suffered from the attentions of the township’s keas.   The drive back to Haast took about an hour longer that it should have, mostly due to the fact that the Nissan has a distressing tendency to pull to the left when driving through puddles at anything over 65kph.   I think this is connected to the fact that the left front tire has no tread left on the outside edge.   I was hoping that this issue would be addressed when the car had its warrant of fitness inspection done last month.   (My boss, who owns the Nissan, assures me that the tire tread is checked with calipers, though I feel that calipers become unnecessary when the outside edge of the tire is smooth to the touch…)   Unfortunately, the tires all passed; to me the only explanation is that they weren’t checked.    It makes me wonder if there are any other incipient mechanical problems that the WOF guy didn’t check.

            Also, if I’m going to be in a car accident in New Zealand, I now know where it is most likely to take place.   There is a particular 25kph curve between Franz Josef and Fox Glacier – I have driven this curve from the south twice now, and have had a near accident each time.   Not my fault, either time.    The first time was when the car in front of me (whom I’ll call ‘the idiot’) decided to pass the car in front of him – as all three of us were heading into a 90 degree blind curve.    Previously, I had not thought it was possible to T-bone a car that is travelling in the same lane as you are, but this is basically what the idiot nearly did.   The idiot only avoided an accident by slamming on the brakes and swerving back into the left lane, so fast I could see his passenger’s head whipping back and forth like those bobble-head toys people used to mount on their dashboards.   

            This trip, at the same 25kph curve, I was halfway through the curve, and nearly wrapped the Nissan around a tree to avoid an oncoming white car who had drifted into my lane.   I’m always a little nervous about curves or hills where I can’t see in front of me, mostly because I have this gut-level feeling that some giant campervan is going to come around the corner and be in my lane.   Mostly, I think this is due to the fact that even though I’ve gotten used to driving on the left, there is still some part of me that feels that this is a very bad thing to do.  Somewhere in the world, there is oncoming traffic, and the oncoming traffic will be in the left lane.   The fact that this left-lane oncoming traffic isn’t on even on this continent doesn’t seem to register with my hindbrain.   Also, there was a fatal head-on collision just north of Haast a few weeks after I arrived.   The entire highway was shut down for several hours while the police and emergency services were at the scene.   The road opened shortly before 10pm.   I know this because at 10:15pm, half a dozen moderately traumatized motorists showed up at the motel looking for  a place to stay.   The event made an impression.

            I am still looking for a weather window that coincides with my days off to do another hut-to hut hiking trip, possibly over the Haast-Paringa cattle trail (near the Moeraki trail, but apparently better maintained) or the Copland track, whose first hut is strategically located next to a natural hot spring.   Part of this is an effort to get in shape for the tracks I will be tackling next month in Fiordland – the Milford and Kepler tracks, both in the Te Anau area.   I’ll be finishing the Milford Track the day before my birthday, which I think will be a fine way to wrap up my 27th year.  

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