Heli-hiking Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Helicopters offer sky high views of New Zealand.
Seeing New Zealand from the air is a whole new experience. Photo by Emily Doyle

Oh, what a disappointment! After driving through the breathtaking scenery of Arthur’s Pass with unusually blue skies and bright sunshine for that area, we arrived in the Alpine village of Fox to find heavy rain and thick clouds. At the Alpine Centre, which provides airborne tourist activities such as flights, heli-hiking and heli-skiing, we were told that no helicopters had been flying since early morning and that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in heck that we would be going up today.

Located in the heart of Glacier Country, on the West Coast of the South Island, it had taken us six hours to drive to Fox from Christchurch. My family had come over from England to visit me on my year working abroad, and the flight over the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers was to have been the highlight of their trip. As I had never flown in a helicopter before, I was desperate to make the trip.

Despondently, we returned to our home stay — the very name of it, “Reflection Lodge,” had promised fantastic, mirror images of the surrounding glacier — but now it was shrouded in mist. On their intimate local knowledge (the father and son both being helicopter pilots), the owners assured us that the weather can change very quickly and that our best chance was to book for the first flight up the next day. By the end of the evening optimism was flowing, along with the wine.

Rain pounded on the roof all night until early morning, when a pale ray of light began to shine through the grey clouds. With hopeful expectations and positive encouragement from our hosts, we arrived to find our helicopter ready and waiting. The sky was literally alive with the sound of buzzing helicopters taking other eager passengers off in various directions.

In a matter of minutes, we had been introduced to our pilot, strapped in and given headsets to help drown out the awesome power and noise coming from the rotating blades above. Squeezed into the back, we had our cameras primed and our eyes peeled to spot the famous glaciers — not only were we flying over Franz Joseph Glacier, but also Fox Glacier, where we would land and be able to walk in the snow. If the weather held out, we would buzz the top of Mt. Cook, the tallest (at 12,316 feet or 3,754 m) and most important mountain in New Zealand.

With little effort, we were aloft and rose above the clouds to a glorious blue sky. And there below were the glaciers. Nowhere in the world’s temperate zones are glaciers as accessible as this famous pair. The eight mile (13 km) long Fox Glacier links with the nearby Franz Josef Glacier at the head, as their snowfields feed from the nearby mountains. Both descend to levels of about 1,000 feet (300 m) above sea level and are unusual in their continual, rapid advance. Over thousands of years, they have carved out lakes, rivers and valleys, but apparently both pale in comparison to their past size where, in the last ice age, they extended almost to the Tasman Sea.

As we looped lazily over farms and into this glacial wonderland, I was amazed by the glaciers’ sheer size and ability to have carved out such steep U-shaped gorges, obeying the laws of gravity by constantly edging forward. These magnificent remnants of the ice age cascaded in über-slow motion below us. Although the feet of the glaciers looked dirty from all the debris they take with them, with the sun glinting on the top and a thick blanket of fresh snow, they had a strange blue metallic hue to them. While ice holds a translucent white color, glacial ice is of such a high density that it traps all blue light, while the rest of the color spectrum passes through unscathed.

We flew along the skeletal edge of the mountain adjacent to Fox until we found a safe place to land on the head of the glacier. The snow was pristine as we were the first helicopter of the day. No matter how many people had come the day before, it was like arriving in a place unvisited by humans, without a trace of life. We could have been all alone in the world. Like little children, we all jumped out to make our marks, and we seemed to catch a collective breath as we took in the view. This was the apex, the pinnacle, the zenith of the world!

The awesome vista of the glacier and its surrounding, brooding mountains was almost overwhelming. The sun was at its brightest and the snow at its whitest, displaying Fox in all its grandeur — it was literally a high. We were walking on a glacier with impeccable credentials!

With only a limited freedom (due to safety issues of “calving” ― where large cracks can appear and cause pieces of ice to collapse from the side of the glacier) we were not able to wander too far from the chopper. But it made little difference. The glacier arched away from us enticingly, gliding on its slow downward path like a gigantic velvety slide. Standing there in the crisp pure air, every photo of us tells the same story — shiny happy faces experiencing something special.

After 15 minutes on the snow, and all too soon, we had to regroup so we could fly along the sweeping path of Franz Josef. For the more romantic, there is a special appeal to this particular glacier. It is longer and steeper than Fox and immersed in local Maori legend. The creation of the glacier is beautifully encapsulated in its Maori name — Ka Koimata o Hinehukatere, the “Tears of the Avalanche Girl.” Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Tawe, to go with her. Near the top, however, Tawe slipped and fell to his death. The heartbroken girl cried, her tears at such an altitude freezing to form the glacier. Now I enjoy a good tragic love story as much as the next person, but I will always have a more special, intimate memory of Fox from standing on top of it as it grinds leisurely toward the sea.

On clear days the water almost looks like a mirror.
When the weather cooperates, Reflection Lodge in Glacier Country offers astounding views of the surrounding landscape. Photo by Emily Doyle

Unfortunately, clouds were beginning to roll in rapidly as we were coming away from passing Franz Joseph, so we were unable to complete our circuit around  the mighty Mt. Cook. Instead, our pilot had to fly through an ever-narrowing gap of cloud, until we seemed to be barely skimming the treetops. And then it was  back to earth with a not so little bump. The wind began to pick up as we disembarked the helicopter, and it wasn’t long before drops began to fall. The noise of  the helicopters in the mountains ceased, as they were all grounded, one by one, for the remainder of the day.

I know I have waxed lyrical about this experience, but it’s hard not to — it was almost a spiritual encounter (and I am an enthusiastic atheist!). Standing within  such a pure world is cleansing and invigorating. It forces you to look on the world from an unusual perspective, and no one could fail to come away from it  stimulated and revitalized.

 If You Go

You can choose your itinerary to include flights or landings, taking in both glaciers and Mt. Cook, or concentrate on just one. The Franz Joseph Glacier is only  15 miles (24 km) north of Fox Glacier, so you are normally able to view both in one flight. The longer the flight, the more expensive the price.

The Alpine Guides center is at the heart of town and will be able to give you the most updated information concerning companies going up that day, as well as  making bookings. If you wish to make direct inquiries, these were the most helpful companies we spoke to:

Franz & Fox Heliservices

+64-3-752 0793 (or toll-free within New Zealand only, 0800-800-793)

Prices range from NZ$ 130 (US$ 91) to NZ$ 295 (US$ 207)

www.scenic-flights.co.nz

Helicopter Line

+ 64-3-752-0767 (or toll-free within New Zealand only, 0800-807-767)

Prices range from NZ$ 160 (US$ 112) to NZ$ 300 (US$ 210)

www.helicopter.co.nz/glaciers.asp

Alpine Guides

www.foxguides.co.nz/links.asp

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