Out of all of the experiences you could have in New Zealand, this one definitely tops my list for one of the most unique and exciting. Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most well known and visited glaciers in New Zealand. Although there are tons of glaciers in New Zealand, what makes Franz Josef Glacier so unique is that is one of the fastest moving in the country, and it is located in a temperate rainforest. Because of this, you are at a low elevation, which also makes it one of the most accessible glaciers to reach…until recently.
Up until 2012, guided and unguided walks were possible right up to and even on the Franz Josef Glacier. However, because of climate change, the glacier has been receding more than ever, and it is now only accessible via helicopter. Unfortunately, temperate rainforest environments mean low cloud coverage and lots of rain- both of which do not mix well with helicopter flights. For this reason, only about 40-50% of helicopter tours that are booked will actually end up going out.
Because I knew this already, I came into this experience with no expectations. I already had it in my mind that our flight was probably going to get cancelled so I wouldn’t get let down. Well, I’m not sure who was on my side this day, but the weather opened up for us and we were able to leave on our scheduled 9:00am flight.
We were taken and fitted with all of the necessary waterproof clothing that we needed and made our way to the helipad for our flight. I had never been on a helicopter flight before, so at this point I was already freaking out and prepared for death (I’m crazy I know). Our heli lifted, and we flew right over the national park towards Franz Josef Glacier. The flight only lasted about 5 minutes, but we had some incredible views of the mountains below us.
Once we landed, we put our ice clamps on our shoes, grabbed our walking sticks and were on our way. The hike was slow and steady which gave us plenty of time to take photos and admire the views. Because Franz Josef Glacier is constantly moving, there were guides on the standing by and carving out new paths for us to walk through. They were hacking at the ice, and creating new steps that we would walk up just minutes later. It was pretty incredible how they came up with a new path for us right on the spot. Our guide explained that the old path had a crevice that formed, and was now to big for us to walk over. The crevice was about 20 meters deep!
During our hike, we walked through blue ice tunnels, and the tiniest crevices that would make anyone even a little bit claustrophobic uncomfortable. At one point, the space between the ice walls was so thin, that I had to shimmy my way through, while simultaneously pulling myself up and out. It was definitely a bit nerve wrecking, but not the worse anxiety I’ve experienced.
Towards the end of our hike, our guide let us know that the clouds were lowering, which meant that we had to book it back to the helicopter or we might get stuck on the glacier. I laughed at first, but he was actually serious. The weather changes so drastically in Franz Josef that that they actually have a little shack with sleeping bags and freeze dried food in case they aren’t able to make it down for the night. Our guide happened to have gotten stuck on the glacier twice before, so we were hoping he wasn’t a bad luck charm and that we’d be able to get off.
We made our way back to the heli pad, and one by one the 2 helicopters came and went. Eventually we were picked up from the glacier and brought back into town. When we landed, we found out that they held the group right after us because the clouds had dropped too low. I’m not sure if the honeymoon couple they held got stuck on the glacier for the night, but I felt very lucky that we were the last ones who made it off in time.
I’d say the coolest yet the scariest part of this entire experience would be the avalanches that we saw. If you’ve ever seen or heard an avalanche before you know how terrifying this can be. The sound it made when the ice crashed down was deafening. This day happened to have been fairly mild temperature wise, and we were told was the reason why we witnessed so many. We were far away from them and not in any danger, but you feel a lot closer when you’re actually up on the glacier watching it happen. It was definitely extremely humbling to be watching nature unravel right in front of our eyes. The entire experience made me feel extra small, and my problems insignificant.
Overall, I would highly recommend the heli hiking Franz Josef Glacier, as long as you are fully aware that the weather could hold you back. If your trip does get cancelled, there is a really beautiful hike that you can do of the glacier valley that lets you view it from a distance, and is only 1.5 hours return. The views of the glacier valley walk are still incredible and will make you feel like you’re in another world. Either way, I think the reward is worth the risk as the experience is incredible. If you’re interested in booking a heli hike experience like mine, I’d recommend Franz Josef Glacier Guides.