01/18/2009 60 °F
Dawn and I woke up early and drove back into town. We checked in at the Franz Josef Guides lobby. Along with the other hikers, we were fitted with water-proof pants, a water-proof jacket, water-proof boots, gloves, hat, and crampons. We climbed into the bus and headed to the foot of the glacier.
Dressed for an assault on Siberia, we first had to walk several miles to the base of the glacier through a temperate rainforest. After about an hour we reached the foot of the glacier and were instructed on how to put our crampons on over our boots. The glacier was beautiful. It wasn't covered in gravel like the glacier we had seen 6 days ago, but a brilliant white and blue. The wind coming down the glacier was freezing cold. A slight rain fell, but it was hardly noticed. I couldn't wait to get started.
The guides asked for everyone to divide into groups of 10 based on skill level. The higher skill level groups were going to grind out the path for the rest of the groups. Rain makes the glacier glassy smooth, and we had a lot of rain the night before. As people move over the tracks, their crampons chew up the ice and make it easier for the following people to make it through the glacier. I had originally planned on being in the 2nd or 3rd group (out of 5), but few people volunteered to go in the first group. Dawn and I decided to give it a shot. As we started up the mountain, I ended up being the first hiker leading the rest of the group behind the guide.
The first thing I noticed about the glacier is that it was really cold to the touch. This may seem obvious since it is a block of ice, but walking across it you begin to view it as white rock. When used correctly, the crampons do a good job of gripping the ice. We began climbing up the glacier using the steps the guides were cutting with their axes. We climbed over the first series of ridges and began weaving through the crevasses in the ice.
Glaciers are formed by giant snow fields way up the mountain. Snow falls year round and is then compacted into ice. This compacted ice gets forced down the mountain as more and more snow falls. As the glacier moves down the mountain, the ice melts in the warmer air, rain, and sunlight. The water seeps down through the glacier forming holes, eventually draining into the river at the base of the glacier. The melting causes some areas to be weaker than others, and as the glacier moves, the surface shifts and slides to form huge cracks called crevasses. This is what we walked through.
The crevasses could rise 20 feet on either side of us. It was a little unnerving to walk between two walls of ice. The crevasses were never flat, so you had to constantly walk at an angle, careful to always get a good footing so you didn't slide down the glacier. Because the crevasses are the lowest points on the glacier, the guides like to keep the hikers moving through them (you can't really fall because you are already as far down as you can get). The fear is ice falling from above you, so you have to keep a look out for lose blocks overhead. We kept climbing and climbing and climbing.
I realized why it was so important to have waterproof clothing. You were constantly squeezing between the blocks of ice. The surface of the glacier was wet as the exposed ice melted. My gloves instantly were soaked as I used my hands to keep my balance. When you did slip, you couldn't really catch yourself. The ice was very slippery, and if you could grab a block of ice, you had to be careful because they can be razor sharp. The wool did keep my hands dry and warm though.
After a couple hours of making our way through the glacier, we came to an ice cave. Shifting in the ice had formed a hollow in the glacier that could be climbed through. The ice was a deep blue in the cave. We were told that all the ice not exposed to the sun looks like this. As the ice is compacted and pushed down the mountain, all the air is squeezed out. With no air the ice acts like a crystal reflecting only the blue portion of visible light. The ice on the surface is porous and prevents light from passing through giving a white color. The cave was beautiful.
We continued climbing for a little while longer and stopped for some lunch. I thought we would start making our way back down the glacier since we were supposed to spend 5-6 hours on the ice, and we had been climbing for 3 hours at this point. But after lunch, we kept climbing up. In fact we kept climbing up steadily for another hour.
We reached the high lines, the tallest point we would climb. When we reached this point, the guides realized a new crevasse had formed from the rain last night. They bounced around excitedly about a new ice feature. I guess after going up the glacier every day, new ice features add some excitement to the job. Our guide climbed to the top of the crevasse and began knocking ice into the gap. The newly formed crevasse looked like a very narrow "V". It was very deep, I couldn't even see the bottom of it. The theory was that you could knock larger chunks of ice into the gap and walk along the blocks to make your way through the crevasse. It was the same strategy we had been following all day, but the ice had been packed in over the past couple weeks. The guides worked furiously for about 20 minutes to knock ice into the gap. Dawn was first in line and the guide called for her to start making her way across the crevasse. I didn't really think it was wise for Dawn to boldly walk along a new path that the guides hadn't even walked through, but Dawn went on anyways. It was a tight fit for her, very tight in fact, so I knew I was going to have a tough time. I began making my way, shoving myself into the crack in the ice. I decided to follow the guide's advice to consider this "a rebirth" and force myself through the slippery, tight gap. Right at the tightest part the ice gave way beneath me. The ice only shifted down about 6 inches, but my body only slid down an inch, leaving me suspended between two very cold pieces of ice. I was stuck.
I couldn't move forward because my feet couldn't reach anything. I couldn't pull myself up because I was between two slippery pieces of ice. Trying not to panic, I posed for pictures for the rest of the group waiting to make their pass through the crevasse. Dawn was calling frantically to the guide for help. Our fearless guide had a solution. He cut a piece of ice from the wall of the crevasse and pushed it down towards my foot. I was able to reach it and pull myself out of the gap. The above picture is actually just after I got unstuck and reached the wider portion of the crevasse (can't you see the relief on my face?). Once through the crevasse, I climbed up onto the ledge to thaw out. My hands were frozen from trying to push myself out of the gap. I tried blowing on them and sticking them in my armpits, but the heat hurt tremendously. I gingerly rubbed them on my shirt.
As we waited for the rest of the group to pass through the crevasse, we took in the views of the glacier. The view was beautiful. Here is a view further up the glacier:
Here is the view back down the glacier:
My hands had warmed up by the time the rest of the group made it through the crevasse, so I was ready for the hike back down the glacier. The hike back was significantly easier as we walked along the top of the glacier back to the bottom (instead of winding through the crevasses).
On the way down the guide told me that since we found the new crevasse, we got to name it. Since I had become the most intimate with the new crevasse, he wanted my input. Claiming to be finished with that crevasse forever, the guide decided to name it in my honor: The Cold Sausage.
We reached the bottom of the glacier, but did pose for one last picture.
We hiked back to the bus and turned our gear back in at the office. As tired as I was, Dawn and I still had to make it to Arthur's Pass that night. We had 240 km (150 miles) to drive. We grabbed some dinner and some powerade to rehydrate and hit the road. Tomorrow would be our last day in New Zealand.