Our plan was to heli hike Fox Glacier on New Years Eve. There’s two glaciers open for tourism along the West Coast of the South Island: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Both are only accessible by helicopter and offer a wide range of tourist activities on the glacier. So we signed up for a half day hike on Fox Glacier. We had pretty mixed weather throughout the trip, but we got a few really nice warm days in Queenstown and the forecast indicated that would continue into the New Year, so we were optimistic about the hike. But the closer we got to Fox Glacier, the less sure we were that the hike would go ahead. It was quite nice looking out towards the ocean, but the clouds were all clinging to the mountains and you couldn’t see any of the peaks.
There was nothing we could do, so we settled into our hostel and crossed our fingers for the next day. Our flight was scheduled for 8am and it was really cloudy when we got up. We walked over to the tour center and they started explaining their refund policy, which really wasn’t a good sign. So we changed our tour to 1pm, hoping the clouds would clear our by then.
In the meantime, we decided to go for a little hike around Lake Matheson, which originally was our plan for the afternoon. The lake is famous because on a sunny day, you get great views of Mount Cook reflected in the lake. We couldn’t see any part of Mount Cook, but we anxiously kept checking the clouds, which didn’t seem to be lifting at all. When we returned for our afternoon flight, we were told that one was cancelled too. It was a huge disappointment because I’d really been looking forward to both the helicopter ride and the hike. We had to drive 6 hours the following day, so we didn’t really have time to spare, but we decided to make one more attempt for the 7am flight the next morning.
There’s not really anything else to do in Fox Glacier on a cloudy, drizzle day, so we drove a half hour to Franz Josef to go to the hot pools. Before we found them though, we stumbled upon a kiwi park and decided to visit. We ended up having a great time! Since kiwi’s are so endangered, there’s tons of eco-sanctuaries around the country and a lot of organizations seem to breed kiwi to boost the populations. Overall there are 5 different species of kiwi, the rarest of which is the Rowi. It’s a small kiwi that’s only found in one sanctuary in the nearby area, so the kiwi park was breeding the Rowi and had young kiwi in their enclosure.
Because kiwi’s are nocturnal, they have the whole enclosure reversed so that it’s night during the day so that visitors can see the kiwi. The enclosure is lit by red lights so you can see them snuffling around. Only one was out while we were visiting, but he was very active, feeding all over the enclosure, so we got a good look at him and watched him for ages. To boost up their attraction a bit, the kiwi park also has an exhibit about glaciers and a tuatara enclosure.
We moved on to the Franz Josef hot pools after that and had a relaxing afternoon lounging in the pools. I have to say, it was definitely one of my more boring New Year’s though. We didn’t want to stay up too late since we potentially had a 7am flight, so we played a game of giant chess at the hostel and went to bed pretty much right after midnight. We were really only interested in spending time together though, so it didn’t really matter.
And our first day of 2020 ended up being a real day to remember. We packed up the car at 6:30am and were dismayed to see a lot of clouds still hanging over the mountains. We knew the flight would be cancelled, but we still had to show up to get our money back. To our shock though, in the next 20 minutes the clouds totally moved out of the valley and we were told that the 6am flight hadn’t gone, but our 7am flight would be!
Things got a little hectic after that – staff gave us all the equipment we’d need for the hike, weighed us for the helicopter, and blasted through all wild risks associated with an activity like hiking a glacier. Then they gave us a tiny pack for the rest of our things and rushed us onto the bus to the chopper. It was a little overwhelming and I had to leave a bunch of my things behind because they wouldn’t fit in the helicopter bag. Our group had 3 tours of 11, so overall it took 6 helicopter rides to get us all on the glacier. It’s only a 5 minute ride and they cycle 2 helicopters through, so it does go pretty fast.
It may not be a long flight, but it is really cool to fly up the valley to the base of the glacier and then actually land on the ice. We ended up being in the first group, so we took off with our tour guide pretty quickly. Fox Glacier is a pretty rugged place. I’ve hiked to some other glaciers in BC, but I’ve never really been on them and the topography of Fox Glacier was really interesting. Up close all the ice looks a bright blue colour, but it never really translated that well to my photos. There’s a lot of interesting ice features, like mountains, caves, and waterfalls. We were all given crampons to wear and our guide had an ice axe to navigate a track for us. It was all pretty interesting to look at and though it was cold out, we were mostly moving around, so it wasn’t too bad. Admittedly it’s pretty slow going, but that’s because there’s no set path and you have to create a trail wherever you go.
We explored around the area for the better part of two hours and then things really started to go downhill. All of a sudden, we looked back at the path the chopper had flown up the valley and all we can see is this mountain of fog rolling up the valley. Everyone else was like, “Oh wow, look at that fog roll, that’s amazing”.
But I am a Newfoundlander, so when I saw the fog rolling, I was like, “we need to get the F out of here.”
New Zealanders are some of the nicest people and you have to admire their laid back approach to life, but during my time in New Zealand I learned that they also have a bit of a laid back approach to safety that I could never really get on board with. I’ll admit I started to lose my cool a bit when I saw the fog rolling in. I think I would have been a lot more chill if it had been a day earlier, but I’d watched that fog hang around the mountain the entire previous day and I had 6 hours of driving to do if we wanted to make our 3 day kayak trip the following day. So I wasn’t really in a patient, easy going place. Plus I’d left half of my warm gear back at the base camp in all the confusion of packing the helicopter bag.
Our guide started joking about us maybe having to spend the night on the ice, which apparently happens to tour groups on average ONCE A MONTH. I was like, “okay, so are the helicopters on their way to come get us?”, and he laughed and said, “no, they’re out on scenic flights, but they’re sending them down.” Apparently the fog had moved back into the valley while we’d been up on the glacier and while the scenic flights all landed, when we got back to the helicopter landing area, we were told they couldn’t come back for us right now.
And this horrible feeling of dread just settled right over me. It was only 11am, but I was convinced we were going to have to spend the rest of the day and the night on the glacier. There’s nothing you can do about it. I was worried and disappointed about the potential for us to miss the kayak trip, but I think mostly I was frustrated by my own lack of preparedness for such a situation. I pride myself on always having my 10 essentials and being prepared for scenarios like this. But I hadn’t brought a lunch that day and so much of my warm gear was sitting back in the lodge. It’s a really horrible feeling. The tour company does have a bunch of lock boxes up on the ice that are apparently filled with tents, sleeping bags, and dried food; but it wasn’t really a comfort to me as someone who has snow camped before because I knew it would only be survival gear.
Admittedly, I was one of the more concerned tourists. It seemed to be everyone else’s first day in Fox Glacier and I don’t think any of them thought we’d be there for long. This was probably a healthier attitude to adopt as I can be a bit of a worry wart. Although I won’t berate myself for it because I really don’t think the tour company communicated the risks to us adequately. They’d had cancelled flights for days and I think they made a poor decision to send a group up in questionable conditions. It’s the darker side of their laid back philosophy to life. Although our tour guide didn’t really help. In that moment I needed reassurance and distraction, not a 24 year old cracking jokes about sleeping on the ice.
Once you stop moving, it does start to get quite cold, so they had us all huddle under a tarp to trap our body heat. It was actually a lot warmer at first, but as the hours stretched on, people started getting bored and were coming and going from the tarp shelter a lot, which really reduced its effectiveness. I was getting pretty cold, but at least I had lots of food in my pack. It was discouraging though because the clouds kept moving in and totally filling the valley, leaving no visibility, then they’d start to clear again and give us some hope, only to cloud back in. I was convinced it was going to do that the whole day.
Eventually though, we got word that they had a “window” to come up the valley and they were sending the choppers. It’s all pre-numbered, so you have no control over what helicopter you’re on, but fortunately we were on the second one. I was afraid to hope, but eventually we heard the first helicopter coming up the valley. They loaded the first chopper and sent it off and when we saw ours coming up the valley and it was such a relief! I’ve never been so excited to get in a helicopter, but also so excited to get out of it.
It didn’t actually look too bad coming down the valley, but as soon as you land on the ground it’s a lot easier to understand why the choppers couldn’t come and get us. The valley was totally filled with cloud and a literal window in the clouds had opened that looked up towards the glacier. They wanted to get everyone off the glacier as soon as possible, so they hurried us off and sent the helicopter back up immediately. While we were relieved to be back on the ground, the window was getting noticeably smaller and we really wanted the rest of our group to get out as well. I think they did get our whole group out, but the window did close up again and there was a second group up there that I don’t actually know if they were still stuck or not. We had a lot of driving to do, so we couldn’t stick around to find out.
If I hadn’t had the opportunity to do the hike, I would have been super disappointed about it, but the hike was really marred by the experience. At the end of it all, we only spent an extra 3 hours on the ice, but it really was the longest 3 hours of my life. It totally makes for a great story to tell now and I’m definitely able to laugh about it. But I also don’t think I could recommend it to other people. It’s a lot of driving to get there and the glacier is really the only attraction. So it sucks if you go all the way there and then miss it. And after my own experience, I’d say not to hedge your bets. Don’t go if the weather is at all questionable. The problem is, if the flight goes, they won’t reimburse you, so they are kind of forcing you to go in a way, which I don’t like in this kind of adventure activity. If it really is true that one group a month gets stuck up there, then I really think they need to rethink some of their policies, or at least how they communicate the risk.
So it was a rough start to the new year, but I’ll also take it as a sign that 2020 is going to be full of adventure – and I do love a good adventure!