Posts Tagged With: glacier

Happy New Year Fox Glacier

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!

Categories: Exploring New Zealand | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wedgemount Lake Backpacking Trip

It’s been 3 years since I hiked Wedgemount Lake, but this trail still haunts me!

Wedgemount Lake is a 14km round trip hike with a whopping 1200 metres in elevation gain. All I can say is, don’t underestimate it. Wedgemount has recently been added to Garibaldi Park’s database of reservable sites, so you now have to book to go up there, which wasn’t the case when I visited. I suspect this may have actually increased the traffic up there though because people that aren’t able to get a spot at Garibaldi Lake or Elfin Lakes, see it on the map and decide to go there instead. I don’t actually know if this is true or not, but I did meet a group of 5 guys at the trailhead to Elfin once who were changing their plans to go to Wedgemount when they realized Elfin was full, but just a guess!

Wedgemount is incredibly scenic once you get to the top, but boy is it a long slog to get there. I went in late August with Brandon the first summer I started camping and I believe we started hiking sometime after noon. There’s very little to see but forest until you reach the halfway point across a short boulder field. After that, it’s back into the woods again until just before the end when you have to climb a steep boulder field to get up to the top. Don’t get me wrong, the whole trail is steep, but the boulder field is definitely tough with overnight packs as you’re basically climbing up over the rocks.

When you get to the top of the landslide, you’re in a valley of sorts, with Wedgemount lake at the bottom, surrounded by another set of peaks and the Wedgemount glacier. You hike down into the valley, which is completely wide open with very little shelter. Over the years, people have moved the rocks around to create little rock-walled campsites to protect from the wind that funnels in through the valley across the lake. There is a small hut up there as well, but I think most people opt to camp as there’s tons of space up there and lots of sites to choose from.

It was certainly windy when we went up there. Even though it was August, it’s one of the coldest camping trips I can remember. I was fine once I got in my sleeping bag and went to bed, but until then, it’s freezing sitting out on the ridge with nothing to shelter you from the wind. We set up our tent as fast as we could and tried to find the most sheltered place to quickly make and eat out supper. Then we hit the sack pretty early because it was just so cold outside.

It’s a beautiful location though. Wedgemount Lake itself is quite large, but the soils must be a lot siltier than other lakes in the park because it has a much paler blue hue to the water. The wind died down overnight and we got up early to do a little exploring around the lake. Like I said, it’s a wide open space surrounded by other mountain peaks, so there’s tons to explore up there. Our exploration was pretty limited, which kind of makes me what to go back, but that landslide still haunts me and I don’t want to have to haul my backpack up over it every again.

We did explore to the glacier though. If you walk around to the head of the lake, you can see the Wedgemount glacier. I’m sure it looks different every year depending on how the ice changes and melts, but the year we visited had left another lake at the base of the glacier with lots of bergy bits (real technical term – I’m a Newfoundlander, I would know) floating around. The glacier is huge and looks misleading in pictures, but Brandon got a few great photos of me standing at the base of the glacier that really put the size in perspective.

The lake is nice, but the glacier was definitely the highlight for me. The only other glacier I’ve hiked to is the glacier at the top of Brandywine Mountain, so it was a landscape quite unlike where I usually hike (the Brandywine Glacier was very different as the ice melt was flowing down the mountain instead of pooling).  I can’t decide whether Wedgemount makes for a better day hike or overnight though. A day hike seems like it might be rushed, but having just a day pack sounds a lot nicer, so it might be a judgement call based on your fitness level.

The clouds were looking pretty threatening though, so we didn’t stick around too long at Wedgemount. We packed up our things just before the rain hit and hiked back over the landslide and down again. Wedgemount is just as tough going down as it is going up. It’s a steep hike over the landslide and then the trail feels like it goes on forever after that, with nothing to look at and no respite for your knackered knees. It was a relief when we finally hit the parking lot.

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Categories: Life in British Columbia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Garibaldi Lake Backpacking Trip: First Timer

Garibaldi Park is hands down, one of the most beautiful provincial parks in the lower mainland. I’ve been to the lake on 3 separate occasions in the last 5 years and I really felt I experienced something new on every single trip. The first time I went to Garibaldi Lake was in 2015 as a day trip and it’s what inspired my desire to start backcountry camping. It was so beautiful at the lake that I really wanted the opportunity to stay there overnight. So the next year, I bought myself some backcountry gear and did a 3 day trip with Seth and Emily, who had just finished her bachelor’s degree and was visiting for the summer at the time.

Both times I’ve backpacked to the lake have been for 3 nights, which I think is a good length. I left work early on a Thursday and we drove out to the trailhead, aiming to be hiking by 5pm. I think we were a little bit behind, but we were certainly on the trail by 5:30pm and it took us about 3.5 hours to hike to the lake without any detours. 2016 was the first year that Garibaldi introduced the backcountry booking system, so we did have a campsite booked, but we decided to take Friday off to get ahead of the crowds and have one day with fewer people.

It’s a rough walk up to the lake for sure. It’s a pretty easy trail, but there is significant elevation gain (~800m) and the trail is pretty much constant switchbacks with no views for the first 6-7km. After that it gets a little more varied and less steep, before you finally reach the lake and hike in along the edge to the campsite. If you are hiking in a little later, like we were, be prepared to hike in the dark and have lights with you. Fortunately, we reached the campsite just around dusk and got to see the glacier at the back of the lake lit up pink with the alpen glow before night set in.

Hiking in Thursday night gave us two full days in the backcountry before we had to hike out again, so we planned to hit Garibaldi’s other two most popular attractions, Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk. I was most excited for Panorama Ridge because I’d seen so many amazing pictures of the bright blue waters of Garibaldi Lake as seen from the ridge looking down on it. So we decided to day hike to Panorama on Friday. We had each purchased a small daypack from Mountain Warehouse that we had stuffed into our big packs, so we crammed them full of all our day items.

It’s a bit of a rough start to Panorama Ridge when you leave the lake and have to hike back up over the bank, but after that the trail levels out a lot and has beautiful views of the alpine meadows. Panorama Ridge is about a 15km round trip hike from the lake and definitely ranks as one of my top 5 hikes. At first you hike through alpine meadows until you reach the base of Black Tusk, and then the trails branch off and you loop right the edge of Black Tusk Mountain down towards helm creek. You can’t see Black Tusk from this part of the trail, or Garibaldi Lake, but you can see down into the Valley and up to your final destination at the top of the ridge. I went during the August long weekend, so there were lots of wildflowers in bloom along the trail.

The last 2 kilometres of the trail are more difficult as you start climbing up towards the top of the ridge. It’s a steep trail and it can get quite crowded. Even though it was a Friday, it was still pretty busy, but I was glad we did it first. The view from the top is unbelievable and you should absolutely time your trip to eat up at the top so that you can hang out for a while. The view of Garibaldi and the surrounding mountains and glaciers is incredible, but it’s really the view back towards Black Tusk that took my breath away. I don’t think that view is showcased quite as much. I was anticipating and expecting the beautiful view of the lake, so I was surprised by the equally beautiful view looking back at Black Tusk and could never quite decide which direction to face!

I definitely think a day hike is the way to go for Panorama though. I know some people do Panorama as a 30km round trip, but I can’t imagine doing this unless you were a trail runner. It must be at least a 12 hour day to do the whole thing and that doesn’t leave much time to enjoy the views or the lake. Panorama Ridge was a whole day affair for us.

The year we went, there was still a lot of snow going up the side of the ridge towards the top. On the way up we could see some butt marks in the snow coming down from the top and Seth was really keen to slide down the snow on the way back. I think whether or not this is possible probably depends on the conditions when you visit, but I would absolutely recommend AGAINST it either way. Me and Emily were swayed by Seth’s enthusiasm about sliding down and decided to give it a try. But it’s a lot steeper than it looks and a lot longer. Once you start sliding down it’s really hard to control your speed and you’re pretty much committed to going the whole way. It is so cold to slide down a snowbank in your shorts and because we started picking up to much speed, we were forced to try and slow ourselves down with our hands, causing both our hands and butts to go totally numb for hours (yes. hours, I am not exaggerating). So yes, we did slide down, but I would not repeat the experience.

We finished the day with one of my favourite activities, a swim in the lake! If you don’t walk far enough in around the lake, you might never know that there’s a dock, but if you want to swim, this is absolutely where I’d recommend you go because then you can save yourself the torture of having to wade into the freezing, glacial water, and just jump in. I think I swam in the lake every time I’ve been up there and while it is freezing, it is one thing I would recommend! The cold water is so nice on your aching muscles and it makes for a great photo!

On Saturday we hit up Black Tusk. We would have preferred to stay at Garibaldi Lake all weekend, but unfortunately the campsite had been full for Saturday night by the time we booked, so we packed up everything and moved to Taylor Meadows on Saturday morning. Taylor Meadows is about 1.5km away from the lake and has traditionally been used for group and overflow camping back before the reservations were introduced. Now you can book all the campsites online and while it’s frustrating if you’re not fast enough to nab one, it does remove the stress of wondering whether you’ll find somewhere to pitch your tent for the night.

It was the BC Day weekend and as expected, it was a lot busier on Saturday. Taylor Meadows is nice, but it definitely can’t compare with the lake. The campsites have much less privacy and are all crammed together in the meadow. We decided to eat lunch in the hut and then started on the Black Tusk hike after lunch. Black tusk is a bit shorter than Panorama Ridge, but it has more elevation gain. The weather was cooler on the day we did Black Tusk as well. You hike in to the same junction, but instead of hiking around the mountain, this time, you hike up it. I wasn’t expecting to see the Lake from Black Tusk since you can’t see it from Panorama at all until the very top, but you can actually see the lake from a lot of the Black Tusk hike, which was really nice. There was still quite a bit of snow on Black Tusk though, even in August, so we did have to cross several snowy sections on the way up.

What I didn’t realize until the way down, was that the official Black Tusk hike actually ends about halfway up to the ridge (there’s a sign that marks the end of the hike – which I did see, but thought it was just an info board about the hike). So we kept going to the top of the ridge at the base of the tusk. It is definitely rough going in that last section. It is all scree going up to the ridge and every step you take you feel as if you’re sliding half a step back. Emily and Seth hated it and I didn’t particularly like it either. We pushed to the top of the ridge so that we could see the views on either side of the mountain, but Emily and Seth refused to go on from there. There is one last section that goes right to the base of the tusk and I really wanted to see it, so I braved the last 10-15 minutes up the slope on my own.

But that’s where I quit. I know there are people that climb Black Tusk, some of which bring actually safety and climbing gear, and others that just free hand it. I’m not one of those people. I’ve heard stories of how dangerous it is, so I opted to give it a pass. But, I did get beautiful views of the tusk and looking out around the surrounding area on both sides of the tusk.

I have been back to Panorama Ridge since then, but that will probably be my one and only time up Black Tusk. It was a cool hike, but I’m not a huge fan of all the scree, so it’s one I’m happy to tick off my bucket list and move on from. But never say never I guess, I could probably be convinced to return on snowshoes.

And that was really it for our Garibaldi trip. We returned to Taylor Meadows and hiked out the next morning. It was Sunday when we hiked out, so there were still an insane number of people hiking in, and it’s kind of fun to watch all the day hikers sweating it on their way in while you hike all downhill with your pack and your sweater still on.

Overall, I do have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Garibaldi though. I definitely love it in that it is incredibly beautiful and awe inspiring, but it’s also mistreated by a lot of its visitors and that is really frustrating. I’ve had more than one “leave no trace” rant on this blog, but Garibaldi and Joffre are particularly bad for garbage. Please please please, respect the beautiful nature that we all share and pack out all your garbage! Do not leave garbage in outhouses as that attracts bears. If you can pack it in (uphill) full, then you can definitely pack it out empty.

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Categories: Life in British Columbia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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