My 3-week New Zealand travel itinerary listed a “Heli-Hike” in South Island’s Glacier Country. Hmm…. sounded intriguing! But what exactly was I getting myself into? Well, it turns out, a whole lot of high-octane fun.
In Kiwi-speak, a heli-hike is hiking and exploring a beautiful glacier, led by a professional guide, paired with the thrill of a scenic helicopter flight, shuttling you up and onto the glacier. Oh, yeah, I was definitely in!
Fast Forward. I am now in beautiful New Zealand with a group of good friends and our guide Al. After working our way down South Island’s scenic West Coast by van, we arrived in Franz Josef, a small tourist-focused town located in the heart of the Southern Alps & Glacier Country.
Our first heavy rain of the trip greeted us as we entered the town and tomorrow was our big day – the Franz Josef Glacier Heli-Hike, scheduled at 9:15am. Unfortunately, we awoke to more rain, and with heavy hearts, we learned that our flight was cancelled due to weather.
However, with great luck (and some major prayers!), the rain cleared by mid-morning. With dogged persistence, Al was able to re-book a 1pm heli-hike on the Fox Glacier, the area’s other glacier, just a 30-minute drive away.
So, off we went to Fox Glacier township, another cute small town, to the office of Fox Glacier Guiding. There we were fitted with special leather boots and supplied, if desired, with wool socks, wool gloves and heavy parkas. We watched a safety briefing video on “helicopter etiquette” before we headed out to the airfield (a 5-minute drive) where our two helicopters (5 & 6 passenger) were waiting for us.
Since the full group totaled 22 people (plus 2 guides), we were ferried in shifts up to the glacier. I absolutely loved the four-minute scenic helicopter ride, as we took off across the meadow and along a glacial river up to the Fox Glacier, for dramatic views up close and personal. Soon, we were landing on the middle, flatter section of the glacier for a quick exit before the pilot took back off for the next group.
Once my group (the 9 crazy Americans) were all there, our excellent Aussie guide Jake (in shorts, no less!) demonstrated how to put on crampons (a traction device strapped around our boots), which is an absolute necessity for walking on ice. It was my first time in crampons and it was a kick (literally!) getting the hang of the “crampon walk.” They also gave out hiking poles for those of us who wanted them – like me.
For the next 2.5 fascinating hours, we followed Jake in a single file as we walked carefully around the glacier, with Jake pointing out the many features of an active glacier. Features like pristine blue ice, deep crevasses, flowing streams and open caves, including a very cool towering cave we walked through with room to spare – the perfect backdrop for a photo.
Luckily, the weather cooperated during our time on the glacier. Part of the glacier’s upper icefall (where only experienced alpinists go) was covered in heavy clouds. We later learned that the 3pm Fox Glacier flight was cancelled due to increasing winds, feeling blessed that were able to squeeze this grand adventure into the narrow window of weather opportunity today!
As you can see, a glacier Heli-Hike is an experience not to be missed – breathtaking and unique! When can we “mere mortals” (people with average fitness levels and even those with a fear of heights like me!) have the chance to safely feel like a “mountaineer for a day”? I hope you’ll add this to your New Zealand “must do” list.
Two good glacier guiding / heli-hike companies for the Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers:
• Fox Glacier Guiding – this was the company we used for our Fox Glacier trip.
• Franz Josef Glacier Guides – This was the company, based out of Franz Josef town, that we were originally scheduled to go with on the Franz Josef glacier.
Comments: Have you ever done a heli-hike or glacier walk like this? Where was it? Is this an adventure you’d be interesting in doing when you’re in New Zealand?