Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier, NZ
Another must-do/must-see experience in New Zealand is to go for a hike, or tramp as they call it down under.
New Zealand is world-reknowned for their tramping routes and have a variety of different walks to take, from one day to a week. While I've only done a few short walks (and am gearing up to do the Tongariro Crossing, one of the best walks in the world), one of the most memorable tramps took place on a glacier.
On the Wild West Coast of the South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers slowly seep down from their lofty births, down towards the sea and the temperate rainforest of the coast. With 20km seperating the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, these are part of only three glaciers*** on earth which come so close to reaching the coastline. Because of this proximity, it makes these glaciers very easy for adventurers to explore.
I signed up with a half-day guided hike which was well worth the money. After strapping on crampons and getting equipped with pick axes and poles, we made our way across scrappy morain and glacial run-off alongside verdant cliffs and flowing waterfalls, to the edge of the mighty icey beast.
Up close, the glacier was massive and awe-inspiring. The terminus loomed up high above us, alternating between dirty crusts and ice-blue crevasses. I was suddenly glad I paid attention in my favourite class in high school - Earth Science - as I still retained a lot of knowledge about glaciers (which I thought would be useless!).
Walking on the glacier was an amazing feeling, having all that *very slowly moving* ice beneath you. Though I was a bit shakey even with my spikey crampons on my feet and a pole to support me, it was thrilling to be able to enter crevasses, climb up ledges of ice and even go through ice holes.
The best part was taking stock of the situation and seeing how far we had really come - the view from the top was amazing, and even though it wasn't sunny like the REAL top of the glacier appeared to be, the contrast between white ice and green rainforest was amazing.
And now, a little bit of info about the glacier, thanks to Wikipedia: "The glacier is currently 12 km long and terminates 19 km from the Tasman Sea. Fed by a 20 sqm large snowfield at high altitude, it exhibits a cyclic pattern of advance and retreat, driven by differences between the volume of meltwater at the foot of the glacier and volume of snowfall feeding the névé. Due to strong snowfall it is one of the few glaciers in New Zealand which is still growing as of 2007, while others, mostly on the eastern side of the Southern Alps, have been shrinking heavily, a process attributed to global warming.
Having retreated several kilometres between the 1940s and 1980s, the glacier entered an advancing phase in 1984 and at times has advanced at the phenomenal (by glacial standards) rate of 70 cm a day. The flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers. Over the longer term, the glacier has retreated since the last ice age, and it is believed that it extended into the sea some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
This cyclic behaviour is well illustrated by a postage stamp issued in 1946, depicting the view from St James Anglican Church. The church was built in 1931, with a panoramic altar window to take advantage of its location. By 1954, the glacier had disappeared from view from the church, but it reappeared in 1997. This is due to the highly variable conditions on the snowfield, which take around 5-6 years before they result in changes in the terminus location."
*** I believe I have actually been to the "other" glacier out of the three on Earth that come so close to the sea, the Jostedal Glacier in Norway. I didn't climb that one though. Been there, done that! :P