Alpine express to climb a Glacier
Apr 2, 2006
|I chose to take a train across new zealand from east to west which took me on an amazingly beautiful journey across, through, over and under mountain after mountain. The Transalpine express is a specially designed train with huge windows, so for 4 hours I lay back across two seats and simply watched a beautiful world go by. We arrived in Greymouth, a funny little town which seemed to be nothing more than a landing or cross-over point, from where I caught a bus to take me further down the coastline to Franz Josef.
Franz Josef is one of the largest glaciers in the country and is pretty much just a little village from where you start a climb up the icy mountain. When we arrived the rain was just beginning but it almost added to the serenity of the place. I booked my place to start a full day climb up the glacier at 8am the next morning....
We got ourselves kitted up with enough waterproofs (supposedly) to keep the rainforests dry before heading off to begin what turned out to be a day no-one really bargained for. This glacier (and area) gets about 7-8m rainfall a year (meters not mm) so when the rain started falling fairly hard we thought nothing of it. We set off as planned. I didn't even notice but we apparently walked across a tiny little stream to get to the point where we put our talons on our boots (the spoke things that grip the ice).
There were 15 of us in all but they split us in to 2 groups; the first were those that seemed to be sure footed and were up for a little more of a challenge (footprint size steps across crevasses etc) - I got put in this group. Our guide walked up front and with his pick-axe carved small "steps" in the ice as and when we needed them. I can't begin to describe what it feels like to be walking up a mountain made up of ice - it took about 20min at least before I trusted that each step I took was not going to be my last before I plummeted down a crevasse. The physical exertion was a little more than expected but the adrenalin and exhiliration seemed to provide the extra spurt of energy when needed. The first part of the climb was tough and very steep - I have to admit to being a little scared and a few times thought about backing out. But our guide, Shane, gave us some confidence when he said it wasn't as hard or dangerous as it looked (just somewhat).
We climbed solidly for about an hour before taking a much needed break for some lunch. This lunch break was pretty much finding a perch on a piece of wet, slippery ice in the pouring rain and devouring what food you could before heading further up. My feet by this point were pretty much soaked through and were getting colder and colder by the minute. My woolen socks had soaked up so much water that i felt the extra weight with each step I took. But I was still loving it. We climbed through the tiniest crevasses with walls of ice skimming my shoulders, it was a weird feeling knowing that your hands could not hold or support you at all - the ice was so slippery if your feet went, so did you!
And someone did. We were walking down a steep slope with "steps" carved on either side of a long empty strip of ice - instead of using the steps carved he took a step into the gap (i think trying to be clever) and he came tumbling down towards me. Luckily he was sliding on his bum and I managed to side-step a little before he came to a stop next to me. He'd hurt a muscle in his leg so at this point our groups had to be joined with one guide taking him on his own.
By this time the weather had really got quite miserable. The rain was coming down in absolute buckets and the ice was getting more and more slippery. I was still enjoying it but my feet were so frozen each step was quite painful. It reminded me of that feeling when playing hockey in the freezing cold and the shock and pain that shoots up your arm when you hit the ball. I was also becoming less sure footed as I couldn't really feel when if and when my feet were firmly on the ice. Luckily Shane suggested we started making our way down as it would be anothe 2hrs until we got back to the base of the mountain.
About 30min into our descent Shane got a message on the radio saying there was a problem. He went off and talked in private and when he came back he started radioing other groups telling them (very calmly) to start a descent. After another 20minutes or so he told us that the rain had created a flash flood river at the base and they didn't know if we could make it off the mountain. He had to go ahead and join some other guides to see if they could create a bridge and left us. We carried on down the mountain pretty slowly, the rain was unbelievable and there were 15 of us in a line with one guide in front carving out ice along the way. Going up was scary but going down was quite a different and at times pretty daunting experience. The ice was so much more wet and the crevasses that we had easily walked through and over were now flooded - we had to walk along little "cliff" edges quite a few times to get around them.
An hour or so later we hit much warmer air - we had been about 2km up the glacier and the temperature difference was vast. My feet finally began to thaw a bit which was a relief as we'd hit the steepest part of the descent at this point. The steps down were pretty much vertical and about 40cm in width-no room for mistakes really. I don't think these would have been ordinarily scary but they were so slippery people were hanging on the guide ropes for dear life. Myself included.
By the time we were approaching the base the line of climbers going down stretched to about 40 - and we could see the crowd at the base of the mountain (where walkers stop just to view it) growing pretty large. We must have looked like a trail of ants. We found out afterwards that word in town has spread about what was happening on the mountain as it only happens once or twice every 2 years. As we came down the last bit of the descent we finally saw why. There was a raging river where before there was barely even a stream. The torrent was incredible and there was obviously no way people could be taken across. We were told that the only way to get us off was to evacuate us by helicopter in small groups at a time.
The whole experience at this point was pretty exciting. I think everyone knew that there was no real danger so it was just an added dimension to the trip. The helicopter could only shuttle 6 people at a time so I think the worst part of the day was standing in the pouring rain waiting to be evacuated out. But eventually I was. We were picked up and dropped just over the river so still had a 3km walk back across the river bed to our transport. I was so drenched that at this point I don't think I even noticed the rain anymore. I'll remember taking off my boots and wet socks as one of the most peasurable feelings of my 3 months.
After the climb I really felt like nothing I do on this trip is going to go easy on me - the elements are definitely out to challenge me - but I think i'm managing to bat the ball right back at them! Bring it on........