Life, Near Death, and Beauty in New Zealand’s South Island

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As far as near death experiences go, I have had a few. In Africa, I was caught in the middle of dueling Cape buffalo bulls, separated from their rage and fury by the thin netting of my tent. In Russia, a car next to me exploded in a Russian Mafia hit. As a youngster, in the Valley of the Things That Bite in rural Mexico, I was stung by a scorpion and slipped into a near comatose state for a day. Even now, as I reflect upon experiences and journeys, I never felt as close to death as when glacier climbing in New Zealand.

After taking the train across the mountains from Christchurch, I landed in Greymouth. I had made my way down the West coast of the South Island using public bus. The bus meandered down the coast toward the glacial region of the South Island. Shortly after Hokitika, while driving at full speed, the bus driver opened the door and threw something out of the bus. Surprised, I ceased looking at the landscape to watch his driving habits more closely. We passed over a one-lane bridge. I had seen one-lane bridges for two-way traffic before, but this was the first one I had seen for cars, busses, pedestrians, and trains. I asked the driver what happens when the train comes, and he stated it only comes in the morning. Although we had only seen one other car after two hours of driving, and hadn’t seen one train, I was still relieved to be on the afternoon bus. Just past the bridge the bus driver slowed a bit, opened his side window, grabbed a tightly wadded up bit paper and hurled it out the window towards a driveway. Paper Delivery! I could not believe it; the public bus was doubling as paperboy. Sure enough, we passed about 15 driveways between Hokitika and our destination and at each one, the driver tossed a paper into or near the driveway.

New Zealand’s South Island is breathtakingly beautiful. The West Coast remains sparsely populated and has a unique climatic condition that contributes to its beauty and mystique. The warm breezes collect between the Australian shores and bump into New Zealand right where the South Island Alps descend directly to the shoreline. This creates a combination of tropical foliage mixed with glaciers, snow capped mountains, and clean, clear beaches. In a t-shirt and shorts, I marveled at this combination – clean, fresh, and with very few other people around, I imagine that this is as it was hundreds of years ago.

Arriving in the town of Franz Josef in the evening, I found that reservations were not required for any of the glacier sojourns. It was first come-first serve and highly dependant upon the weather. Franz Josef was not big. Mostly small hotels and inns converted from homes. There was no industry except for tourism, two or three places to eat, a gas station, and a tourist center.

In the early morning I hurried to the tourist center. It was too overcast to take a helicopter flight to the upper glacier and walk around, so I signed up for the glacier hike. I popped into a bus with a few other people and drove to the mighty Franz Josef Glacier. As we walked through the jungle to the base, everyone caught glimpses of the glacier through the canopy. People hurried until we made it to the wash. In the wash, nothing grows. A giant stretch of open space covered with rocks and numerous little streams. Clearly in times of storm this was not a place to be. From one side of the canyon wall to the other nothing at all existed except the tell-tales signs that this area is frequently wiped clean – leaving pebbles and tributaries as a warning to all beware.

Eager to get on the glacier we went to its base. From afar the glacier looked to slope gently upwards, up close this was not the case. A steep staircase chiseled into the face of the glacier was the only way up.

No warning signs, no training classes, no seminar on glacier safety. Just a young man, in shorts, saying let’s go. Each member of our 10-person group had one pair of strap-on metal cleats and one glacial ice axe. Up we went.

The gentle slopes after the initial climb up the steep staircase were quite easy, and allowed us all to marvel at the stark contrasts between the jungle-like canyon walls and the blue-white glacier. The pace was brisk and soon things started to change. The path disappeared and our guide started to hop like a goat across crevasses, chasms, and bottomless pools of water. As he cut makeshift steps and ledges along sheer ice walls, the group, filled with excitement, sallied forth nervously. We stopped to eat some lunch. At this point the group was clearly starting to separate into the fit, confident and ready, and the less fit, unsure and increasingly nervous.

It started to rain off and on after lunch. All the top slush washed away, making the glacier slick. New rivers seemed to start instantly throughout the glacier. We could hear torrents of water below. We pressed onward. The glacier started to have more contrasts; we frequently spent more of time navigating through deep ravines and sheer walls. Seeing the canyon walls became less frequent, when we did pop up, the canyon walls were filled with waterfalls and the fog seemed to drop down just below the canyon tops. Absolutely stunning! However it started to occur to me that when I was down in the ravines and crevasses I had no sense of direction. Constantly going up and down giant moguls and crevasses, as well as many sharp right and left turns completely obliterated all sense of heading up or down the glacier. Everything was white/blue. I could no longer tell North, South, East, or West. I could not even identify the location of canyon walls when navigating through chasms. This made me uneasy.

It was raining full time now and there were only 2-3 people keeping up with the guide. Some people in our group were visibly struggling and frightened. A combination of afternoon light and thicker storm clouds reduced light and visibility. The other groups that we had seen off and on had already headed back while we pressed onward. We came to a 15-foot pool with sheer 20-foot walls on both sides and large waterfall in the middle. I have eagerly greeted such formations in the tropics of Southeast Asia with swimsuits, and wonder of how nature could create something so marvelous. It surprised me that a glacier could have such moments of beauty. Amidst my awe, I noticed that the guide had started using his ice axe to cut mini-ledges into the walls and started moving towards the waterfall. Instead of going around, he was going to take us through! I have rarely backed down from a challenge. I’ve skydived, bungee jumped, dived from moving vehicles, body surfed 15 foot waves, and eaten street food all over Mexico and China, but this made my gut sink. On a rainy, slick glacier, with no safety gear or training, our guide was now expecting us to make a difficult traverse along a sheer wall up through fast moving water. One slip meant a freezing plunge into a pool of unknown depth. I wasn’t alone with my thoughts. Even the hearty exchanged looks.

We decided to alternate confident people with less confident people for safety. We started. Each carved ledge only went 3-4 inches into the ice wall. As the first person neared the half way mark, the guide was already on top of the waterfall and started to cheer us on. Each moved as fast as the person in front of them. Slowly, but steadily, the group moved along – Some facing towards the wall some facing the pool of ice water just inches away from our feet. I started face out, looking down into the depths of the abyss. I edged along carefully, attendant to my wards on either side. Giving them words of confidence and reassuring them. When I neared the mid point I attempted to rotate from facing the pool, the facing the wall. I thought this would better position me for the ascent up the waterfall. I swung my left foot clockwise. As I finished the swing and landed on the mark, my right foot lost its footing as a chunk of ice gave way. Instinctively I hurled my ice axe as hard and fast as I could into the ice wall, stopping my fall, but not before my right foot got a taste of the chilly water. Both of my wards yelped, as did I. Pulling my foot back up to a ledge, my thoughts were filled with the fact that the ice cleats on the bottom of my boot were so heavy that if I had slipped into the water, I would have gone straight down. I had been one fraction of a second away from a very unpleasant end. Even though I felt sick and twangs of embarrassment, I gathered my composure, and continued – what other options did I have?

It took about an hour for all of us to make the traverse. Now it was getting late and even darker. This fact dawned on the guide as he stood up on a pinnacle and saw the other groups already at the base of the glacier, the darkening skies, and the constant rainfall. He stated it was time to head back.

His pace quickened, but many of us were already quite shaken and tired. As there was no easy way down, we found ourselves having to make several other traverses like the one we just made. Each went slowly, and all of us remained careful.

As we sped down the glacier several people slipped and one person lost their ice axe. One person was crying visibly, and two others were tearing, but not sobbing. At long last we made it to the bottom. Only a few bits of light remained. We now had another problem. The tributaries in the wash had grown to rivers. The guide stopped at the edge, counted his flock and told us to link arms as we crossed. The morning stream, two feet across and up to the edge of my boot, was now close to waist high and eight feet across. Pieces of ice flow sped down the newly formed river. As we crossed, ice chunks bore into our legs causing us to wince in pain from the combination of cold and blunt trauma.

We all made it across to a higher ground. The group hurried back to the bus shivering and exhausted. Our guide quipped he had never been out on the glacier that late. “A first time for everything,” he continued.

I turned to get one last view of the glacier, all details invisible except for a stark blue white glow. Sounds of river rushing, water falling, and ice cracking filled the air. In a mix of adrenaline, frustration, and accomplishment, I pondered my near early demise. No epiphanies. No moments of clarity. No life flashing before my eyes. Only a greater appreciation for life and the next challenge ahead remained. My partner, holding my hand, whispered: “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” Indeed.

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