South Island: Lake Matheson (again) and Franz Joseph Glacier!


Since we didn’t have to be at the base for our glacier hike until later in the afternoon we decided to get up early and try to get back to Lake Matheson before the clouds could beat us there and get that iconic photo we were all dying for. It was a great group effort to get up and moving as fast as we could. We lucked out. We trekked through the walk to the lake with a purpose since we had taken our time yesterday and we were on a tight schedule. When we get there we were not disappointed. The sun was out, the sky was clear and blue, and the world was still in the morning air. It is an understatement to say that the lake was a mirror. It looked like Mount Tasman was standing on itself. We had to tear ourselves away after taking about a hundred pictures and then just standing in awe of the view. But we had an adventure to begin! I don’t know why but I was feeling pretty nervous about the helicopter ride. I’d never been in one before, never mind to the top of a glacier. We dropped the van off at camp, layered up, and headed to the base to get prepped for our hike. We had to take off a bunch of the layers we had just put on because the guides all told us we would get too hot while we were hiking. So I ended up only wearing under armor leggings that went up to my knees, and my long sleeve t-shirt and sweatshirt plus the coat they gave me and giant hiking boots. All decked out we walked to the helicopter pick-up point. We had a bit of a wait, just standing and waiting for our ride gave me quite the chill and I was starting to get a little worried that I was going to be miserably cold on this huge hunk of ice I was about to get dropped on by a helicopter.

Before I could freak myself out too much our ride was ready and we were given assigned seats—I was in the front with Jessie. Strapped in with giant headphones on, we were ready to ride. Being lifted straight up into the air was a very odd sensation. I may or may not have been clinging to Jessie for life and nervous laughing like it was my job. I let you decide. We quickly headed towards the glacier and it was a spectacular view from above. We could see the severe damage in the middle of the ice where we were supposed to have been hiking and I was immediately glad we were passing over it. Our pilot, I’m pretty sure his name/nickname was Mango, was very experienced and took the same route to the glacier landing area numerous times a day. So, naturally, he gets a little bored. One f his favorite tricks is to slowly get higher and high and then take a nose dive straight down and then, still facing downwards, corkscrew to the ground until just before the landing pad and then plop down no problem. Yup, it took me about 2 seconds of looking straight down through the windscreen at the ice bellow to start screaming, and the same amount of time for our pilot to start laughing at me. Ok, so, we are on the ice and I am no longer cold. Our guide, Thai, was there already there waiting for us, pick-axe and all. Only six of us could fit in the helicopter at a time so we had to wait for the other half of our group to be shuttled over. That’s when we got cold again. I wasn’t the only one either. TJ was wearing shorts! Once we were all together we got our crampons on and started hiking. As soon as we started moving I felt better since I had a place to channel all of my adrenaline. It took some time to get used to walking with giant spikes attached to my feet (I have a hard enough time just wearing sneakers…) but I am proud to say I didn’t fall once! Wahhoooo! Some of the other girls with us weren’t so lucky.

We zig-zagged our way up the glacier, through huge crevasses, ice-steps hacked away by Thai, and sometimes flat blue sheets of ice. There were a few little fresh-water streams all along our walk. One was positioned perfectly to be a water fountain so I got to drink some of the purest and coldest) water I have ever tasted. I learned a lot during the 3 hour hike. The glacier melts 10cms a day! Because we made such good time and didn’t stop for too many photo ops we were running a little early and got to hiker higher up the glacier than planned! The view, again, was incredible; blue ice, blue sky, green trees, and slate-grey rocks on either side. It was breathtaking. We took a more direct path back down to the “heli-pad” that only took us 30 minutes. We were the last crew to leave the glacier so Thai and the guy stationed at the entrance point had to come back with us. I ended up going back with the second group so Thai could take my place on the first ride back. I got to chat with the other guide and he said that he had just done the highest sky dive in New Zealand over the glacier! It was something like 19,000 feet and he had to use oxygen. He said that the free fall was just long enough to contemplate your entire life and say goodbye before you pull the shoot and have an awesome ride down to earth. If he had asked I would have gone right there and then. Calm down, I haven’t sky dived. Yet. Anyway, the helicopter came back and picked us up and I got to sit in the front again. This ride was much calmer and I got to really take in the view from the top of the glacier. I loved every minute of it.
Once we were back in our warm clothes we grabbed a bite to eat, stopped into the grocery store for a few necessities, then made our way back to the vans to change into our bathing suits for part 2 of our glacier experience; the hot pools! We got a free pass to the glacial hot pools when we booked our hike and after a chilly day on a giant ice-mountain nothing felt better than being submerged in the biggest hot tub I’ve ever seen. We met up with all the other people who did the other hikes and swapped stories. Feeling very relaxed and happy, we all headed back to the same campsite for bed. It was an amazing day of ‘firsts’ and I was terrified I was going to wake up any moment and find myself on the top bunk of the van, just dreaming. But it was real and I was so happy. It was not difficult to get to sleep that night because I was way too tired to even register that I was going to be doing New Zealand’s tallest bungee jump in Queenstown the next day.
Fun Fact: Glaciers are formed by snow that accumulates in a basin, repeated freezes and thaws and becomes compact. As more snow and ice are dumped at the head of the glacier the more it compacts under pressure until it becomes the blue-tinged glacial ice. Franz Joseph Glacier is 7 miles long and is 7,000 years old.

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