- Cryosphere refers to any portion of the Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice, snow cover, frozen rivers, lakes, and permafrost. The Cryosphere is closely linked to the Hydrosphere and plays a crucial role in the ecosystem and our everyday lives.
- I've chosen the name because Cryosphere encompasses a wide range of ice around the world. This blog is meant to chronicle not all glaciers, but those that I experience and photograph in my travels. My vision is to visit and write about as many glaciers and other ice forms as possible while I pursue knowledge and share experiences of a beautiful world of ice. I hope you enjoy the photographs and follow along as I go!

29 January 2018

20. Fox Glacier - 30 Jan, 2018

I had travelled to New Zealand in search of adventures. I wanted a sampling of what the country had to offer, and, while I had little money to travel abroad, I had heard of the rather generous Working Holiday Visa offered by the country. It took less than three hours to fill out an application for the Visa, and within four days I had been accepted, at no charge, to spend up to a year visiting and working in New Zealand.

I knew a few people in the small country already, most of whom I had worked with in Alaska. I had heard of the beauty of New Zealand from everyone who had ever visited, but the most exciting was that I had friends who worked on glaciers there.

Other than wanting to explore a few New Zealand glaciers during my five month visit, I had little resembling a plan when I boarded a plane from Utah on November 1st. I had planned as far as buying a van in Auckland, camping for free whenever possible, finding a job only once I ran out of money, and seeing as much of the country as possible. Nearly a month went by before I left Auckland with my second van purchase – the first being sold back for a large loss when it blew a head gasket the fourth day I owned it. The new van, a blue Toyota, came equipped with 7 seats. And that’s about it. In a day and a half with nothing more than a cheap handsaw, hammer and nails, I managed to outfit it with a wood platform for sleeping on. Next came a mattress, camp stove, basic cookware, and water jugs. Sheets, curtains, utensils, and other essentials would follow as I travelled. In a whirlwind of crazy sites and adventures, a friend and I travelled from Auckland to the South Island in about two weeks. We stopped for climbing with some MICA friends and explored glowworm caves, lakes, beaches and forests. My friend picked up a job with a remote lodge on the northern end of the south island while I pressed on further south. I’d had enough of the beaches, forest walks, and tiny patches of limestone. I needed to find some big mountains and some real cliffs to climb. But first, I needed money. For the next 7 weeks I worked in agriculture in the small town of Ashburton, which was much further from the mountains than the map first suggested. A few weekend trips with little more than a couple hours’ hikes showed me only a brief intro to the glaciated terrain of the Southern Alps. After almost two months of picking weeds and scraping cow shit, I finally made the drive through the mountains to visit the West Coast.

Kelsey, a friend from what seems like ages ago when I worked my first short season in Alaska, was currently working at Fox Glacier Guides and we hoped to do some ice climbing on her day off.  Kelsey and her two roommates generously offered me their couch while I visited, but I assured them a parking spot in the driveway was plenty to keep me happy. We spent the night planning our next two days. Kelsey’s friend James was coming along as well – his first ever ice climb!

The Fox Glacier, quickly receding in the last few years, is actually becoming rather dangerous to walk to, and the guiding company exclusively uses helicopters to get their clients to the ice these days. While the walk is technically possible, it gets a bit scary with massive boulders constantly slipping down the steep valley walls into the river below. As luck would have it, three open seats existed in the tour groups for the next morning. Groups with empty seats meant that guides going up on their days off (and sometimes friends tagging along with them) wouldn’t have to pay full price for a flight. Besides, it would be a good practice opportunity for Kelsey, who was working toward her next level guiding certification to take out her own ice climbing trips. Win-win. We wanted to spend the night above the glacier on the fabled Chancellor Hut, overlooking Mount Cook and the Fox Neve. However, less than stellar weather reports for our second day meant we would likely not have a flight out, and might get rained on most of the day. Oh and as I discovered whilst packing that night, I had lost my rain jacket somewhere working on a dairy farm, so I was not excited about the prospect of rain on top of a mountain. We ultimately decided on a day trip.

Early the next morning, Kelsey sent me up with the first tour of the day, saying she and James would catch a bit later flight and find my group wherever we were on the glacier.

Looking up the valley approaching Fox Glacier

Heli taking off from our drop-off

I spent the morning with two guides and their clients, wandering around looking at features much in a similar fashion of the trekking tour on the Matanuska Glacier. The clients asked the typical questions like “Why is the ice blue” and “Where do glaciers come from” as well as “Is this glacier melting?” It was fun to hear the answers from these guides so rehearsed and flawlessly delivered just like from the guides in Alaska:
“Ice, like water, appears blue because all other wavelengths of light are dispersed deep within the ice.”
“Glaciers come from high up in the mountains where layers and layers of snow accumulate on top of each other, compacting the lower layers into ice until gravity pulls it downhill.”
And of course:
“Yes, nearly all glaciers on Earth are melting faster than snow is accumulating.” Followed by the clients’ discussions of climate change - seemingly more out of amusement than concern.

Ah, guiding. It was just like being back on the Matanuska.

Clients crawling through an ice arch on Fox Glacier

Looking up at the icefall. on the right is the arch we just crawled through

Fox Glacier Guides at work

When one of the guides mentioned the speed of flow of the Fox glacier, I was sort of off daydreaming about something else. It registered in my mind, and I did a bit of a double take.
“Wait; Did you just say what I think you said?”
“The Fox Glacier flows up to 5 meters a day…?”
“Five meters in a single day?”
“Yeah, well these days it’s average is closer to three meters, but we do still measure five at some points in the icefall and on hot days when things move fast.”
I was blown away. Three to five meters per day is fast. Especially considering the Matanuska chugs along at an estimated 1 foot per day – which is already enough to see the changes over only a few days. At 5 Meters, the Fox is flowing up to 15 times the speed of the Matanuska each day. I don’t think the other clients appreciated that bit of information nearly as much as I did! Even more compelling is that here on the Fox, they actually measure things like that. They also know that it’s about 120m (396 ft) deep at the location of the helipads. We once asked a visiting glaciologist how thick the ice on the Matanuska was; he told us “Yeah, we don’t really know. We estimate it to be between 5 meters and 500 meters thick.” Thanks…?

Kelsey and James soon caught up with me, and I thanked the guides and said goodbye to the clients (still learning to walk on flat ice in the bulky crampons) before darting off from the group, the three of us now heading straight up steep terrain to find a good vertical climbing wall.

James crushing his first ever ice climb

Ever watch Vertical Limit? No need to, here's Kelsey reenacting the best scene. 

Mock rescue

Kelsey, James and I all got a few climbs in, then decided to move location to be closer to our flight out, scheduled for 2 or 3pm, depending on seats. Before we moved, Kelsey did a little practicing of a rescue scenario on James, who was fine before she started, but almost actually needed rescuing by the time she got to him to ‘save’ him.

As James discovered, it’s really uncomfortable hanging in a harness for any time at all. And sometimes it cuts off blood flow to your legs. While the training went on, I wandered off to explore more of the glacier.

Wandering about, looking for blue things

Water filling station

Once Kelsey saved James from his mostly pretend near-death experience, we packed up and started walking. We saw another cool feature not far from the first wall, and walked into a moulin tunnel, complete with a skylight in the back.

Chillin' in an ice tunnel

Of course we’re going to climb that. Kelsey lowered James down the hole to see if I could see him from inside the tunnel.

James dropping in through the skylight

As James soon discovered, it’s rather difficult to ice climb in tight spaces when you can’t get enough room to swing a tool!

Looks pretty narrow in there!

As we continued on, we were notified over Kelsey’s radio that the three of us had seats on a 4:30pm flight out with the last group of clients. Cool, plenty of time to play still.

Trekking across the Fox Glacier

Crevasse climb below massive waterfall...

... and from the other side

As we set up a rope into the steep crevasse above, the plan changed to 4:00 as the last group of clients cancelled. On walking back to the landing pad, we discovered that in fact there weren’t enough seats, and they would have to recruit an extra helicopter (at full price) to pick the three of us up, or there was the walk-off option. Curious to see what the hike was like anyway, I opted for that before I realized I hadn’t brought hiking shoes. I was wearing the plastic client rental boots for ice climbing, and had left my boots at the base before boarding the helicopter that morning. A long hike out in those would mean blisters for sure, at the very least!

My savior, Kelsey, made a call to another guide at the base, who somehow convinced the pilot to load my shoes onto the chopper on his way to pick up a batch of clients. Yep, my shoes got their very own private helicopter ride.

Chopper off-loading the first batch of clients

Now I was excited. Back in proper walking shoes, we made the hike down in about an hour and a half, not stalling through the section they call “Suicide Alley” in which several massive boulders (many larger than the van I was currently living in – some as tall as a three story building) sat perched well above us on a slippery talus slope, likely with some old glacial ice underneath slowly melting away and shifting the cliff side. Kelsey said they see boulders roll down sometimes as much as once a day. Usually most of that goes on when it’s been raining, so we felt a bit safer for the good weather, but still…

Not the scariest part, but still a bit scary

Looking back at the glacier, an enormous exit moulin/cave in the toe, and a small iceberg, stuck on a rock

Later that night we shared burgers and beers with many of the Fox guides at the local pub, and I got a real sense of feeling at home with a group of people. I didn’t even know most of their names, but the fact that we all do pretty much the same thing, just on opposite sides of the planet, and knowing that we all share a love for nature and the glaciers we work on really helped to create a connection that I have felt with few other groups. We laughed about my shoes in flight, complained about the worst of our clients, and joked with each other like we were old friends. It made me really excited to return to the community at MICA next summer. Although, I could stand to go a bit longer without answering all of the same questions each day.

The next day I took advantage of Kelsey’s super fast Wifi (the best I’d had in months) to get some photos uploaded and get some ‘adulting’ done online – paying bills, planning for the future, you know, adult stuff. I was debating on staying around a bit longer, waiting out the coming weather and trying again to hike to the Chancellor Hut, but it looked a bit bleak in the long-term weather forecast. When it started to rain, we were glad we opted not to push for the hut the night before. That night, winds picked up and knocked out the power. Come morning, massive amounts of wind and rain kept everyone inside, and early reports came over the guides’ radios that trees had blocked the road north toward Franz Joseph Glacier. Quickly after that we heard the road to the Beach was closed, with a number of people stuck out on the road. Some of the guides were going out with chainsaws to help attempt to clear the roads. Next came reports of landslides to the south blocking the main road back through Haast Pass. Well, I guess I’ll just stay here a bit longer anyway…

Closed, closed and closed

Little happened the next day as the storm cleared, and signs everywhere urged people to stay in town. The guides helped out with the roads but more of them spent their time explaining to people why they couldn’t get through – anywhere – to their next destination. Most people understood the situation, but there are always a few dramatics in the bunch, some of them demanding they be let through, or given a helicopter ride to Queenstown or Nelson. Presumably, they didn’t like the price of such a flight, and most people stayed in town. The third day without power, or cell phones, or wifi (gasp) and a few seemed like they were going to lose it. I had decided to post up outside the guide building (the biggest building and one few with a generator in town) with my book and watch the chaos. Actually though, most people had calmed down by now and were simply sitting around waiting on any news. I wondered what people were still looking at in their phones by the third day without service, but many sat around, still flicking mindlessly with their thumbs and staring at the screen. Was it just out of habit by now? Surely, they couldn’t be looking at anything informational at this point.

About 10am Kelsey found me and asked if I wanted to tag along on a heli hike. Someone (three non-english speaking tourists) had driven in overnight, managing to get by the barricades, presumably driving around or over a number of fallen trees and landslides, in the dark, and wanted to go to the glacier. I wasn’t doing anything… So up I went.

On the way, I got a good look at what all the fuss was about with the roads:

That used to be a paved road
This one's harder to locate, but the trail we had walked out on a few days before
ran across the lower third of this photo. It can be seen on either side
of the image, but is washed out through the middle section

This time a young man from South America led the tour of three Chinese people, the daughter speaking very little English and translating for her parents, and me. We saw a few similar features to the last time, and being that not many people would be out and I didn’t technically work there, I stayed in line with the group and tried not to look bored of the terrain the rest of the group struggled to walk through. It was fun to see the whole tour and get the guides perspective on everything. Plus he brought us inside of some really cool features, something that is very rare on the Matanuska. We just don’t have the arches and caves that form like those on the Fox.

Client crawling her way out of an ice cave
From deep inside the cave

I finally let the guide take a photo of me...

I asked about glaciers in South America, and he said he’d seen a few there as well. Mostly there you could walk to them, but it took a long time. I made a mental note for later. I will be going there some day to see for myself!

We also got to hear - and see the aftermath of - a collapse of an old ice arch, only a few meters away from where we were walking. The guide reported they were climbing inside of that arch days before, but it recently became too thin to be considered safe. We walked over to check it out, and I could see the main breaking point, weakened by several deep cryoconite holes (bits of dirt and rock warmed by the sun and melted into the ice). When the ice finally broke, it left a number of cryoconite holes split in two. I found this super fascinating.

Collapsed arch
breaking point
and close up of fractured cryoconites in the break

It was around this time our guide pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to see the dead tahr (kind of like a mountain goat), which, of course I did, and he pointed me toward it while he talked to the rest of the clients about something obviously less interesting. I’ll spare you the graphic photos and share this slightly less graphic shot of what happens to an animal that dies on a glacier.

Dead tahr and scattered bits of fur across the glacier

The tour wrapped up with a walk back to the landing pad and we flew back down valley to discover that the road South had reopened, the small town now drained to only guides and employees of other local businesses. It seemed almost deserted. Everyone in town had been eager to leave, and with only one road open and most of the traffic tending to come from the north, very few new visitors had come back in. Cell service had been restored, but no 3G, and still no wifi anywhere in town. For the most part, the town of Fox Glacier was still cut off from the rest of the world. I left that evening, driving back toward Queenstown to buy myself a new rain jacket. Some of the guides had given me some pointers on other glaciers to visit, so I had some planning to do as well, preparing for the next adventure.

Thanks for reading, and many, many thanks to all the great people at Fox Glacier Guides for making all this possible! Look them up if you want to see a New Zealand glacier the right way!


Please let me know what you liked/didn't like about this and other entries, I welcome any feedback on writing, photos, delivery, layouts, etc. You can just add a comment below!

Fox Glacier Statistics:

Type: Temperate Maritime Glacier

Location: Tai Poutini National Park; West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand

Source: Fed by 4 tributary alpine glaciers, most notably via the north slope of Mount Tasman

Length: 13 kilometers - or maybe a bit shorter by now

Width: about 1 kilometer

Flow: 3-5 meters per day

Access: Currently the best way is via helicopter at Fox Glacier Guides. Actually, that's the only way until they rebuild the road to the viewpoint. If you wish to play the odds and make the hike plan on 3-4 hours from parking lot to white ice - involves a lot of scrambling and advanced route finding to stay out of the rivers


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