New Zealand: Climbing above the glaciers

If you have travelled in New Zealand you may well have visited the West Coast glaciers. Done a glacier walk perhaps. Maybe even taken a helicopter ride up to walk higher on a glacier (if you’re rich). Well I have done that touristy stuff but this is the story of a trip above and beyond where the tourists generally visit in New Zealand.

A few years ago some friends and I took a helicopter high up above Franz Joseph Glacier to stay for a week at Centennial Hut, owned by the New Zealand Alpine Club, using the hut as a base for climbing in the mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

After some initial uncertainty as to whether a lump of cloud hanging over the Fox Glacier would prevent our flight into Franz Josef Glacier we were transported, at a slow hover, up over the glacier, over West Ho Pass and into the neve. From the helicopter the enormous blue and white glacier seracs, ice-creamed into blocks and towers, look surprisingly modest in size.

The sun on the snow was brilliant; the ice positively glows with it. We landed above the tiny red dot that is Centennial Hut.  it looks like an insect amongst the encircling snow fields and mountains. It is fixed to a promontory of rock up the side of the neve basin wall. The Davis and Chamberlain snowfields stretch out to the left and right from the hut balcony.

Centennial Hut Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

Beyond these the glacier pours over the edge and down to the Tasman Sea. I found that during the flight our perspective became a bit skewed and the mountains look small until the hut appears… then the mountains look enormous! There was only our group of three and two others in the hut. The kitchen has what must be the best kitchen view in the world.

Next day we left the hut at 6.30am in the half light. The view of clouds from the window and the sound of wind around the eaves were not very encouraging while lying in our sleeping bags. However, the outdoors reality was very different and it turned out to be a blazing hot day in the mountains.

I have some mountaineering experience and had done an alpine skills instruction course but I was still a beginner in many ways and this was my first experience of climbing an unknown mountain with no set route to follow. We worked out our path as we climbed higher and got better visibility of the features and obstacles. It was hard work skirting the base of the mountains and we pitched up a short, steep stretch, before reaching a good slope to work our way up.

Climbing above Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

From the summit of Mt Aurora our efforts were amply rewarded with spectacular views across the main divide of New Zealand – the Southern Alps. On one side the snaking Franz River and the waves of the Tasman Sea crashing on Gillespies Beach. To the left the Minarets and de la Beche peaks. Over the back is the Tasman Glacier and terminal lake, as well as Malte Brun’s imposing rock faces.

Mike and Myles admiring the Tasman valley New Zealand

Descending was nothing but hard slog. An abortive attempt to traverse over to Frederick Gardiner made for a long trudge in the afternoon across the furnace of the Davis Snowfield. Back in the hut we found that a number of cheerfully sunburnt refugees from another (overcrowded) alpine hut had arrived.

Watching from the balcony, the glacier looks corrugated, rumpling like stiff fabric and then pouring over the lip, a writhing mass of ice seracs. We agreed this was not a bad backyard to have outside our door.

The following day we were hut bound as 100-kilometre-per-hour winds buffeted the hut and rain lashed down. We played chess and cards, snoozing from meal time to meal time.

The wind blew all through the night and did not let up with the light. But at 9am there was a sudden clearance and a brilliant blue sky day. This was another learning day for me. A whole new level of mountaineering experience. We stumbled through a crevasse-extraction practice exercise. We roped up and made our way across the snowfield, although it felt like a minefield as new slots had opened up with the rain. I half fell into a crevasse and had to be pulled – squealing – out by my companions!

Natasha Ice climbing above Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

We played on a clump of seracs in the middle of the snowfield, setting up a rope for anchor practice and did some ice climbing up one of the faces. After following our footsteps back to the hut we tried some rock climbing up the pinnacle below the hut. I discovered that I don’t enjoy balancing on crampon points nearly as much as I like climbing with rubber shoes!

Climbing at Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

The early evening light brought out dramatic shadows on the snow fields. It was clear and calm. As the mountains to the west were silhouetted against a golden orange sky the clouds behind the eastern range tinged pink. The colour leached upwards into the dome of sky, leaving a band of pink. The moonrise was a whisker away from fullness and with it the colour lifted, leaving a blue band on the skyline below.

Franz Josef neve sunset New Zealand

I was ready to get up and go again in the morning but instead it was more sleeping, more card games. If this seems surprising given the perfection of the previous evening’s weather, well, that is the mountains for you.

A 3am start (at my suggestion) saw us ready to try climbing the Minarets. Although the wind had been noisy all night we emerged into a perfect pre-pre-dawn. The hut seemed to exaggerate both noise and cold as it was also warmer outside the hut than inside.

There was a dark bejewelled sky and a large yellow moon to light our way across the glacier. The moon cast a yellow pool of light on the sea – just one large ‘step’ below.

After an hour’s walking we approached the base of the mountain. The moon was setting  orange into the sea, swallowed by the horizon. At the same time the sun was rising behind the mountains. As we stood looking up in perfect stillness a tiny band of pink and gold backlit the edge of a jagged peak. The mountains cast their shadows out across the sea. Somewhere far below we knew waves were crashing on that coast. My boots crunched in the snow and the rope swept across the ground. We began to climb.

Soon a number of peaks were bathed in light. All was still calm and silent. Within an hour we reached the base of the bergschrund that reaches across the entire face of the mountain. We spent some time trying to find a way across, around, upwards, but there was no way. We backed off and descended to the right. Spotting another potential route we descended further to see better. I was feeling doubtful and tired by this time. We still had time on our side but in the end we decided to call it a day. Disappointed, we built an anchor to descend off. Then it was another sweaty plod back through the snowfield.

Helicopter Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

The helicopter was summoned to whisk us back to the prosaic reality of Fox township. Descending over the glacier via Chancellor Hut we stopped to pick up our hut-mates who had walked down from Centennial. The helicopter swooped down below the hut perched on a rock and then pulled up sharply over the rise to land on a tussock mound.

Chancellor has the honour of being New Zealand’s oldest mountain hut, from the days when Fox Glacier was called Victoria. It has separate bunk rooms for men and women and the ancient wallpaper on the roof must have given a few people nightmares.

Victoria Falls tumble steaming down the mountainside and disappear into a mist-filled chasm nearby. The huge broken seracs of Victoria Flat look like a giant has thrown a tantrum and stamped on a field of porcelain and crystal.

Back in the fleshpots of Fox I could barely keep my eyes open over dinner. Mountain climbing in New Zealand – it’s amazing.

By Natasha von Geldern

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