Climbing Franz Josef Glacier On New Zealand's South Island

 Happy couple has their photo taken inside an ice tunnel

2.85min read

Published 4 November 2014


If you think Glacial Speed is an oxymoron, then think again - visit one of the world’s speediest glaciers, the Franz Josef Glacier located on New Zealand’s West Coast.

The Franz Josef Glacier is one of the key tourist attractions on New Zealand’s South Island mainly due to its accessibility. It is one of the fastest moving glaciers advancing or retreating at up to 1000m a year. This constantly changing ice formation made it a must do for our two athletic young adventurers, Harrison Young and Heather Gillett.

 the mossy side of a snow mountain is touching the clouds
Where the glacier meets the clouds

The Glacier was named after Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria by explorer Julius von Haast in 1865. In Maori, the Franz Josef glacier is also referred to as Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere meaning "The tears of Hinehukatere".

The Maori legend for the formation of the Glacier is a romantic tale of a young maiden called Hinehukatere who loved to climb mountains. One day she convinced her lover Wawe to accompany her. Tragically, Wawe, was swept away by an avalanche. Heart broken, Hinehukatere began to cry and her tears froze forming the Glacier.

To get visitors onto the Glacier, there are plenty of guided walks and climbing options where you can get up close and personal to this river of ice.

As always weather and climate conditions prevail and since April 2012, all glacier walks and climbs require a helicopter flight past the unstable face.

Riding in the helicopter provides another element of adventure. The spectacular aerial views of the surrounding mountains and the Glacier enhances the sense of adventure plus you feel like an ice explorer when you put on all the gear.

 a girl in a red sweaters excitingly takes a hike up the snowy mountain
Heather learning the ropes

With any of the walks or climbs on the Glacier you will need some specialised equipment, namely crampons that latch onto a solid boot, and ice axes that are particularly important when you do the Ice Climb.

It was the France Joseph Glacier Guides Heli Ice Climb that Harry and Heather decided was the best-bang-for-their-buck in order to tackle Franz Josef.

The Heli Ice Climb is promoted to and for the “Adrenalin Junkies” and although Harry and Heather would not describe themselves quite along those lines, they definitely felt an even bigger high when they got to the top because of the climb to get there.

For the Heli Ice Climb trip Heather and Harry were provided with all the necessary high-tech equipment and plenty of ice-climbing tuition combined with some practice.

For the Ice Climb you need to be reasonably fit and able and willing to use an ice axe but you don’t need to have any previous experience ice climbing. Heather felt reassured after their training session.

 a man in gray shirt taking a selfie as he climbs the mountain
Harry keeping his cool

“Our climbing guide was fantastic and made sure we were all comfortable using the boots and the ice axes before we attempted any ice walls. He was amazing. He scampered up and down the ice walls like a mountain goat and was obviously very comfortable and confident in what he was doing.”

The Ice Climb option includes tackling four ice walls with an allowance of 30-45 minutes to climb each one, and a five or so minute walk between ice walls.

To also ensure that ice climbers have ample opportunity to properly experience the climb, the helicopter transfer drops them at about 600 metres up on the Glacier and allows (weather depending) for four hours on the ice.

Harry reaffirmed that often photos don’t do justice to places like Franz Josef.

 A view of the steep mountain side with snow on the top
The remarkable landscape of Franz Josef Glacier

“The beauty of the scenery looks great in the brochure but nothing can beat the bird’s eye view that I got from the helicopter ride or being right up against an ice wall where the white ice becomes blue.”

If climbing an ice wall is not for you, there are a number of options including the Ice Explorer Walk.

“We actually looked at this but if you’re fit and adventurous, the Franz Josef Ice Explorer walk is another option. This tour still gives you a glacier hike that includes a short helicopter ride onto the ice where you get to walk into ice caves and crevasses.”

There is also the Glacier Heli Hike if you want a slower paced walk on the ice. This gives you a longer, scenic helicopter flight and shorter time on the ice. You’ll still need to have a moderate level of fitness so you can walk across the ice to see the blue ice, caves and crevasses.

 Happy couple has their photo taken inside an ice tunnel
Harrison and Heather right in the thick of it

“Heather and I feel like we are very fortunate to have done the Ice Climb and that we also got to see the Glacier right now. Our guide was saying that the Glacier is retreating (some say because of global warming) so much that its future beyond 20 years looks pretty dicey.

I saw amazing picture postcard scenery all over the South Island but Franz Josef with the amazing activity of ice climbing to actually get there, was the very best bit of the whole trip.”


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