This post was written by Kimberly Juchnowski. She is a 20 something travel junkie who began her backpacking career back in 2007. She’s covered 14 countries across 4 continents thus far and continues her journey across the globe. She’s the owner of www.tikikiki.com, a site where she shares tips on Thailand Adventure Travel and info on Thailand tours and packages.
New Zealand is no doubt a hot spot for adventure tourism. People flock here from all around the globe to get their fill of adrenaline packed activities. One place you do not want to miss is the Franz Josef Glacier.
Located on the west coast of the South Island, Franz Josef brings in an impressive 250,000 visitors each year clearly making it one of the biggest attractions on the west coast of New Zealand. Her highest point starts high up in the Southern Alps at about 2700m above sea level, and lowers into the Westland National Park at a mere 240m above sea level. Because this decline happens over only 11kms, she has been given the title of the steepest and fastest commercially guided glacier.
When I first strolled into the town of Franz Joseph it was quite late at night therefore there was nothing much to see. If we hadn’t planned on stopping there it would have been very possible to drive right past it not knowing that we had just entered and exited a town. Yes, it is that small. There are about 330 people living in the township which makes it pretty tiny but it’s always busy with tourists coming to see the glacier.
I was living in a Toyota Corolla with two other girls at the time, so I’m sure you’ll understand how good it felt to step out into that fresh mountain air the next morning. You see, we figured if we rented a car and lived in it we would save a lot in transportation and accommodation, thus leaving us extra cash to do more activities. There’s so much to see and do in New Zealand that if you’re on a budget you gotta cut corners where you can. :)
We walked up the street to check out what kind of tours were being offered to check out the Glacier. We ended up in Franz Josef Glacier Guides which is right on the main road of State Hwy 6. They are a great company to go through. They were able to get us up on the glacier within an hour of us walking in the door and the staff was fantastic. I am certainly no mountaineer and they made me feel very safe and comfortable every step of the way. Climbing a glacier is a risky business and even a casual glacier walk can be extremely dangerous if you don’t have a proper guide with knowledge of the terrain.
There are a few different tours that are offered. The most casual (easy) one is the Glacier Valley Walk. This runs about three hours and the guide takes you through the regenerating rainforest as well as the glacier valley.
The next one is a little more involved and meant for those with a moderate fitness level. It’s about five hours long. You do the same walk through the regenerating rainforest and the glacier valley, but then you get to actually spend some time on the glacier.
The full day is the next level up. They suggest good fitness and agility for this one. It runs about ten hours and you get six hours of “ice time”. Ice time is the actual amount of time you get to spend on the glacier. This tour is a lot more challenging and adventurous than the previous two. You really start to learn skills on glacial climbing and they bring you through some pretty rough terrain. You get to see blue ice, which if you’ve never seen is quite something, squeeze through slender crevasses and go through ice caves. I guess I should mention the incredible view! When you work your way up the glacier they stop at a few different points so you can get that money shot. It is absolutely amazing up there! This is the tour I did and I highly recommend it.
The next tour they offer is an Ice Climb. It starts off the same as the others but instead of continuing up the glacier you stop at these massive ice walls, get strapped into your harness and use ice picks to climb up! If I had another day in Franz Josef I would have for sure done this tour as well. We passed some of the ice climbers on the way up and it looked like an amazing experience. The only reason I opted for the full day without the ice climb is because with the ice climb there can be a good amount of time where you are just waiting for your turn. I like to be on the move, so keeping the action flowing with the full day climb was right up my alley. The ice climb tour also runs around ten hours and is meant for physically fit, and agile people.
The last tour that’s offered is the Heli Hike. This one is easier than the half and full day tours and runs around three hours. On this one you take a helicopter tour of the glacier and they drop you off near the top. The scenery, I imagine, would be absolutely out of this world, and you still get to spend about two hours walking around on the glacier.
No previous experience is needed for any of the tours which is nice. Be sure to pay attention to the guides though and do not under any circumstances disregard any instruction or advice they give you. Glacier climbs are very dangerous if you are not careful. Just stepping a few inches out of bounds can send you down into a crevasse or have you falling off of a cliff. There are sections of the hike where you will need to attach yourself to a cable to cross bridges that are only a few feet long. It’s easy to think “what could happen in three feet” and decide not to strap yourself in. It doesn’t matter if it’s three feet or 30 feet, all it takes is one missed step to send you packing. Book through a reputable company, listen to the guides, and you will be sure to have one of the most amazing experiences of your life!
Here’s a few more pictures of the Franz Josef Glacier: