$450 NZD is a hefty price tag for a tour when you’re already spending quite a bit of money on a vacation, so I was a bit hesitant. But as usual, I said “YOLO (god I hate myself for using that), when else am I going to get the chance to take a helicopter up to the top of a mountain in New Zealand and hike on a glacier?” and booked it! And let me tell you, it was absolutely worth every penny.
While touring New Zealand’s South Island with Wild Kiwi, we spent two nights in Franz Josef. Franz Josef Glacier Guides was the recommended tour company for heli hikes, and I had a wonderful experience with them. They provide you with everything you need: waterproof pants, a heavy waterproof jacket, crampons (the spiky things for your shoes for walking on ice), a (mostly) waterproof bag, and a hat if you need it. And of course, a sweet ride up the mountain. The only way to actually hike on the glacier is to get up via helicopter.
We met at the center bright and early in the morning and were quickly checked in and briefed on our upcoming adventure. We were then ushered into the next room where we got all our gear. The pants and jackets do keep you pretty warm (and most importantly, dry) but you should still wear layers underneath, depending on the weather. The bag they give you is the only one you can bring up on the glacier. They say it’s waterproof, and that’s mostly true, but I’d still recommend bringing a zip lock bag with you to protect anything that you absolutely don’t want to get wet.
You are then split up into two groups for the helicopters. It’s based purely on weight, and so is seating in the helicopter itself which is annoying — I never seem to get the window ugh. Wow, that’s a #firstworldproblem if I’ve ever heard one… sorry, but that’s the photographer in me speaking. The shots I have going up the mountain are the guide eating directly in my line of view out the window.
To get from the building to the heli pad, you have to take a short walk through the rainforest. At this point, we still haven’t been able to see the actual glacier itself.
Then boom: We walk out of the dense rainforest and into the clearing and we finally get a glimpse of the giant ice sheet that is Franz Josef Glacier high up on the mountain.
I was separated from most of my group, but an older man was kind enough to allow me what I thought was going to be the window seat… it must have been the eager look on my face and my inability to stop taking pictures of everything I was seeing haha. But then at the last minute, the guide pushed me in further and climbed in himself taking the window seat and monopolizing my view out the window with his breakfast.
The views on the way up were still stunning and I was so excited to get on the ice. Stepping out of the helicopter, I was met with a rush of cold air coming off the glacier. The helicopter’s blades were whipping up a whirlwind of ice and hair around my face as I tried to scoot my way along the ice while not slipping. It was exhilarating.
Once the second group was up, our guide briefed us on the day and instructed us on how to tie on the crampons (anyone else giggle at that word? No? Just me?). Next, we were handed our ice poles and I officially felt like a real life ice trekker and all around badass.
Franz Josef glacier is one of the steepest and fastest flowing glaciers you can climb in the world. Its flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers, reaching almost 70 cm a day back in the 1980s. Because of this, no hike is ever the same. The guides have to go up the mountain every single day before tours start to inspect the paths, cut in step-lines, and evaluate the caves and crevasses.
We hiked up ice walls…
Through glowing blue ice caves…
Wedged ourselves through crevasses thinner than my shoulder width…
And had unparalleled views from atop the glacier…
For the full experience, watch the video below:
From my pictures and video, you can see it gets pretty darn tight in some areas, to the point where I was even a little uncomfortable in some spots. That being said, unfortunately, I can’t recommend this tour for anyone with claustrophobia. There may have been the option to go around somehow, but I was further back and didn’t hear the guide mention anything like that.
Another point I can’t help but mention is that given the small spaces and crevasses if you are a larger person, you may have a really tough time getting through them. Again, there may be other options to go around, but its worth considering. If you’re questioning it at all, I’d give the company a call just to double check. As far as activity level, I’d say it’s moderate. I was never out of breath during, but I was definitely tired by the end of the tour.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and definitely worth doing when visiting New Zealand’s South Island. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but its worth it and leaves you with an amazing experience you’ll never forget.
Stay tuned for more from my trip to New Zealand! And if you haven’t already, check out the video from the whole week.