So we unexpectedly became mountaineers a couple weeks ago. We knew there’d be some time on a glacier and some tramping, but we didn’t know we’d be wearing crampons and carrying ice axes and having spontaneous lessons on how to self arrest if we were sliding down an icy slope towards our inevitable demise.
One of the things that first caught Max’s fancy during our planning sessions was the idea of spending time on one of New Zealand’s many glaciers and when he found out there was a guided overnight trip through Fox Glacier Guides, we plotted our entire South Island trip around it. The trip as advertised involves a helicopter flight up to Chancellor Hut, a tramp to Chancellor Dome and back, overnight at the hut, and then a tramp down to and around the Victoria Flat of Fox Glacier. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t particularly cooperative, with not so great weather the first day and clear skies for the second, so the first thing we did with our guide Martin was figure out how to adjust our itinerary. We came up with the brilliant plan to fly up to the glacier, do our glacier hike, and fly up to the hut on the first day, while spending our second day tramping up to Chancellor Dome and then flying from the hut back to base. (How is this different? We reversed the order and added in a third tiny helicopter flight. Turns out heliservices basically has an à la carte flight menu, and were able to easily accommodate the change, weather permitting.) With that sorted, we got all kitted out, discussed food and ran to the little market with Martin to pick out cheese and bubbly, and headed to the helipad.
Once we landed at the lower helipad on the Victoria Flat of Fox Glacier, we rearranged our gear, stowed the food and overnight things in gear boxes at the pad, and got our crampons on. We then wandered the glacier for the next six hours, more or less heading towards the ice fall by the most direct and completely unbroken route. As we got started we practiced. We practiced walking with our crampons up slopes and down slopes and over cracks and glacier melt streams. We practiced hooking in to guidelines and belay ropes. We practiced using ice axes to provide stability and leverage to get up and around obstacles.
The thing you have to know about the glacier (see also: New Zealand) is that the weather can change drastically within minutes. When we landed it was pretty clear and looking up we could see the tops of the 1000+ meter cliffs on either side of the glacier and patches of blue sky. Within 20 minutes or so there was a layer of fog so thick we could see at most 5 meters up, followed by a little rain. At some point we looked down towards the terminus of the glacier and thought, “Huh, the helipad is pretty far down the glacier from us” — and then realized we were looking at the upper helipad and that we could barely make out the lower one. It cleared up a little soon after that and we took our lunch on top of a small peak of ice.
Speaking of the weather, once things started looking gloomy, Martin started using the radio to check the weather forecast with the team at base. Although it was very likely we’d be able to get off the glacier and back to town at almost any point, provided we were at the helipad, we didn’t know whether we’d make it to Chancellor Hut at the top of the ice fall, roughly up 500 meters from the lower helipad. A couple weeks prior to our adventure, there had been a helicopter accident on Fox in which the pilot and passengers all perished. Understandably the helicopter service, all the guides, and the team at base were all very aware and cautious because of this. It kept looking less and less likely as we descended to the helipad. The company was pulling all the track cutters and guides off the ice because of the weather and we knew that once everyone else was gone our chance would be gone too. We recovered our overnight gear and got ready to rush if the clouds parted once a helicopter was en route for the other guides – conditions were changing so quickly that we requested a pick up because the clouds were gone, the opening would be gone by the time the helicopter actually arrived. As each helicopter arrived, Martin would rush up and see if the pilot thought there was enough of a break at the top of the glacial valley. Finally, one of them said yes and we scrambled to get everything loaded.
We arrived at Chancellor Hut around 3:30pm. Chancellor is the oldest alpine hut in New Zealand (1931) still on its original site. It was carried in piece by piece and assembled on site, in the days before alpine air lifts. (NZ has over 1000 huts used for trampers, most of which were built for a deer cull in the 70s and 80s and afterwards repurposed. USA, take note.)
We had some tea and biscuits (hello, toffee pops, my new friend) to warm up and soothe our collective nerves (“We made it!”). Of course, being us, the two of us and Martin eventually started sorting and cleaning up the food stored at the hut to get rid of the old (because nobody needs six year old soy sauce) and find room for the food the police had left behind for trampers after their investigation of the helicopter accident. The rest of the evening was very chill – talking with Martin about all sorts of things, having a cheese and bubbly happy hour, listening to the keas (the mountain parrots) talk to each other, and eating an incredible beetroot risotto that Martin made for dinner.
The next morning we got up around 5:30am so we could have breakfast, pack for the day, and clean up the hut so that if we needed to take a helicopter in a hurry later in the day we could. We left the hut at 7am and started tramping up. The immediate area surrounding the hut, which has an altitude of 910 meters, is a grassy alpine meadow full of little flowers. As we kept going up the vegetation became less and less until it was just shifty rocks and even snow. (Crampon and ice axe time!) To get up the first ridge we knew we’d have to climb up a gully while secured with guide ropes. We looked at several and eventually Martin found the one he thought was the standard route. Martin went up a ways and secured a belay rope, we clipped in and started climbing up, we’d reach Martin and a secure position and then we’d start the whole routine over again. Near the top Martin just looked at the rocks and said “I have no idea how you two are going to get up this – this can’t be the right gully.” But we came prepared! Or rather, our experience indoor rock climbing was incredibly helpful. We were both able to find foot and hand holds to shift our body weight around and leverage ourselves up. Pretty sure Martin didn’t see that coming!
At the top of the gully we put our crampons on and started following the ridgeline up. (We marked the position of the right gully first so we’d have an easier time getting down.) We crested the ridge and stopped for a quick snack, then continued down the snowy slope into a wide bowl between our ridge and another that was almost flat at the bottom, though at either end it was open to a steep drop. As we started up the next slope, Martin stopped to have a firm talk with us about self arresting using our ice axes if we started to fall. After going through the theory, we spent a few minutes sliding down the slope and practicing self arrests whether we were on our backs, our fronts, or going down head first.
We were preparing to leave when all of a sudden Martin’s camera fell from his pack and started sliding… and sliding… and sliding. Martin started running downhill after it – not easy to do with crampons! – and even dropped his pack at some point, but it just kept going and going and going, and picking up speed too as it went. Eventually we saw the camera slow and stop. As we watched Martin reach it, we remarked how important it was to make sure everything was all zipped up and attached because if we dropped anything, it would likely be gone forever. You can guess what happened at that point — we dropped something and it slid and slid and slid. Thankfully it was just the sunscreen and it happened to follow the same route as the camera and ended up pretty much right at Martin’s feet.
Once we got going again, we proceeded to zig zag up the slope. As we got higher and higher, it was actually very comforting to hear Martin say that in his assessment that there was little risk of us falling and if we did, little risk of us falling off the edge, so we didn’t need to rope in and could just walk up. Eventually we crested another ridge and then we did decide it was best to rope in, so we used rocks and snow anchors and even just Martin’s bodyweight on the other side of a ridge to anchor the belay rope as we steadily tramped up. We reached the summit of Chancellor Dome, at 1883 meters, at 11:30am, four and a half hours after we left.
It was beautifully clear with just a handful of puffy clouds here and there, so we could see across the glacial neve (the birthplace of the glacier, where it snows year round and the weight of all the snow compresses until it moves and falls over the lip of the bowl and becomes the “ice fall” of the Fox Glacier) to Mt. Tasman and several others whose names have escaped us at this point. We had at most a glimpse of Aoraki Mt. Cook but it didn’t matter. The weather was so fine we actually counted four helicopters doing scenic tours in the neve (remember, we were now almost 1000 meters higher than the hut which we had struggled to reach the day before). Shortly after we started eating our lunch, Kristan decided we needed to stop and take a few photos first, in case the weather changed and the clouds came rolling in.
This proved to be a great idea, because by the time we had finished our lunch the entire neve was full of clouds and we could barely see the foot steps marking how we’d come up. As we roped in and started working our back down in reverse, we were completely surrounded by white-out. At one safety stop, where we used our ice axes as anchors while Martin pulled up the rope and descended himself, it started hailing so intensely that our axes were almost entirely covered and what little we could make of our foot steps were filled in. It should have been terrifying but strangely it was less panicking than some of the initial ascents over the snow bowl – instead it was just fun!
Eventually we got back to our snow bowl and decided we might as well slide down on our butts! Just as fun as sledding but a little more wet and with more awesome ice axe action. Back up our first ridge and down to the gully – the right one – and we were soon rappelling down as Martin worked the belay. While Kristan waited at the midpoint for Max to come down, a kea squawked and landed right in front of her, hopping around looking for things to eat. Kea are very smart and inquisitive and can solve all sorts of problems and tasks, so it wasn’t too surprising when it was very interested in the belay rope going up as Max came down.
Before we left the gully we built a cairn to mark the entrance so that future trampers would be able to find it. We had an easy rest of the way down through the alpine meadow, reaching the hut at 2:30pm. A cup of tea kept us occupied while we waited for the clouds to clear, but soon enough – or all too soon – the helicopter arrived and our glacial adventure had ended.
At least for the time being!