When you think of New Zealand, what first comes to your mind? Probably something like rugby, kiwis, or, for most people, The Lord of the Rings. Wait, it’s not glaciers?! SHOCKING!
Since I have returned from my (all-too-brief) trek to visit Kyle in New Zealand, this has been part of the overwhelming remarks I have heard: “I didn’t know there were so many mountains!” “I didn’t know it got that cold there!” “I definitely didn’t know there were glaciers!” Up until a few months ago, when spending time in this small island nation became a potential reality, I had no idea either. Located on the Pacific Rim, these islands were formed by ancient tectonic and volcanic activity, and, yes, that includes the gorgeous snow-capped mountain range known as the Southern Alps.
When I decided to make the 28-hour trip to Christchurch, Kyle told me about this cool activity he had seen information on – a glacier hike. Knowing I would probably never get the opportunity to do it again, I said, “Sounds awesome! Let’s do it!” So, over the weekend I was in town, we packed up the rental car and drove the 4 hours to Aoraki/Mount Cook – the highest peak in New Zealand.
Following a brief safety presentation and donning our winter hiking gear, we boarded the helicopter with our experienced guide Graza and a bunch of Chinese tourists. The flight from the teeny-tiny airport to the glacier was about 15 minutes. Along the way we had a bird’s eye view of the Alps, Tasman Lake, and our destination the Tasman Glacier. As the largest glacier in New Zealand, it was sight to behold! I have never seen a glacier in real life, so I was in awe anyway, but this thing was a massive representation of what Mother Nature is capable of creating.
Now for a short science lesson:
A glacier is “a persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight” (thanks Wikipedia). I won’t bore you with the details of how this glacier was formed and is retreating, but I will enlighten you to some of the dangers most glaciers hold.
A moulin, or glacier mill, is a roughly circular, vertical well-like shaft within the glacier which serves as a drainage hole for water from the surface.
A crevasse is a deep crack or fracture in an ice sheet, resulting from movement and stress.
Both are very dangerous and both can be hidden from view by snow accumulation on the glacier surface. Just do a quick Google search of “glacier moulin” or “crevasse” and you’ll be inundated with tales of danger and death. Even in my search I saw a snip from a Wall Street Journal article saying, “Of all things that can go wrong on a glacier, falling into a moulin is among the worst.”
Well, that really makes you want to hop on a helicopter and traverse a glacier, right? Good thing I didn’t do any of this research before our adventure, because what do I do within minutes of being on the glacier – take a giant step right into a moulin. Mom – before you start freaking out, remember, I’m here, writing this blog post, so nothing terrible happened!
After the helicopter dropped us off to return for the second load of our group, Graza told us he would demonstrate how to put on our snowshoes. So, I casually walked over to stand behind a set, but my left foot gave way through the snow and my leg was immediately buried in snow up to mid-thigh. Luckily my right foot was still on the ice, and I just froze, knowing my stupid luck had found a moulin. Graza came over, and I tried to push myself out and he tried to pull me out, but the snow had compacted around my foot and I was stuck! Graza, prepared for anything, grabbed his shovel and started digging me out. Kyle thought to turn on the GoPro at this point and document my peril, which you can now laugh at, raw and unedited.
Thankfully my close call with the moulin was the worst thing that happened on the glacier that day. We got to explore some very cool things, including an old moulin which had opened up on the side and a cave full of snow that had been empty just a few days prior. We took a lot of pictures, licked the glacial ice, grabbed a few rocks, and made some great memories (aww). I asked a lot of questions, like “Why does the glacial ice have a blue tint?” “What gives the lake that pretty blue color (called Tilly Blue)?” And, “How often do you get to explore up here without clients?” If you want to know the answers to these questions, I’ll be happy to share what I learned. Or, you can take a glacial hike and learn these and many other fun glacial facts yourself! If you do find yourself on the South Island of New Zealand, I strongly recommend you check out this company. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something we will never forget.
For now, here are some really pretty pictures of our time on the Tasman Glacier.