“About once every year or two, we have a group that ends up overnighting up here,” our glacier guide confessed as six of us huddled together under ragged wind and slushy rain high up on Fox Glacier. “A storm just blows in too fast to get everyone out in safe conditions.”
Our eyes widened. Steve leaned over to me and whispered behind his glove, “Remember how those climbers went snow blind in that book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer…..how the climbers died on Everest?”
Five groups of us had flown up in helicopters that morning for our Fox Glacier hike and we were the last few waiting for our ride back.
But we were hardly going to go snow blind. Steely gray peaks rose all around us—and our glacier guides had plenty of supplies and even tents packed away—should the weather turn suddenly.
It was a sobering reminder, however, that we were on an adventure of the wildest kind. You can prepare all you want, but sometimes Mother Nature just does her thing.
Fox Glacier Heli-Hike
In truth, we felt fortunate to have summited at all. Even if you make a reservation for a Fox Glacier hike with a tour company months ahead of time, you have about a 50-50 chance of actually getting to go.
The weather is capricious. Just weeks before we arrived, there was a huge hurricane on the west coast that trapped 117 motorists over night between Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. Any land access to the bottom of the glacier was still closed when we got there.
In fact, the guides will regale you with a detailed refund policy before you ever get your gear…what you’ll get back based on how long you get to stay up there. Many people plan two nights for this very reason…so they still have a shot if the weather turns.
The six-minute helicopter ride straight up from the valley floor to the glacier summit was incredible. Take a look:
Standing on a glacier gave us goosebumps…and not just because it was freezing!
Once we arrived, our guide handed us a set of crampons and instructed us how to attach them to the bottom of our boots and stomp along with flat feet and a hiking pole to avoid slipping.
Then we followed her single file as she chopped out ice steps for us with her pick axe (conjuring memories of Yukon Cornelius, the erstwhile North Pole explorer in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I might add.)
She explained how layers of the glacier move at different speeds creating fascinating buckles and crevices. Crevices like these…
In fact, the upper ice fall—the steepest moving ice on the glacier—moves up to four or five meters (that’s 13 to 16 feet for Americans) per day! Even on the flattest surfaces of the glaciers, the ice is moving up to a meter per day.
One of the things I wondered about was why the ice appeared so dirty in some places. But I learned that all glaciers look like that. It’s not pollution, but rather, rock dust from constant rock falls.
As we hiked, we learned that glacier guides chase the color blue the way that miners chase gold. I can see why…
On to Whataroa
I’m happy to report that we did not overnight on Fox. After our three-hour glacier adventure and a lovely dinner nearby, we meandered north on a so scenic 45-minute drive across bridges over tumbling streams to the tiny rural township of Whataroa. (In fact, the scenic vistas here and green, green pasturelands remembered me of some of the most beautiful places we saw in Ireland!)
Where we overnighted on a deer farm!
Looking for a Fox Glacier Airbnb? It’s true there are closer places you could stay, but in my eternal quest for a local experience, I had to book a room at the Airbnb deer farm.
It turns out that velvet antler from red deer is in high demand in Asia…which is why red deer farms exist all over New Zealand.
Velvet antler is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine—both sliced and in powdered form—for everything from a growth tonic for children to joint and bone health in the elderly.
Our hosts explained that when the antlers are harvested, a vet uses an anesthetic, making it about as painful as a trip to the dentist for humans. And the good news is that the antlers regenerate in just a few months.
These deer are wild, but there was one deer on the farm who had been orphaned and bottle fed from a young age. We’d seen him being fed bread by hand once. So imagine our astonishment when we were sitting outside on our terrace and this happened…
New Zealand was a wonderland of surprise and adventure. I can’t wait to go back!
Looking for other adventures in these parts? Here’s a complete west coast South Island itinerary. Or how about a two week New Zealand road trip? And don’t forget to save time for Mount Cook hikes on your journey towards Christchurch.
If you go:
Fox Glacier Guiding requires a reservation. Choose from a variety of heli-hikes and ice climbing adventures. Rain coats, hiking boots, and crampons are included (but bring your own gloves!) Prices start at $450 NZD/$325 USD pp.
The Last Kitchen, just across the street from Fox Glacier Guiding, was one of the best meals we had during our two weeks in New Zealand. Plan on lunch or dinner!
Rooms at the Whataroa Airbnb and deer farm are $119 USD nightly and include a continental breakfast (plus so many deer!) Check prices and availability here.
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