Sunday, November 07, 2010

The biggest NZ fantasy adventure ever!

I’ve dreamed of traveling to New Zealand for a long time. About 15 years ago a friend described blackwater rafting in the glow worm caves, and I instantly decided that, someday, I would do that to! We did it! And it really was amazing; and with the added features of the rappel and the zip line a little exciting too. Dream satisfied. Check.

But while planning this trip we came across a travel video about New Zealand, and I found a brand new shiny fantasy. The biggest fattest fantasy of our three weeks in New Zealand, and I was going to make it happen!!!

We were going to be flown by helicopter “over magnificent rainforest and ice pinnacles, into the valley of Fox Glacier”, to a helipad on Chancellor Shelf (4,000 ft elevation), just above the Chancellor hut; spend the day ascending through snowgrass basins and a gully, and finally ascending to the summit of Chancellor Dome at 6,526 ft, where we would have views of Mt Tasman and Cook, the Tasman Sea, and the whole of Fox Glacier; return to Chancellor Hut and spend the evening sipping wine and taking in our life-changing view of the Fox Glacier and the Tasman Sea beyond, while our guide made us dinner; spend the night in the Chancellor Hut; and the next morning descend to the glacier, and have some fun exploring the ice features and doing some ice climbing, before being picked up again by helicopter and flown back.

Now tell me, honestly, isn’t this the kind of adventure that could feed your imagination for years?! I was completely sold.

But it turns out that fantastically adventurous activities on glaciers are quite weather dependent, and in fact there was a weather system rolling in that was not in our favor. It was likely that we could fly to Chancellor Dome in the morning, but the view wasn’t likely to be good for much of the day, if at all.

Worse yet, by the following day the weather was likely to be so bad that the helicopter wouldn’t be able to fly in, which means an indefinite period stuck on the glacier! It would have been pure folly to begin this particular adventure on the date we’d reserved. They would have happily postponed our trip until the next available departure, but since we had to fly back to the U.S. in two days we really couldn’t hang out in the area for the additional day or two that might take for the weather to clear. And just like that, my big fat fantasy was dashed!

We spent the evening discussing other trip options. And in the morning, after a last-minute check of the morning weather and more discussion with our guide, we determined to piece together an adventure that contained most of the exploring and climbing elements of the original Chancellor Hut overnight, but obviously excluded the overnight stay. A compromise containing all of the adventure , but on different parts of the glacier, and now doesn’t include the drinking of wine while taking in such a mind-blowing view that, by now, has taken on such a life of its own that it exists only in my imagination. And we’d get a little refund. This was still going to be a really good adventure, so I started wrapping my head around it.

After getting geared up with loaner equipment that ranged from ice axes and crampons to hats and gloves, we hopped into the van and drove the approximately 2 minutes to the helicopter pad. As a side-note … helicopters are really cool! We flew into Victoria Flats, which was less than 10 minutes away by helicopter. So, close! The town of Fox Glacier is less than a thousand feet above sea level, and yet you’re a 10 minute helicopter ride to the top of the glacier, or a 20 minute hike to the terminal face.

Once on the glacier we put on the crampons, and got familiar with them while hiking around the glacier looking for cool features. The ice up there is crystal clear, white and blue, and almost entirely free of dirt and rocks. It’s pristine and amazing to see. In places, the ice melt runs straight down through the ice, creating a vertical rushing river of ice-cold water. Crevasses are impossibly deep. We realized after looking at most of our pictures that the magnitude just doesn’t translate in our photos. Some of these ice peaks and crevasses are simply gigantic! Take my word for it.

After a bit of exploring, our guide, Matt, skipped like a mountain goat around to the top of a wall, set in an ice screw, fed in some rope, and walked back down; child’s play. Then he tried to teach his rookies to ice climb.

We thought we were doing pretty well; but in retrospect, that may have had more to do with his positive attitude about our efforts than with the actual results. But it was a ton of fun! And it was a quick lesson in the basics of using crampons and ice axes.

The bad weather started rolling into Victoria Flats much earlier than we’d hoped, and it looked like we might have to call it a day early. But Matt came up with a nice workaround. Since there were only two of us, and he’s very experienced as a mountaineering guide, after some consultation to determine the risk he decided he could take us climbing up the terminal face of the glacier. I know, right? Just the word “terminal” sounds ominous! And again … the pictures do no justice to just how gigantic the ice peaks are on the terminal face. In fact, there’s so much dirt and rock on the ice there, that in a lot of our pictures those peaks look more like part of a mountain than a glacier.

Climbing the terminal face was much more risky than anything we’d done on the Victoria Flats. There were several sections where Matt set up either climbing ropes, or rope “handrails” that we attached to our harnesses. Good thing too!

As we were walking near a drop-off my foot slipped, and I landed on my side, sliding down into a “crevasse of certain death”. Yay for handrails!! I must admit, at this point my confidence took a bit of a tumble too. And it occurred to me that I probably should have warned Matt that I am, ever so slightly, terrified of heights. :

We continued on, climbing up, over, and around various walls and crevasses and other ice features. It was stunning, exhilarating, and just a little terrifying. And just as we were finishing the climbing, and heading out to the easier walking section of the glacier, we came across one last really good ice wall. I was at this point completely mentally fatigued, and starting to feel pretty physically fatigued too. I decided this was a good activity for me to take a pass on, but Gregg gave it a go! The wall was really steep, with a bit of an overhang at the top. The overhang is tricky, because you go from having most of your weight at the contact point on your feet (your crampons), to really relying on your ice axe. There was definitely a moment of adjustment for Gregg. But he was determined to make it all the way to the top, so he did!

At the end of the day, I had a giant blister, a few new bruises (falling on ice embedded with dirt and rocks is pretty painful), and feelings of pure accomplishment and satisfaction. I didn’t do very well, really. Not compared with any other rookie who has any natural talent or skill, or isn’t afraid of heights. But I can look back on that day and be honestly amazed at what I accomplished. And isn't that the definition of a good day?!