Swagman #25 – Walk on Water – Franz Josef, New Zealand

Andre slid a plank of wood across the deep fissure and slapped me on the back. “Careful,” he said to me. “This is where we lost the last hiker.”

The group laughed and teased me as I stepped up to the makeshift bridge. “Please, you must hold the rope,” Andre reminded me. He had just spent a strenuous fifteen minutes screwing in metal poles to make this flimsy rope banister, so I thought it would be impolite to refuse. I suspected it was more for show, but I grabbed on and stepped forward.

The fissure, one of the many that streak across the Franz Josef glacier, looked like it cut straight down to the center of the earth. I imagined horrible falls, bouncing off of ice walls and endless falling, but in reality the fissure was too narrow for anyone to fall far. I probably would have wound up upside down with my upper body wedged in and my legs kicking at the air above the glacier, much to the glee of my companions.

Not that I was hiking with a group of Everest Sherpas. I was the only male aside from our guide, Andre, so I dutifully received all verbal taunts and jokes from the women as we slowly made our way up the ice.

The Franz Josef glacier is intimidating when you are standing atop of it, but it looks downright apocalyptic from the town. The previous night I had met an American from Nebraska at the hostel, and to celebrate our national bond we got drunk at the only bar in town.

“Have you seen the glacier?” he asked.

“Tomorrow,” I said. “I wasn’t planning on coming down here, but there are not many places you can climb a glacier.” Truth was, I couldn’t think of any other places. But I didn’t say that, because a naked man wearing only a ski mask suddenly streaked through the bar. No one else seemed to notice.

“Have you seen the glacier?” my new friend repeated. We had been drinking pretty steadily.

He led me out of the bar and into the middle of the street. “Right…there,” he said. It was a full moon, and the glacier hung ominously over the town. Imagine a giant wave, the kind that sneaks up on you at the beach and knocks you down and pummels you. Now imagine it’s the size of a mountain, and freeze the image right when it’s about to crash on you. It demands awe.

So now here I was, atop eons of frozen water, holding a flaccid piece of frayed rope to save myself from the possibility of a skinned knee and an upsurge in the teasing. I made it across slowly and proudly, stamping my crampons into the ice on the other side.

“I think I saw a body down there,” I said with fake anxiety. Everyone seemed genuinely concerned and edged cautiously forward. Andre looked as though he was about to tie the rope around his ankle and dive down the fissure, so I had to completely abandon my lame joke and let them know I was kidding.

Everyone crossed slowly and we continued upwards, stopping at least once every few minutes for Andre to chip away at the ice like a maniac. “It melts,” he explained, and everyone seemed honestly surprised. As the ice melts and drips it makes unique formations in the body of the glacier, little tunnels and caverns for us to explore. And for those of you wondering, yes, it looks like Superman’s lair.

There are an estimated 80,000 glaciers in the world, 3,000 of which are in New Zealand. It being New Zealand, guests are encouraged to suit up and climb. Considering most of the world’s glaciers are at an ungodly height, it’s not often that you get to take a day hike on one. And at the rate things are going, the opportunity may not be around much longer.

Is it just me, or does “Global Warming” almost sound pleasant? Whoever coined the phrase clearly doesn’t understand the vast majority of the human race. It should be called “Subtle Armegeddon” or “Terrestial Homicide.” I’ve read enough to know that the threat is very real, and I’ve seen enough disaster movies to know that if the glaciers melt we’re in trouble. So I figured I should at the very least pay my respects.

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