We had to wake up at six in the morning to book our hike. When we arrived at the centre, down the road and around the corner, we signed "in the event of death/maiming we are not responsible" waivers, and given snazzy blue rain jackets, the world’s heaviest leather boots, steel talons, woolly mittens and an ice pick.
Climbing Franz Joseph Glacier in the rain for eight hours is hard work – and utterly spectacular. At the glacier, we were separated into three groups according to our physical ability. There was the slow or "National Geographic" group, as the guides called it, the medium group, which Jin, Jo and I flung ourselves into and the super athletic fast group, which Byron elected to be in and which we didn’t understand. He thought the fast group was the better group, he didn’t want to be held back.
Initially, nearly everyone chose to go with this really hot leader leaving ours in the dirt saying, “What, no one wants to go with ME?! Just because I’m not as good-looking as Paul doesn’t mean we won’t have as good a time, you know! In fact, we’ll have a better time because HE is no fun! Cooome with meeeee, coooome with meeeee.” We went with Mike.
It was a two-kilometre walk to the face of the glacier. Then we climbed through the yellow ropes and past all the "caution extreme danger" signs that had stick men being crushed by avalanches.
“Jo, we’re going to die aren’t we?”
“Don’t worry, Jess. I will save you! Right, Jin? ”
“Yes, me too! We save each other!”
The first haul up was the worst – a staircase of death. We climbed a sketchy “staircase”, which had been hewn into the rock, for more than an hour. By the time we reached the ice, I thought I was going to collapse into a heap of heart attacks and muscle spasms, throw up, have an untimely death – all at the same time.
We were allowed a short rest while we were instructed to lash our steel talons to the bottom of our boots. Baby toe, under, big toe, pull as hard as humanly possible. Next foot. Onwards to ice and glory. We climbed, mostly up, for another six hours through labyrinths of blue ice, pointed miniature mountains, tunnels and crevasses. Going through the crevasses was a bad idea.
“I’m stuck! Um, guys, how do you get through?” You could barely slide through. Because of the backpacks, getting unstuck from the ice meant taking out your ice pick, slamming it into the ice using only the force of your wrist, and hauling yourself through with one arm. Proud to say, I came up with the ice-pick-wrist-smash-pull move, patent pending.
Our leader was so far at the front, he was no help. We were on our own. The first cave we came across was brilliant and very small. To get through it, you sat at the mouth, slid down at a super speed until your feet smashed into the ice bottom, like a wedge. Once you had un-wedged your feet from its grasp, you found yourself lying on your back, wet, with ice about 15 centimeters from your face, your feet precariously balanced over the gap. Then you had to spider your way to the exit, which you couldn't see because of the people in front. No turning back because of the people behind you.
“Jo! We’re going to die here! We’re going to get stuck and never get out again! Archaeologists will find us thousands of years later and wonder what we were doing!”
Jo burst into laughter “Nooo!!!”
The higher we climbed, the more brilliant the ice sculptures. Sometimes, to cross a fissure in the ice, there was something that resembled a bridge, more like a metal ladder with a piece of wood placed on top, which had been mounted in the ice by means of metal spikes. On one of the bridges, I watched our guide take out the spikes and hammer them back in before we crossed. There was a narrow rope on either side that you could hold, but if you slipped, that was the end of you.
“Okay, guys, pay attention, one person at a time, hold the ropes, move slowly but don’t stop for anything, no pictures, no waving, no nothing. Do not start, I repeat do NOT start crossing until the last person is off the bridge. Oh yeah, if you happen to fall, make sure you land on your head so we can get the boots and talons back.”
The fissures these bridges covered were more than 30 meters deep, dark grey blue shadows hovering below. We found hell, frozen over. Higher we went.
The grey woollen mittens they gave us were in a perpetual state of dripping wet. Because it was raining, (called a Warm Glacier) and because everywhere was ice, we always had damp, dripping hands. Whenever I had a chance, I took them off, squeezed them out and continued up the ice with nasty damp wool clamming my hands. We stopped for lunch at what looked like a quarry. The problem with lunch was that we couldn’t eat or drink what we would like – no washrooms. We still had hours to go.
Rest and food were welcome, though. We were so high it was positively stunning. The sun broke through the clouds in soft rays in the distance. Once we continued, we were lost in a labyrinth of ice, locked between two deep green rock cliffs with waterfalls towering above.
Half way through the quest, we climbed a wall of ice where I had to lift my foot past my elbow to get up. Ten meters up the wall, we were stopped by someone having problems at the top. I had to use my pick to keep myself from falling into the deep fissure below. Looking down, I could see the narrow ledge from where we started and a deep blue crevice. Suddenly Jin, who was ahead of me, lost her balance and fell backwards. I somehow managed to hold onto my ice pick with one hand, caught her with the other, pushed her back up until she could regain her grip.
After Jin’s near plummet to the centre of the earth, we had to slip through a very long and narrow crevasse that had a river running through it, at times over your head. When alone, you become stronger and more agile. Interesting.
Our guide was way ahead, no one knew how to get through without falling in. Yet, I straddle-climbed over the river using the slippery blue walls, finding tiny platforms to move along. Jin fell in, waist deep. We formed a team, used our pick as a water depth gauge.
“Right here is super deep, this spot’s okay to stand on.”
“Where is our guide? Shouldn’t HE be telling us this stuff?”
We climbed higher still in a fortress of azure ice, scuttling through tunnels. The trip down was harder than the trip up, ice was still slippery, every step was a smash of the talon into the ice to get hold of what was left of any possible grip.
I was actually excited about going downhill, but the Yay Down! is quickly smothered by My legs feel like jelly and I think I might fall down the glacier.
The walk to the bus felt even longer. Jo started with “There IS no bus! They have left us! Gaaah."
“Oh my God, I think my legs are going to fall off,” I whined.
After we returned our gear and declined an invite to go dancing at a pub with our guide, we went to the hotel and discovered that Byron was already there. He had checked us out, plan was to continue to Haast the same day. He was convinced his group finished first, went higher and was the superior one.
“Did we not just climb the same glacier? You just went faster than us.”
“Yeah, and we went higher, our guide said so.”
“Um, Byron, maybe he was just saying that. Did you consider that by ending early you got LESS time up there? Did you even get to go through crevasses and tunnels?”
I half expected Byron to start yelling the “Anything you can do I can do better” song.