When Bob and I stayed in the community of Fox Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island, it made perfect sense to hike into the actual glacier for a look. On the appointed day, a slight break in the rain encouraged us to set off, but we ended up hiking in cold, wet weather for a view of the ancient blue ice.
During the previous night, we were wakened by what sounded like a troop of foot soldiers marching on the roof. Combined with thunder and lightning, the rain was falling so hard on the metal shingles of our cabin that the sound was deafening.
After breakfast the following morning, Bob and I took a drive up a nearby mountain road that promised a distant view of Fox Glacier. We were trying to decide if the time was right for a hike into the Glacier. From our lofty view, we determined that the low-hanging clouds and continuing rain obscured too much of the Glacier.
Our morning was spent hiking at the coast, but after lunch, a bright ray of sunshine inspired us to drive to the trail head at the base of Fox Glacier. Trekkers earlier in the day had to remain in the parking lot owing to dangerous conditions in the glacial valley. Signs had been posted by the Department of Conservation to that effect.
We were relieved to see that the information had been updated. Visitors were now allowed to walk in on the trail for about 15 minutes but still were not permitted to cover the full distance that requires 45 minutes.
As we donned our rain pants and neoprene paddling gloves at the car, a low grumble of thunder stretched for minutes and echoed off the fjord-like structure of the glacial valley.
Already, temporary waterfalls had sprung up along the sides of the sheer walls owing to the torrential rains the night before. The air was chilly, and a light drizzle began to fall.
The floor of Fox Glacier Valley continues to be shaped by the Fox River that originates from glacial melt water. It flows from underneath Fox Glacier’s great wall of ice and is augmented by runoff of precipitation from the mountains.
It was rather neat to find chunks of ice washed ashore by the fast flowing water, chips that had calved from the Glacier at the top of the valley.
During the last ice age, Fox Glacier extended as a humongous ice sheet all the way to the coast of the South Island and into the Tasman Sea. At present, the glacier is 13 kilometres long, and its terminal face is 12 kilometres from the coast. It is the longest of the 2 West Coast glaciers in New Zealand with Franz Josef Glacier being the other one.
Bob and I were really impressed with the landscape as we hiked in the shadow of the soaring sheer walls. Gigantic horizontal scars could be seen on the vertical schist rock faces. Rising to over one kilometre high, the formations made us feel very small!
Studies of these cliffs have revealed the geological history of the Southern Alps. The collision of tectonic plates formed the mountain range leaving behind these sedimentary rock faces that were then ground out by the glacier when it reached deeper into the valley.
The hiking trail is surrounded by glacial debris left behind by Fox Glacier during its retreat during the past 100 years. Called glacial moraines, the piles of rock were originally scoured from the mountains as the glacier bulldozed its way down the valley.
The distance to the terminal face of Fox Glacier is only 1.3 kilometres, but as I already mentioned, restrictions were such that we could only walk in about a third of the way. It was explained to us that there was a risk of flooding, falling rocks and a surge in the river. Bob and I made haste as we moved along the valley floor.
At one point, a rumbling noise behind us drew our attention to rocks plummeting down the side of this slope where already a rock slide had occurred in recent days. No sooner had those few rocks given rise to spirals of dust at the bottom of the valley but what another collection of rocks came in hot pursuit of the first. This was proof that the warning signs posted were not in jest.
Fox Glacier Valley has more 3,000-metre peaks presiding over it than any other valley in New Zealand. All of them feed snow into the catchment area for Fox Glacier. Compared to the lofty mountains, the string of trekkers looked like a small army of ants marching along the cleared trail.
The weather was really undecided, sunny one minute and raining the next. Owing to high water in Fox River, a ranger stood at the ready to assist hikers across one ford in the river. He explained that even a moderate rainfall will have the river quickly rising by several metres.
It didn’t take us long to reach the barrier put in place for that afternoon, and from it, we could see Fox Glacier’s terminal face. It is hard to believe that this glacier has its origins in the high peaks of the Southern Alps where four alpine glaciers contribute to its mass.
Thirty metres of annual snowfall onto the four feeder glaciers is compacted into the blue ice that makes up Fox Glacier.
Fox Glacier’s 13-kilometre journey begins just below Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman, surges through temperate rainforest and ends just 250 metres above sea level. The Glacier falls 2,600 metres and is 300 metres deep.
Fox Glacier moves ten times faster than other valley glaciers around the world owing to the funnel-shaped valley and the large area of snow accumulation at the top of the glacier. It is that quick descent and its accessibility that make this glacier so unique.
Bob and I were mindful of the warning signs and stayed behind the cordoned off area. We were just thankful that the clouds had lifted sufficiently to give us a clear view of the terminal face and snout of Fox Glacier from where we stood.
The safety barriers are not to be taken lightly. In 2009, two Australian tourists defied the signs, walked up to the terminal face of the glacier and were crushed when 100 tonnes of ice suddenly broke away.
From our vantage point, Bob and I could see walking trails that went much closer to Fox Glacier, but even the tour companies that specialize in such walks did not venture out the day that we were there.
The uneven floor of Fox Glacier Valley causes cracking, upheaval and deep ravines in Fox Glacier’s surface resulting in a very dramatic yet potentially dangerous frozen landscape. It was well worth the hike along the cumbersome track over slippery rocks and irregular surfaces to have a view of this temperate maritime glacier.