on May 26, 2010
Any apprehension I had about taking a heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier melted away the moment a staff member led my group into the "boot room" and outfitted us with a waterproof jacket, heavy socks, boots, and a fanny pack stuffed with crampons. First, Franz Josef Glacier Guides were obviously running a safe, well-oiled operation. Second, there’s nothing like strapping on a fanny pack to take your mind off any other task at hand.After the wardrobe change and a quick safety briefing, my group of six piled into a helicopter for a quick but thrilling ride to a makeshift, ice-packed helipad on Franz Josef. As the helicopter climbed, turned, and dipped, ice was everywhere around us; formations rushed at us; a few tiny figures appeared on the white canvas. We landed next to the figures and met Cliff, our aptly named guide, who instructed us in putting on our crampons.We set off tramping around, through caves, over crevasses, and down stairs carved by Cliff’s ice axe; we learned the "French shuffle" technique of climbing in crampons and how to step wide for balance.The weird thing about glacier hiking, I think, is that it’s all ambling around, with no trails involved. At first I felt weird not heading toward a designated Point B or walking in a loop back to Point A, but after a while I realized that following Cliff’s willy-nilly lead was closer to a true exploration of our staggeringly beautiful surroundings.There were more surprises on the glacier. For one thing, there was water everywhere. Ponds, rivers, puddles, wells; they looked and sounded beautiful, and Cliff assured us that there isn’t any risk of falling through ice into the water below. There’s no deceivingly thin ice that would give way when stepped on; if you fall into a crevasse here, you basically saw it and walked right into it. Awareness, obviously, is paramount.Another surprise: rockslides. About every 30 minutes, we would hear a rumble high up in the cloud cover and then watch as rocks slid down the face of the glacier. I became more nervous each time, but Cliff explained that the rock activity was much further away than it seemed and continued to lead us around unfazed. (In this case, then, try not to be aware.)Before I knew it, it was time to return to the helipad and head back to the office. All in all, the experience lasted about three hours—incredible considering we’d seen a landscape so foreign, we might as well have flown to the moon and back. A final tip for glacier hiking that may help lighten your suitcase: don’t fret if you didn’t pack proper clothing. Franz Josef Glacier Guides will provide you with waterproof layers and footwear; I quickly swapped my hiking boots and waterproof shell for theirs. And my other layers—down jacket, long johns, hat, and gloves—were overkill. Even under a cloud cover, it wasn’t that cold on the glacier; in fact, some guides wore shorts and short sleeves. More important than packing the proper gear? Bring sunglasses and water.
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