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Icecapades and Other Shenanigans


Dore and I woke to a cloudy, but blessedly dry day.

We powered through our morning routine in record time, getting out of the hostel nice and early. We didn’t want to be late for our glacier hike adventure. We went outside and made some sandwiches to take with us on the hike. Next we found the check-in spot, then headed over to a cafe next door to grab a little breakfast.

After breakfast, we went over and checked in for the glacier hike. We had packed and worn all of our cold weather gear, so we felt pretty prepared to go on the hike. As it turned out, however, our gear wasn’t really good enough, but fortunately the guide company provided everyone with appropriate gear. We were issued waterproof over-pants, not-so-waterproof boots (which were, unfortunately, damp from the previous days’ hikes), wool socks, crampons, and rain jackets. We both had perfectly good rain jackets, but the guides were concerned that they were too thin, and might get torn on the ice. I wasn’t going to argue with them, so we took their gear and stowed our jackets in our packs.

I had worn my long underwear bottoms thinking that I might get cold with just my thin hiking pants on, but once I was fully geared up, I realized that I was going to roast to death if I kept them on. As quick as I could I stripped down in the bathroom and took them off, then threw everything back on and ran out to catch the bus. A minute later we were off. I adjusted my socks and re-laced my boots on the short drive.

About ten minutes later, we piled off the bus and into the parking area for the glacier. It was surrounded by the same dense rain forest that we’d been in for the past day. If I hadn’t seen glimpses of the glacier on the way in, I’d never guess that there was a 5 km long river of ice just a few minutes walk from us. Our group of about twenty five hikers set off along the wide dirt trail, and in a few minutes came our of the forest and in sight of the glacier.

The glacial valley itself was pretty incredible: At the bottom sits a long flood plain full of gray silt, rocks and boulders, with a milky-gray rushing stream winding down the middle. Along the steep-walled sides of the valley are a number of gorgeous long waterfalls and dense native forest. Here and there huge moss-covered rock cliffs break the forest. And at the head of everything lies the enormous jumble of blue ice of the glacier. I still can’t get over how odd it is to see a glacier in such a lush setting.

The glacier has been receding (on average) for a number of years, and we had to hike up the flood plain for about one and a half kilometers before we got to the head of the ice. As we walked, Dore found that her boot was rubbing against her heel, and she was almost to the point of getting a blister. We stopped to readjust her socks and tighten her laces. After the adjustment she was feeling much better. We caught up to the group a few minutes later. After a brief stop, the guide showed us past the ropes that kept the general public out of harm’s way, then climbed a long hill of dirt and mud before stopping just short of the ice to fit our crampons over our boots.

I’d never worn crampons before, but found it to be pretty intuitive. They’re just big cleats on your shoes. Ours were relatively worn, so we weren’t in much danger of stabbing ourselves. Not that you’d really want to step on your toe even with dull crampons. They’re still inch-long steel spikes.

A few minutes later we were on the ice. I was pretty surprised how solid the ice felt. I had envisioned that the glacier would be something like the permanent snow fields I’ve seen before when hiking: a layer of heavy, wet, packed snow on top with harder ice underneath. Instead, it was much more like walking on a giant ice cube. The ice on top was almost perfectly smooth except where it had been scraped by previous hikers or cut into steps by the guides.

I was also surprised how solid the footing felt. Given how smooth the ice was, I was expecting the footing to be somewhat treacherous. But the crampons gave plenty of purchase, and both Dore and I felt perfectly comfortable on the ice.

Our hike took us up through several crevasses, up sets of stairs cut into the ice, and along some long stretches of open ice. The pace was pretty slow, as the guide had to continuously work on the track as we went, but that was fine. We took lots of photos along the way. We finally stopped about a half kilometer up the glacier at a wide open area. We ate lunch standing up. (There was a slight slope to the ice, so we would have slid, and the surface was wet and cold anyway.) Dore and I had felt fine on the climb, but were starting to get cold once we stopped moving.

After a few more minutes we started back down. We took a different route on the way down, which was cool. I actually think the down climb was considerably cooler than the climb up. We went down a couple of long, steep stairways in the ice that followed a large crevasse, then slid our way through a large crevasse that listed to the side. At the bottom of the crack we had to slide under a large chunk of ice that had fallen into the crack and formed a tunnel. It was super cool, but also a little bit wet. We were glad that neither of our cameras got water on them.

We climbed down a bit more, then we were off the ice. I was a bit sad to leave, but also pretty tired. I don’t think I could have done too much more, so I was satisfied with the length of the hike. We hiked back to the head of the valley, climbed back in the bus, and headed back into town. There we divested ourselves of all of our borrowed gear, and got back into our own nice, dry clothes.

So what do you do after you’ve hiked up a giant block of ice? Have a nice hot soak, of course.

Dore and I walked back to our van, grabbed our swimsuits, and headed to the opposite end of town (a whopping ten minute walk) to take a dip in the hot pools there. The pools were really nice. They are set in amongst native trees and plants. You feel like you’re soaking in the middle of the jungle. Very relaxing.

After a bit, we decided to get out of the pools and head on our way up the coast. We changed into driving clothes, then set on our way. We drove a couple of hours up the coast to Greymouth. The landscape changed as we moved North. We left the dense rain forest and came to more open, grassy fields, dotted with sheep, cows, and even deer. Finally, we reached the town just before the light faded and checked in to a campervan park. We pulled out the little gas cooker from our van and cooked up some fantastic steaks, baked beans, and salad. We cracked open a bottle of wine, and had a lovely dinner in the van.

Just the end of a another great day.

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  1. April 18th, 2010 at 10:44 | #1

    So fun, I wish I was there! We’ll have to go with you two sometime!

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