Our Really Big Adventure    
Ice Climbing on Franz Josef

New Zealand travelogues

>>Mail this article to a friend
>>Links and Search

>>Mail Us

New Zealand Links

If you would like this page to link to your site then please link to this page and email us


Looking at ice climbing I can’t help but admit that it looks like the most mind-bogglingly stupid sport in the world. Not only are you climbing something that may well collapse, but you have razor sharp points to your feet and vicious ice axes with foot long blades in each hand. Falling has all the ramifications of normal rock climbing but with the added bonus of uncontrolled flailing of ice axes that will penetrate flesh more easily than ice. Worse still, the protection placed to hold a fall is made out of sun-friendly metal and has the unfortunate tendency to melt out, contributing about as much to safety as a seatbelt in the space shuttle. All in all it looks like a sport invented by people that think freezing your butt off and dying in agony miles away from anybody is a barrel of laughs.

We weren’t exactly flush, having blown the bulk of our spare cash on a car that subsequently blew up, and at $US80 per person ice climbing isn’t cheap. But despite the expense and apparent lunacy of it, we were finally convinced by Phil’s arguments of “But the ice axes … think of the ice axes.” Excited now the decision was made, we packed our bags and left Wanaka for Franz Josef glacier with a hint of madness glistening in our eyes. Not the even the unceasing downpour that threatened to swamp the roads could extinguish our fires of enthusiasm.

Someone obviously forgot to stoke the fires overnight because I awoke the next day without my normally positive attitude. I was hung up on the amount of money we were spending and afraid that it was no guarantee of having a good time. Outside the skies looked threatening and while ice climbing in the rain is possible, I suspected it wouldn’t be much fun. Nevertheless we left for the guiding company to get fitted out for the day, which included rigid plastic boots, crampons (like metal artificial bear claws that you attach to your boots to stop you sliding over the ice), ice axes, helmets and harnesses. My mood blackened when they couldn’t produce a pair of boots my size. “The most important part of your body is your feet,” I grumbled to myself. I was going to be a joy to be around that day. When we finally left for the glacier I had a pair of boots a size too big and five pairs of thick woollen socks to pad out my feet.

Franz Josef, like nearly all glaciers these days, is in retreat and as a result the car park is now an hour’s walk away from the ice. This didn’t help my mood one bit – just how much were we paying to go for a walk? The hike was over terminal moraine crisscrossed with small streams created by the run-off from the glacier. The rigid plastic boots we had been given would have been too slow to walk in and as I waded across icy streams in my waterproof hiking boats, I was glad I had not taken Barbara’s advice to bring only my runners. She had foolishly assumed we would be making the approach wearing, not carrying, the rigid plastics. I smiled to myself at my “rightness” as she clumsily hopped from stone to stone, threatening to topple into the freezing stream below. Sometimes when you are in a bad mood, only someone else’s misfortune will lift you out of it.

At the start of the glacier we put on our harnesses, plastic boots and crampons. We now had to be careful how we walked, always ensuring that the crampon points stayed well away from our legs. The teeth initially screeched over the moraine but as we progressed onto the glacier proper they crunched satisfyingly into the ice with a feeling of almost total security. We were quickly taught how to move about safely on the ice, always trying to keep the maximum number of crampon teeth in contact with it – not as easy as it sounds when traversing across a slope. Our normal walking cadence was most disturbed when going downhill. For this it is necessary to adopt a John Wayne approach – feet wide apart, shoulders and head flung back and rocking penguin-like down the slope. We found we did it best spouting lines like “Howdy Pardner” and spitting imaginary wads of chewing tobacco.

Top ropes were set up for our first climbs and basic technique was demonstrated. You climb vertical ice by kicking in the front points of your crampons, each foot at the same level and about shoulder width apart. Then, one at a time, you swing your axes above your head so the front blades solidly penetrate the ice. Ice axes should ideally be planted about a foot apart. You then move your feet up and it all starts again. “Love the ice” was the last piece of advice we got before we started to climb.

Three kicks with each foot had the crampon front points penetrated a good centimetre into the ice. Occasionally they would slip out, but everything else would hold. My right hand firmly placed its axe each time, but my left would repeatedly strike the ice obliquely and the axe would skitter away showering me with shards of ice, before it finally embedded itself. After every series of moves I found that I was “loving the ice” - thrusting my hips into the ice made me balanced and secure. The ice axes had leashes attached to my wrists so once they were firmly planted I could let go, relax my arms and hang on the leashes without strain. Progress was slow, steady but fun … that’s right FUN! I was loving it.

All too soon, after 3 great climbs, we were on the final route of the day. This one didn’t look as easy as the ones before. The ice was harder, it was overhanging and it was streaming with icy water. But it was no match for these hardened ice warriors, we were ready for anything subzero temperatures could throw at us. We wanted more, but light was fading and our guides, the promise of beer and exaggerated stories dragged us away. Sitting on the bus back to town I was all but ready to throw away my rock shoes in favour of ice axes and crampons … just there isn’t that much ice in Ireland.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Barbara Ice climbing on Franz Josef glacier New Zealand pictures
Photograph of one of the ice climbs on Franz Josef glacier New Zealand pictures
Barbara climbing - though it could be anyone

The first climb

Movie of Barbara ice climbing on Franz Josef glacier New Zealand pictures
Photograph of an american friend climbing on Franz Josef glacier New Zealand pictures
Climbing movie (900K) - you need quicktime

An American friend tops out

Picutre of Phil and Barbara by the Gates of Haast New Zealand pictures
Photograph of the belay postion on Franz Josef glacier New Zealand pictures
Phil and Barbara by the Gates of Haast
The belay pit