Heli Hiking the Franz Josef

Chris Davies

Inside the Glacier

Closing your eyes and listening to the chug-chug-chug of helicopter blades you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the set of Apocalypse Now. But as the chopper disappears down the valley leaving me sitting on a glacier, fastening crampons to my feet the only noise I can hear is the ominous creaking of the ice beneath me. That and the odd rockfall that the guide tells me is normal for this time of year. It is very peaceful but also eerie. Seracs, huge columns of ice formed by intersecting crevasses, tower above us, streams of water trickle by before disappearing into endless holes in the ice. Recent melting has opened up a seam in the middle of the icefall where rock spews out, blackening some of the ice that frame electric blue caves.

The Franz Josef glacier sits on the West Coast of the South Island in New Zealand. Nearby you can find Fox Glacier and Mount Cook and Tasman. The glaciers are unique as they originate in the Southern Alps but flow down into the temperate rainforest that envelops the region. The Franz Josef glacier is quite accessible on foot but with three icefalls, the best way to get to the top is by helicopter.

I’m into week three of a four week trip visiting Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand and the heli-hike is my big treat. A few years ago I sat with a friend who showed me photos of her round the world trip. I remember seeing photos of the Franz Josef and put it on my ‘must visit’ list. An outdoor enthusiast and photographer, an illness got in the way of me travelling with friends after I left school so I’m making up for it now. I take every opportunity to go and see places and am fortunate that I have friends dotted all over the globe. The one piece of advice I was given if I visited the Franz Josef was to do a heli-hike. It was good advice.

Mile after mile of perfectly spaced vines, cobalt blue rivers flowing between them and an imposing backdrop of rolling hills and jagged mountains.


The drive from the small town of Picton where I was stopping with friends is amazing. The roads are sparse, two hours can go by without passing another vehicle. The first hour of the drive took me though the celebrated Marlborough vineyards. Mile after mile of perfectly spaced vines, cobalt blue rivers flowing between them and an imposing backdrop of rolling hills and jagged mountains. Next you enter the Nelson Lakes National Park where you are first greeted with Lake Rotoiti and more stunning scenery. The road then follows the valley of the River Buller where turn after turn brings views of deep gorges, vast expanses of forests and scattered farm buildings. It is a travel photographer’s dream.

Leaving Buller behind, the last part of the drive takes in Reefton and other small settlements associated with the west coast gold rush of the 1860s, remnants of which can be seen dotted throughout the area. Eventually, after ten hours on the road I arrive at the Franz Josef township. It is nothing more than a settlement of backpacker lodges, restaurants and heli-pads but has a great vibe to it. Everyone you speak to tells of the excitement of their plans to visit the glacier the next day, or of the great day trip they’ve just had and where they are going tomorrow.

I’d never been in a helicopter before and I was quite nervous about the experience but once we were given our safety briefing and met our guide the excitement certainly kicked in. I piled into the chopper with some fellow hikers and our guide, Dean, for an experience I’ll never forget.

I’m not sure what I thought a helicopter flight would be like but it wasn’t anything like I could have imagined. Dean quipped how our pilot was one of the oldest and most experienced and we could be in for some fun but the take off was so gentle and graceful. We soared into the air and high up above the delta of the Waiho River. It was a crystal clear day and the glacier was perched high in the mountains ahead of us.

The helicopter coming into land

Inside the cave it was dark but looking back from where I’d come, the sunlight refracted through the walls turning them azure blue. I'd never seen ice this colour.


Ben Lerwill

Chris Davies is an Analyst from Worcestershire who spends his free time indulging in his passion for travelling and adventure. A self defined outdoor nut, he is a keen hiker, skier and bike rider, pastimes which take him to some of the most beautiful places in the world.

Chris is developing a portfolio of his travel photography and hopes to go pro. You can see more of his work at cmjdavies.smugmug.com or follow him @cmjdavies.

The pilot flew in close to the walls of the valley so we could see the waterfalls that cascaded below then down to the icefall so we could look into the deep crevasses that rip through the glacier. The whole flight was so smooth and gentle and we were given lots of time to look around and take photos.

Then the helicopter’s engines roared and we rose high into the sky. We had a full view of the snowfield that feeds the glacier and the many mountain peaks that lay beyond. All of a sudden, from the window I had been looking out at the horizon from, I was staring straight down at the ground! The pilot had dropped the helicopter onto one side and was performing a three rotations corkscrew. The groaning chopper fell from the sky, the rotating blades cracked, the G-force pinned me into my seat; it was exhilarating if somewhat scary! The pilot chuckled over the intercom as he pulled out of the manoeuvre and set us down gracefully on the ice.

It was a great way to get onto the glacier. We were now on the upper icefall away from anyone else and had a few hours to explore. Our guide Dean took time to explain to us all the history of the glacier and pointed out some of the more recent changes to the ice-flow before we set off to look for some caves. They only last a few days before the sun melts the roof and they collapse so it was an hour or so before we came across one. We walked in a line, stepping only in the footsteps of the person in front, all the time the ice below groaned. We walked along streams which appeared to levitate above the ice beneath. In a childish way the ice reminded me of those crunchy ice drinks we used to drink as kids and I marvelled at how it held my weight. Looking back it was difficult to see where we’d walked, the bright white light reflecting of walls of ice masked our tracks.

Eventually we came across a cave. Dean had to carve out steps with an ice pick and we roped up before the decent. The sight that greeted us was out of this world. As I stepped down into the cave I began to feel part of the ice, the temperature dropped and the creaking intensified. The noise of running water was all around but you couldn’t see it anywhere. Cracks were appearing in the roof above suggesting an imminent collapse. I suddenly realised that I was actually inside the Franz Josef. Inside the cave it was dark but looking back from where I’d come, the sunlight refracted through the walls turning them azure blue. I’d never seen ice this colour. We paused for photos before climbing out and continuing across the glacier towards an enormous waterfall. And there we stood, absorbing future memories, on the creaking glacier, breathing in the crisp air, looking out to the Tasman Sea and listening to the noise of the roaring waterfall resonate down the valley.

All too soon the chopper came to collect us. We heard it approaching before we could even see it as the thud of the blades echoed up the valley. The return flight was just as eventful with the pilot dropping the nose as we came over the ridge of the mountain. During this breathtaking journey home I realised something. This experience wasn’t just about going for a hike, or the helicopter flight, it was about doing the things you really want to do. I’d always wanted to fly in a helicopter and I had always wanted to explore a glacier and here I was doing both.

Sometimes you just have to make these things happen.

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