Getting Western by Anna Keeling
Going to ski tour on New Zealand’s glaciers is always a time of anticipation and excitement but heading to the glaciers of the West Coast is definitely it’s own thing. A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying front seat Land Crusier luxury en route to Franz Josef with my regular ski tour crew, the now notorious “Dirty Posh.”
This team of farmers and farm-related people know how to have a good time. Where they go, there’s always a party and everyone joins in. After passing an errant tourist weaving all over the road near Whataroa, we came across a group of people clustered at the side of the road. A 1080 protest was in progress and a man in a white boiler suit was drinking a beer, his anti-1080 sign propped up on the cop car as he chatted with the local police. We stopped to make a citizen’s arrest of the weaving tourist. The scene was set. East meets west.
“Guys, can you take out half the beers?” I begged the following morning as I negotiated helicopter flights with Heliservices, one of the local heli companies based in Franz Josef Glacier.
I breathed a sigh of relief as the final group touched down above the Centennial hut at 2300 metres on the Franz neve (the area where the snow collects). Step 1: get the crew of 8 to the hut. I shepherded our party to unpack at the hut as Roger Hodson, my co-guide, pulled his shovel out to dig and inspect the snowpack. Satisfied that the pack was stable, we skied 30cm of dry snow down to the neve. Skins on, we then climbed 500 metres to Graham saddle. Nestled among 3000 metre peaks on the Main Divide, Graham saddle divides the upper Franz Josef glacier from the Rudolf glacier - which in turn flows into the lower Tasman glacier. We had outstanding views of Aoraki and Mt Tasman from this lofty perch. All were stoked to reach such a position on day 1. We enjoyed more fine skiing toward the temperate rainforest and Tasman sea, jungle mist swirling as it’s afternoon tendrils curled up onto the lower reaches of the glacier. A solid 300 metre skin back to the hut and everyone was ready for dinner and drinks. Roger and I were kept busy melting snow for water and cooking the food.
Day 2 was another pearler but the forecast indicated that this would be our last completely fine day. We determined to make the most of it. One of my favourite tours from Centennial is to ski SW across the glacier in the direction of the Fox Glacier. The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are divided by a ridge and the trip between them is only a few kilometres. Distances look vast from the huts but in reality, when skiing down hill, miles can be covered in minutes. We ambled up toward Penck Ridge - dividing the main Franz neve from the smaller Melchior glacier. A team meeting was unanimous that all would like to see the Fox glacier. Excellent conditions let us easily skin to the summit of one of the 2585m Von Bulow peaks (all these European names!) From this summit, Mt Tasman dominates with it’s fearsomely iced western ramparts. The Fox neve is similar in shape and form but I’ve always found the Fox better for mountaineering and the Franz better for ski touring.
The Melchior glacier, a tributary of the Franz, drops gradually into a series of icefalls. Careful negotiation and one steep pitch of skiing got us to 1800 metres where we put on skins and roped up for the winding climb back through Agassiz icefall. This is a fantastic round trip with challenging route-finding past blue ice cliffs and around wide crevasses. We tend to rope up when conditions are unfamiliar - the rope will catch anyone who accidentally falls through a snow bridge into a crevasse. It’s an unlikely scenario but we’re hired to keep the team safe. Light cloud cover increased the temperature dramatically and I tried and failed, to set a non-sweaty pace.
This amazing day of exploration culminated in the arrival of a young trio of ski-mountaineers, fresh from summiting the 3000m Minarets to join us in the hut. They readily joined the party as noise levels swelled, enthusiasm rocked the hut, dinner was served and all beer was drunk. A raving success. As predicted, gusty SW winds buffeted the hut as the weather began to deteriorate by next morning. We tidied up and departed for a pick up down glacier. Four Hughes 500 loads later, we celebrated a great few days by spontaneously picnicking at the Franz Josef helipad, amidst the not-so-dulcet tones of choppers arriving and leaving. The teacher’s pet was duly selected as happens every year with the Dirty Posh. It’s always the same two vying, so this year I allotted this dubious honour to quiet Hugh (for helping with the dishes and for giving me the front seat in the Land Cruiser!)
While a trip to the glaciers is often fraught with uncertainty - the weather is never a given and access via helicopter never assured, the superbness of having vast expanses of ice so close to the ocean at this latitude is a beautiful thing. Our glaciers never fail to deliver.