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Hella Good Heli-Hiking in New Zealand

November 3, 2007

Franz Josef helicopterI’ve traveled using many modes of transportation – motorcycles, trams, these little sled things on wheels – but after visiting Franz Josef on the south island of New Zealand, I decided that at heart I’m a helicopter girl, trapped in an automobile world. If it weren’t for the silly price tag attached to the ride, I would get my own and use it to run around town. I’d go heli-dry cleaning, heli-pub hopping and heli-recycling, and look magnificent doing it.

The reason people come to little Franz Josef is to climb the glacier. Like many glaciers, it’s been getting a little smaller every year, but it’s still big enough that the six-hour tour starting from the base doesn’t get you too far above ground level. The other people I was traveling with were all ready for the big hike, but I saw that there was another option: heli-hiking. It was about three times the price, but instead of wasting hours going through the dirt and mud at the bottom of the glacier, this tour flew you straight to the crystal clear top.

I felt a quick twinge of guilt as I got out my credit card, but it turned out to be money well spent, one of those splurges you just have to make for a one-time travel adventure opportunity. The ride up was quick, but breathtaking. Once at the top we strapped metal cleats (crampons) onto our boots. I wasn’t sure about them at first, but after a few minutes I gained more confidence, taking bigger steps and hopping around the ice with ease.

Franz Josef hikeNever having been on a glacier, I figured we would get to the top and just walk around a smooth surface. But the glacier is a living thing, always changing and moving (and melting), creating deep divides and maze-like pathways through the ice. It was like something in a film, but Hollywood could never make anything this cool.

Our group hopped up and down crags, crawled through dripping tunnels and scaled tall shelves as our guide, a super relaxed Kiwi chick, cut out little steps as we went. We saw ice collapse and shift, sometimes moments after crossing it, a reminder that there was no guaranteed safe path, and that the route we took on our walk wouldn’t still be there tomorrow. The guides have to carve out new paths every day as they go.

My only mistake was to wear shorts. It was a warm day and the temperature was fine, but being snow-ignorant I failed to take into account the glare of the ice and wound up with the worst sunburn of my life. By nighttime my legs had turned purple and swelled to twice their size and I was running such a fever I couldn’t sleep. It was a good thing I enjoyed the hike, because it was about the only walking I did for days. I thought of it as a battle wound, although a really embarrassing one, and knew that my heli-adventure was totally worth every dollar and every ridiculous tan line.

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