As backpackers on a budget, we’re constantly thinking about what items to splurge on during our travels. South America was relatively easy, since the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a trip to the Amazon, and our PADI Open Water certification were going to be our big ticket items. Before we got to New Zealand, we had already been thinking about splurge items; the ones that typically come to mind are bungee jumping and skydiving (especially in Queenstown, since it’s known as one of the “adrenaline capitals” of the world). One of the reasons we weren’t in love with either idea is because we’re able to find these excursions at home, and as we travel, we’re looking for unique experiences.
Once we arrived in New Zealand, we starting hearing about how it was possible to book a trip to walking on a glacier (either the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier). Originally we thought we could hike to the glaciers and walk on them, but we found out this was no longer possible. The only way to do it is by taking a heli-hike tour of the glaciers (taking a helicopter out to the glacier, then hiking from there).
Arriving in Queenstown
Once we got to Queenstown, Emily was debating a skydive, and Colin and I were thinking about the bungee jump. Still, none of us were settled on going for it. We went to STA Travel company and asked about their prices, as well as descriptions of these activities and tours. The lowest skydive and bungee jump options weren’t too bad in terms of price, but if you’re going to splurge, you’ve got to go all out. Then we got the explanation of the heli-hike at the Franz Josef Glacier – a 5 minute helicopter ride that lands you on the glacier, a three hour hike with all the gear included, a 5 minute flight back to the town, and free admission to the hot pools afterwards. The itinerary sounded adventurous and unique, everything we were looking for. STA quoted us a price of around $280 USD per person, which also seemed to be slightly better than most companies were offering. (It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find a tour much cheaper; expect a 5% swing at most). So we left Queenstown without doing any adrenaline-junkie activities, and we headed north to the Franz Josef Glacier.
The company’s building is right next to the i-site (information center) in town, so we got there early and sat in the lobby to use the wifi and charge our devices. They gave us a check-in time, and we filled out the usual forms and waivers. We were brought to another room to get sized up for gear — waterproof jackets, pants, boots, crampons and a hat and gloves. You can wear your own gear if you’d like, but why not use the gear intended and designed for climbing on glaciers? They also gave us a shoulder bag to use for snacks, cameras, and other random things. You’re not allowed to bring your own bags or any type of selfie stick (which was a bummer for our GoPros). After we were all dressed, we were led to the helicopter pad, a short 10 minute walk away. We were quickly briefed on helicopter safety; we were told that we would be flying with one of the most reputable companies in New Zealand; they are the go-to company for filming the aerial shots used in many of the Hollywood movies filmed in NZ, like the Lord of the Rings series and Pete’s Dragon.
We were split into two groups by weight to balance the helicopter properly, and two separate helicopters came to pick us up. It was a short but beautiful flight up to the top of the glacier, and as we got closer, we got more and more excited. We were dropped off on a helipad directly on the glacier, which definitely didn’t feel extremely safe, but we had to put our trust in the professionals. We were instructed to put on our crampons. Our tour guide Harry gave us a brief instruction on walking with crampons and what to expect when walking on the glacier. Our group was about ten people, and we were all eager to get going. Steps and hand rails had been put in some areas so it was easier to get around. We began our hike and stepped into a world many people never get to see. It was difficult to believe that we were standing on a land mass of ice and that although we felt safe with our guide, anything could happen. Looking up there was a huge wall of ice, and looking down was a huge valley leading to the town. Our guide led us through crevices and caves; some small and some huge.
Some quick advice: if you want to get the most information as possible and have lots of questions, stick to the front of the group. If you want more time for pictures alone, stick to the back. We tried to do some of both. The whites, blues, and blacks of the glacial ice was beautiful. Harry led us over to a waterfall coming off the side of one of the mountains. He made sure none of us wandered off, since there are holes and crevices everywhere that you obviously don’t want to get to close to. After an hour or two, there were clearly some nasty clouds that our guide was watching and communicating back to base camp about, so the decision was made to head back. We left about 15 minutes earlier than scheduled, which was disappointing, but we were told many of the tours get cut short or cancelled due to unpredictable weather patterns.
On the way back, we were taking as many pictures as possible and trying to see everything we could, even though our guide Harry was looking out for our safety and trying to quickly get us back to the helipad (it is possible to get stuck on the glacier for the night). On our way back, we were led through a 30 foot high crevice where one person can barely fit at a time, and sometimes you couldn’t even put one foot in front of the other. Although the ending to our tour was a bit earlier than anticipated, it was truly an amazing experience. I even talked to the guide about getting a job at the company. The views from the helicopter coming back weren’t anything great due to the massive clouds coming in, but what an amazing three hours. We took all of our gear off and headed back to our van to grab our bathing suits and towels for the hot pools. In the building they had three different hot pools ranging in temperature, and it was the perfect way to end the hike. Overall, we highly recommend the tour, our tour guide was awesome, and the experience was once in a lifetime.
*We were able to book this tour in the start of the off season, and we were able to get a reservation 4 days before the date of our tour. If you are visiting in the high season, these tours may need to be booked weeks in advance due to popularity. When you book it, make sure that you are flexible to move to a tour date a day or two after your scheduled date, as this may need to happen due to inclement weather. Check out the Franz Josef Glacier Tour website for more information here.
Things to Bring
- Small water bottle (you can drink the glacier water, so you can fill up as you go)
- Small snacks