On the ice at Fox Glacier

Seeing the glaciers high up in the mountains on either side of the Matukituki Valley gave us a strong urge to have a closer look at one of these incredible natural phenomena, so we left Wanaka and headed over Haast Pass to the We(s)t Coast of New Zealand where the two largest glaciers in the country , Franz Joseph and Fox, lie within 20km of each other. It is possible to go on guided walks on both glaciers; we opted for Fox Glacier because it was closest to another walk that we had planned deep into the Southern Alps up the Copland Valley. Moreover, most glaciers in the world are at present in full retreat as temperatures rise; for the past 14 months the Fox Glacier has advanced, giving it a unique status.

Sunset on Mt Tasman (3500m) and Mt Cook (3800m)

Rose-tinted cloud on Mt Copland as the sun sets in the Tasman Sea

The evening we arrived, the low clouds that had hidden the Southern Alps from view cleared away to reveal the snow-capped peaks of Mts Cook and Tasman, New Zealands two highest mountains, towering above the lower ranges. All augured well for our walk on the ice.


Fox Glacier

The sun shone brightly as we headed of in the old Bedford bus, kitted out with our crampons and glacier climbing gear. At Fox Glacier, day trips are limited to 12 people per guide and Nigel was the leader for our eclectic bunch of Australian, American, British, Canadian, German and Israeli ice-trampers. We headed off along the morain from the carpark, past the point where the glacier had reached 30 years ago, before climbing up into rain forest that has regenerated on the steep sides of the glacial valley over that period. Crossing an exposed bluff with impressive views over the middle and lower parts of Fox Glacier, we dropped steeply down to the edge of the ice about 500m above its terminal face.

Fox River valley - where the glacier used to be
250 years ago

Upper icefall of the Fox Glacier

Edge of the glacier - morain on the left,
ice on the right

Half-day walkers climbing up onto
the glacier

From here we climbed up steps cut into the ice to reach a point where we put on crampons, grabbed our alpenstocks and headed off. The early part of the walk was on pre-cut steps, put in place for the half-day guided walks.

(NB if you really want to experience the glacier you will be disappointed by the half-day walks, which virtually enable you to stand on the ice and little else - the full day walk allows you to spend several hours on the ice and, although less than 2 km is covered, you reach areas where the power and size of the glacier can be really appreciated. Even the guides cannot get through the lower ice fall).

Finally on the ice

Leaving the cut-steps and half-day walkers behind, Nigel led us out into a world of crevasses, moulins, ice-caves and seracs, of ice covered with rock frome fine grey sand to large boulders, and ice of the purest white and translucent shades of blue, contorted, cracked and lifted into a frozen maze of incredible beauty.

For a brief couple of hours we were part of this immense river of ice moving down the steep glacial valley at an average 1m per day as it is squeezed like toothpaste out from its 30 square kilometre basin under Mts Cook and Tasman by the pressure of 30m of snow each year.

Put on your sunglasses and join us on the ice at Fox Glacier.

Heading up the glacier

The big iceblock

Looking back down to the valley below

Looking down a deep moulin

Path through a shallow crevasse

Midway rest stop

Inside the ice cave


Continuing the climb up the glacier


Nello going down into the ice-cave

Nigel leads us up and on (Serac Falls on the left)

Seracs of the lower icefall

Close-up of the seracs (up to 15m tall)

Fox Glacier icescape

Descending the glacier

Jumble of iceblocks near the terminal of the glacier

Ice castle

Eventually we descended and, leaving the glacier, followed the lateral morain down to the ice-block jumble of terminus, where the occasional crash of large blocks of ice or boulders served as a reminder of what an active and potentially dangerous place a glacier is.

Valley of the Fox River

Lichen covered boulders on the lateral morain

The tremendous pressure near the glacier terminal

The images here barely do the glacier justice, but do give a sense of the power and surreal beauty of this frozen landscape. Moreover, these images will never be quite the same. Should you come to visit, you will be faced with a new icescape, transformed by the immense pressure and forces on the glacier due to the eternal battle between gravity and friction.

Thanks, Nigel, for being an excellent guide and sharing your knowledge and love of this great place.

Fox River exiting from a cave in the 60m high
terminus with blocks of freshly fallen ice