New Zealand - Day 7 Ice Climbing

The reason we were waking up so early was so that we could do a quick side trip to Lake Matheson before our ice climbing adventure. The lake was supposed to be one of the most picturesque locations in the area, especially at dawn and dusk when the surrounding mountains have mirror-quality reflections. Unfortunately, it was a foggy morning so we did not see much. As dawn came, the fog cleared a little and we did get some nice pictures of the trees around the lake reflecting in the water, but it never got clear enough for us to see the mountains. We were on a schedule, so there was no time to wait around. We hiked the 10 minutes back to our car and drove into town to meet our glacier guides.

We had booked a full-day ice-climbing adventure trip on Fox Glacier. These are the smallest, most intensive trips that they do, with only 4 climbers and 2 guides. Our guides were Sean from Minnesote and Deano who was a native Kiwi. The other couple with us were also Americans, here on their honeymoon (we’ve met a fair number of just-marrieds here). We got all geared up with boots, crampons, climbing gloves and harnesses and then piled into a van that took us up to the glacier. Once we were up on the ice, we put on all our gear and they gave us ice axes as well. We then hiked up onto the glacier to find a good climbing wall. Walking on glaciers with crampons is a ridiculous amount of fun. Once you learn to trust your crampons to hold you, you can bound around without every really having to worry about your footing (note, the guides don’t like it if you go bounding around by yourself). Despite this, our guides were very careful with us, pausing to carve out steps in the ice in places where they thought the footing was too steep.

As we hiked to the first climbing wall, they started to teach us the basics of ice-climbing. On the front of the crampon there are four spikes, two of which point straight ahead and two of with angle downward at about 45 degrees. The goal when climbing is to kick your foot into the ice in an upward motion (like trying to kick a field goal with a football) driving all four spikes into the ice. If you do this successfully with both feet, you can then stand-up on the crampons with nothing else to support you. As our guides demonstrated, on simple walls, you can walk right up them using this technique. Needless-to-say, none of us were anywhere nears as nonchalant about this as our guides were, but we managed to eek out a passable approximation during training. The next lesson was about using the ice axes. The point of the axes is not to pull yourself up the wall, but to provide balance and stability. On easier climbs, you first kick both feet into the wall, shoulder-width apart and horizontally level. You then reach up and drive the ice axes into the wall fairly close together. Once they are in, you kick your feet up the ice until they are about where your knees were. Then you stand-up on your crampons, work the axes our of the wall and drive them in again higher. Repeat until you reach the top of the climb. If at any point you’re using your forearms to pull yourself up, you’re doing it wrong.

Totally simple in theory, definitely more complex in practice when you’re hanging from a rope trying to force yourself up a wall of ice. It took them a while to setup the climbs (since they had to go up to the top of the wall and screw pins into the ice to secure the safety ropes too), so we ate out lunches while waiting for the first wall to be set. It took quite awhile and since we were in the shade, we eventually got pretty chilly. But finally it was ready. They trained us in how to belay for our partner (which is how you take in the slack on the safety rope to ensure that if the climber slips, they do not fall far). They had two climbs setup, so each team was climbing at the same time, while our guides watched and offered advice. I climbed first and it went a lot better than I had remembered from our brief climbing in Iceland. While I was only putting what we had been taught into practice about 60% of the time, it was still way easier doing it the ‘right’ way. I slipped a few times climbing up, but by the time we switched ropes and did our second climb, I was slipping a lot less and climbing much better. I made it to the top of both the initial climbs and so did Beth.

After our guides took down the ropes we hiked back down the glacier to the next climbing spot. The wall here was about twice as high (around 50 feet or so) and both climbs had some interesting natural challenges. The climb on the left extended down into a hole, so that at the end of the climb as you were being lowered down by your partner, you could get lowered an extra 7 feet or so into the hole and then have to the climb out. The climb on the right had three different paths up it, including one that was like a chimney, where you had to climb with your feet on different sides of a split in the ice, as well as a small overhang near the top.

Since we were at the top of the climb, we had to get down to the base, so one at a time, they attached a line to us and had us walk backwards over the edge of the wall. Once we were clear of the rim, they could then lower us down. The other two members of our party were not particularly excited about having to walk over the edge of the cliff, but we all made it down fine.

I was first climber in our group again and we started on the left climb. The climb up was probably the most fun of the day, since it was challenging without being intensely difficult. I slipped once or twice, but for the most part did very well. Got lowered into the hole on the way down and got pretty stuck. Due to the constrained nature of the space, it was very hard to use the ice axes, which meant you had to climb almost entirely with your feet. It took a lot of slipping and cursing to get up and out. We switched-up and Beth climbed the wall. She started out really strong, but fatigued her forearms by pulling herself up with her ice axes too much and didn’t make it to the top. The descent did not go much better since her crappy belaying partner (i.e., me) managed to let out the rope too quickly and she dropped a fair bit and banged against the wall. Thankfully there was no really injury besides some bruises.

We then switched walls and I tried to climb up the ice chimney. Didn’t work. After three false starts, I switched to one of the alternative routes. Made it up to the top on that route, though the overhang gave me quite a bit of trouble and slipped quite a few times. The fact it was my fourth climb and I was overusing my forearms also contributed, since I was pretty fatigued. But I made it and Beth managed to only moderately slam me into the wall on the way down. Beth’s turn was next and with some extra instruction from Sean she climbed really well up to the overhang, which unfortunately defeated her.

Our guides then gave us a choice of doing some more climbs on the wall we were on or hiking down off the glacier and around to its base to see a cool ice cave. Since we were all pretty tired, we opted for the ice cave, which was the right choice. It was a really cool tunnel through the glacier which most people never saw (since it was done under the glacier where tours do not usually go) and which will probably be gone in a week or so. We took lots of pictures in the cave and then tramped back to the parking lot where a bus picked us up and took us back to town. We changed out of our ice-climbing gear, got in our car, and set off on another epic drive.

On the way down the coast, we stopped to hike out to the Blue Pools. It was a fairly quick hike out to a pretty view of the pools, but the water level was incredibly low. This was something we had noticed throughout our drive down the coast. New Zealand is in the midst of a massive drought; areas which normally get rain 20 days a month have not had rain in over a month and everything is suffering. We noticed it somewhat on Abel Tasmin, where the non-tidal rivers were not what they could have been, but it was far more recognizable on our drive down the coast. Fields which normally would have been green and lush were brown and dead. Many of the fields had improvised irrigation equipment in them, something that has never been part of farming in NZ. Since the water level was so low the pools had a vast stony beach which enterprising travelers had filled with stone cairns and sculptures, so we wandered a little looking at what people had constructed.

From the Blue Pools is was about two hours more into Queenstown. We arrived there around 9pm and got dinner at a recommended Thai restaurant, @Thailand. Queenstown was a bit of a change from what we’ve been used to in our travel. As our Dutch friend Ursula put it, Queenstown is full of youngsters spending Mommy and Daddy’s money. Which is at least partially true. Queenstown is definitely a party town and there are definitely a good number of people there who are not existing on their own dime. It is also an upscale resort town, so there are a goodly number of people who are very much existing on their own extensive means: it is not coincidence that there is Louis Vuitton shop amongst other exclusive shopfronts here. And there is also a large group of youngsters in Queenstown who are living off their own means, working in hostels or with the numerous tourist service companies. But it is undeniable that the city exists in a state of perpetual partying and indulgence.

We got our dinner to go and sat out on a bench along the pier to eat (red curry for me and tofu thai basil for Beth). During dinner we were only accosted once, by a group of drunken Australian girls (ladies?) who wanted their picture taken while they groped a statue of the founder of Queenstown and his sheep in vaguely inappropriate ways. Once our meal was done it was time to continue our travels. My eyes were done, so Beth got to continue driving (she had already navigated the treacherous mountain pass that lead down from the hills into Queenstown) all the way down to Te Anau (another 2 hours). The holiday park we were staying in was closed by the time we arrived, but we had made prior arrangements, so there were keys waiting for us when we rolled in around midnight. We drove into the park, found our magical triangular hut, and passed out.

Leave a Reply