Hops and Skips

Snapshots: Climbing New Zealand’s Fox Glacier

Driving down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers can be seen in the same panorama as the region’s sandy beaches. It’s a country of varied landscapes, packed so tightly together that one could theoretically surf in the morning and ice climb before the sun sets. These neighboring glaciers are two of the most accessible in the world since they stretch almost to the sea. 

But like everywhere else, New Zealand’s icy peaks are feeling the heat of climate change. For over a hundred years, visitors could access both glaciers by guided tours on foot. When we visited in 2014, the Franz Josef had just recently ended (in 2012) direct access to the glacier terminus; the valley leading to the glacier’s end was deemed too dangerous for tours, meaning the only way to reach the ice was by helicopter. We were still able to take a half-day hike to Fox Glacier, approaching its terminus by an access road and footpath. Once we reached the end (or from our perspective, the beginning) of the ice, we strapped on crampons and began to climb.

Fox, like Franz Josef, is considered a fast-moving glacier. According to our guide, Kat, Fox Glacier moves up to 3 meters a day and is always changing; if she’s gone for a week, it’s incredibly different when she comes back. The ice we tramped through was not the pristine white or blue usually associated with glacial landscape, which is a result of that movement. The surrounding cliffs that form this glacier valley is constantly eroding and dropping rocks down onto the ice.

The access road to Fox’s terminus has been closed since March 2019 following repeated flooding and a major landslide. A repair is not likely, so now, the only way to access Fox’s ice is also by heli-tour. It’s astounding to me that fewer than ten years have passed, but these snapshots capture an experience that is no longer possible.

For further reading: End of the ice: New Zealand’s vanishing glaciers

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