Queuing at various desks for boots, waterproofs and crampons made my husband and I feel like we were in the army. In reality we were at the Glacier Guides office in the buzzing little town of Franz Josef, about to undertake a half day glacier hike.
Ten minutes later we were so wrapped up it was difficult to sit down and I knew if I fell over I wouldn’t be able to get up again. Finally we were ready to get up close and personal with one of New Zealand’s most spectacular sights.
When we arrived at the glacier car park the rain was hammering down. We got some very strange looks from passing tourists as we streamed off the coach dressed in our matching blue waterproofs from head to foot.
“Don’t worry about the weather” said one of the guides, sensing our unease. “It rains here more than 300 days of the year - we’re used to it and it hardly ever becomes a problem. The river bed only floods occasionally when it gets really bad.”
I have to admit, when I’d woken up in the morning to see the rain I had secretly been praying that the trip would be cancelled. Climbing was not my thing, and climbing in the pouring rain sounded like my worst nightmare Then again I was in New Zealand – a country that somehow has the ability to make everyone feel that little bit braver and try out new things in the name of adventure.
Our group took a detour from the tourist trail, following an unmarked pathway. The forest track led us to a wide, boulder strewn river bed. The valley had been carved out by the receding glacier and all that remained were fingers of babbling streams.
We started the 2km trek along the valley floor, stumbling over the slippery rocks as our oversized hoods flapped over our faces. As our destination loomed closer we started to get excited at the prospect of climbing the mass of ice that lay before us.
From a distance the glacier looked like a tumble of snow; up close it looked a sturdy mix of ice, rock and mud.
Our guide explained that the glacier was shaped like a frying pan; a large round with a handle sticking out. The part we were going to tackle was the end of the handle.
It was time to put on crampons and get stuck in. We were asked to divide into two groups - I immediately joined the ‘not so confident’ group hoping we’d go up the easy route - and started our ascent.
It turned out there was no easy route. Everyone had to clamber over loose rocks until we reached the ice steps. These were carved into the steep face and in places had a rope we could use to haul ourselves up.
When we reached the top of the first set of steps we had to walk diagonally across an expanse of ice towards the next ascent. When I looked down I suddenly realised how high up we were and there was nothing to keep us from falling. I made sure that I pressed my crampons into the ice all the more firmly.
We climbed more steps and in the less steep sections we scrambled upwards on the sloping ice, at times clutching the ground through our mittens. There were moments when I didn’t press my crampons into the loose ice hard enough and I found myself starting to slide. It was just another reminder that this was more dangerous than the average day trip.
When we stopped for a drink and chocolate break the enormity of the experience hit us. The ice was blue-white in places and the scenery was ridiculously beautiful. We were dangerously high yet had barely scratched the surface of the glacier. It was everything we’d dreamed it would be and more.
I’ve never understood why some people feel the need to scale mountains, but today I almost got it. It felt like I’d conquered something vast. I’d challenged myself to do something outside my comfort zone, something that made me nervous. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
Our journey didn’t end there. We pulled ourselves up through crisp ice holes. We edged along narrow crevices where we had to walk sideways to squeeze through. We saw large cracks that had recently appeared and watched how quickly the freshly cut ice steps started to deteriorate. We were witnessing nature in action and the thought that the ice could shift or split at any time added to the thrill.
As the climb went on, we became colder and wetter. Our woollen mittens were drenched, our coats and trousers shiny with water and our noses were streaming.
When it came to climbing down, it turned out to be surprisingly easy (maybe it was because I was already dreaming of hot chocolate!) Hauling myself forwards down steep ice steps was unnerving, but to see the ground getting closer and closer was a relief.
When I reached the bottom I was exhausted but proud.
New Zealand was turning me into an outdoor adventurer; something I never dreamed I could be.