Fox Glacier Heli-Hike: New Zealand Photography Adventure, Day 12

Fox Glacier Ice CaveHave you ever been on a glacier? No, that’s not the right question. Better: have you ever been IN a glacier? For me the answer to both was a resounding no, until today. One of the most amazing things about this trip is that I am able to take advantage of opportunities I wouldn’t normally be able to afford. So far that’s meant a rental car, a Fiordland cruise, and perhaps coolest of all, a heli-hike to the dramatic Fox Glacier.

We were a group of 8 on this heli hike and our guide, Graza, had his hands full. In addition to a father-daughter duo there was myself and another photographer/round-the-world traveler, Sean Webb, and a group of four Taiwanese who either couldn’t understand English, or simply pretended they didn’t so they didn’t have to pay attention when Graza told us it was time to move along. Though I felt bad for Graza and surely tested his patience a time or two by lingering in places longer than he liked, I was intent on squeezing every possible moment out of this hike in order to shoot. But to his credit, Graza stayed cheerful and professional as he herded us -albeit slowly- from feature to feature. He even gave us a dose of glaciers 101.

Glacier Guide Graham "Graza" on Fox Glacier, New Zealand

“A crevasse is like a glacial boa constrictor,” he was saying, “you fall in one of those and you’re done for. Every time you breathe out you slip a little further into the crevasse, until you are wedged in so tight you can’t breathe in anymore and you die. Even the shallow crevasses are dangerous. We had a guy lose his footing and fall sideways into a crack that was only 3 feet deep, but because of the angles of the ice and the pinching forces generated when he fell in he broke 3 ribs. He was wedged in so tight that the rescue team broke another 3 when they hoisted him out using a block and tackle system.” In other words, never fall into a crevasse.

Fox Glacier CrevasseOr a moulin. Because if you fall into a moulin, broken ribs are the least of your worries. Holes carved through the glacier by meltwater, moulins are alluring and frightening all at the same time. Graza demonstrated this by chucking a piece of ice into a particularly beautiful fissure in the glacier and counting the seconds till it hit the bottom. Spa-loosh! After 3 long seconds we heard the splash as the ice hunk hit a pool of freezing water some 150 feet below. And we all took a big step backward.

Ice sculptures and crevasse, Fox Glacier, New Zealand

But not all moulins are deadly. Some times a moulin will grow and grow until it becomes a cave in the ice, sort of like a blue slot canyon. And then, abruptly, the feeder stream will change course, allowing the cave to dry out and stabilize. Then it can be safe to venture into the cave and explore, which is exactly what we got to do. Walking into the depths of the cave I watched as every color except blue was leached out of the light until eventually everything glowed with an internal cyan aura. Here Graza was gracious enough to give me plenty of time to explore the cave and shoot the mind-bending assortment of curves, stripes, and ice sculptures.

Eventually the group got tired of waiting for me and I was summoned from the cave so we could finish the rest of our hike. Over the next hour, Graza led us past a fantastic array of delicate arches, pure white waterfalls, and pools of aquamarine water. All too quickly the afternoon wound its way toward evening and we hustled back to the chopper pad to catch our lift off the glacier.

(If this sounds fun to you, be sure to check out my New Zealand Photography Tour. This epic workshop visits the West Coast Glaciers and give you an opportunity of your own to see the heart of a glacier. Check it out here.)

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