We've hiked in quite a few places over the years, but it wasn't until New Zealand that I added glacier hiking to the list. Cat had done it years ago but from the base which didn't take her to the pristine snow found on the higher slopes of the glacier. Having a helicopter scenic flight is pretty lavish, but nowadays on Franz and Fox glaciers this is the only way you can actually walk on the glacier as the old route from the base up is considered too unstable. We decided to treat ourselves to a half an hour scenic flight with a snow landing.
We loved the experience so much we decided to take it a step further on Tasman glacier at Mount Cook and actually hike on the glacier itself.
They were both incredible experiences and pretty far from our backpacking days. I guess that's what happens when you take off travelling again in your thirties.
If you're weighing up either option we've written our experiences to help you make the tough decision!
Fox Glacier - Franz Josef
As soon as we arrived in New Zealand, the weather gods conspired to make things as difficult as possible. After a record summer that had bordered on drought, nature was rebalancing in force. Two days before we were due to arrive in Franz Josef a huge storm wiped out huge swathes of the main road in the west coast.
We're not just talking about a little bit of rain, this was a storm that caused landslides and slips all along the one road that services the west coast on the south island of New Zealand. This was made worse by a freakishly high tide that made the effects of the storm even worse.
For a while we weren't even sure if we would make it to Franz Josef at all! But the people working on the roads did a pretty amazing job and cleared all the debris, trees and mud that had blocked the way. We made it to Franz Josef and knew we had just three days to hope the skies cleared allowing us to get up on the glacier.
Two days of non-stop rain later and things weren't looking too good. However, the weather can change really suddenly in New Zealand and we were in luck. On the morning we were leaving Franz the skies completely cleared and there was only a little bit of mist! It was more than we could have hoped for.
We hopped in the helicopter and within ten minutes we had flown over Fox Glacier and climbed to the top of the world, landing on dazzlingly white snow all round. The flight itself was utterly spectacular, you get close enough to the jagged peaks to gasp and wonder at the skill of the pilot. Even if you have flown in a helicopter before there really are no words to describe what it feels like watching the mountains and rivers below you. I'm sure it will be the most memorable flight I will ever take.
On landing, it's hard to really explain how stunning it is, especially having spent the previous week in grey skies. On top of the glacier it was almost blindingly bright and you are surrounded by huge mountain peaks. It is fairly busy up there, there were two other helicopters landed when we were, although far enough away for it not to be distracting.
After what felt like a blink of an eye, we were back in the helicopter and heading back down to earth, we really weren't ready to leave.
Within ten minutes we were back at the village and though wishing we could do it all again, we spent the afternoon feeling elated. It is something we'll both always remember.
The flights are expensive but our feeling is that now that you can no longer walk from the base (which was a much cheaper option) there really is no other way to get a good look at or walk on the glacier. Several of the walking tracks in the area have nice views but nothing can prepare you for flying over and landed on that pristine white snow itself.
It only left us wanting more.
We flew up to Fox Glacier with Fox and Franz Heliservices, who fly from Franz Josef.
Tasman Glacier - Mount Cook
Mount Cook is one of our favourite places in the world. The whole area is spectacular and it blew us away when we visited in 2016. On our previous visit we spent the majority of time hiking, Mount Cook has one of our favourite day tracks in the world. This time, we were back for more hiking but also to venture up to the Tasman Glacier, which we hadn't done last time.
Like our trip to Fox Glacier, things weren't looking good. By now New Zealand had suffered two cyclones in quick succession and the south island had barely had a clear day in two weeks! We received 200mm of rain in one day when walking the Milford Track, thats 1/3 of London's annual rainfall! The forecast wasn't looking good, apart from the only day we had in the area where we could make the flight.
Talk about luck.
As we drove to Aoraki in the rain, we kept thinking there had to be a mistake and that there was no chance that we would be able to fly. However, by the time we got to the airport, the clouds diverted to Lake Tekapo and drenched those poor souls.
Within an hour we were back in the air once more, soaring over the beautiful Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, over Tasman Lake and onto the Tasman Glacier itself.
As soon as we landed, we started hearing the booms of avalanches from the hundreds of glaciers in the surrounding mountains. Every 10-15 minutes we heard a crash and saw snow falling on a ledge below. It was awe inspiring and luckily they were far enough away to admire without fear of being taken out.
This time rather than just a quick snow landing as we had at Fox Glacier, we were going for a hike. It was crampons on for two hours crunching on the ice and hopping over crevasses, with time to stop and admire the views, including the side of Mount Cook you don't often get to see.
Just as at Fox Glacier, time flew as we explored small caves, peeked down crevasses and generally looked around in awe at the whole scene. As the sun burned through the clouds, it soon started to get pretty hot (yes, on a glacier, make sense of that?!) and we were all in t-shirts on the ice. Remember to use heaps of suncream as it reflects off the ice and can even burn the inside of your nose, or so we were told.
I found the ice walking pretty easy, the trick is to stamp hard to get purchase and trust your crampons. Cat had a few trust issues and was a bit more tentative but still loved it and would have loved a bit longer to build up some confidence. You don't actually walk too far as everyone stops to take a lot of photos so even if you're not fit you could still manage this walk no problem.
Over 1,000 photos later and the helicopter returned to whisk us back to reality. I don't think there will ever be enough time to take in stunning places like this.
We flew with Alpine Guides who fly then hike on Tasman Glacier from Mount Cook Airport.
Which one did we like best?
Both experiences were incredible but for the flight itself we preferred the journey from Franz Josef. You got that bit closer to the peaks themselves and the overall flying time was longer too. However it did leave us wanting more time on the snow itself, you really only get around 10 minutes and it's over in the blink of an eye, you also have to stay very close to the helicopter.
On the Tasman Glacier heli hike we got two full hours to explore the glacier which was an incredible experience and allowed you to feel like you had a better feel for it.
If you can splash out on both then it's well worth it. Otherwise your choice boils down to if you would prefer a scenic flight with a small taster of the snow or whether you would like a bit of a hike
Whichever one you choose you won't be disappointed.
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Have you been debating taking the snow landing or heli hiking trip? If you have any questions about either experience let us know in the comments below. If you've made the journey too, share! We'd love to hear from you.