One day of Heli-hiking near the Fox Glacier
Seven people gathered in the equipment room of the Fox Glacier Alpine Guides: Guides, Rob and Craig; Jim and Jan from England, Matt (me) from Wellington, my friend Sue from Maine, and Alan from Hawke's Bay. The guides handed out equipment and talked about the need for and use of Avalanche Locators (457 MHz). After everyone was ready, we grabbed a lunch bag and moved our gear to a van that would transport us to the heli-pad a few kilometres out of town.
Rob, Jan, Jim and Alan went first in the larger helicopter. Craig, Sue and I squeezed into the tiny second helicopter. Sue had told me that the last time she was in a helicopter she vomited.
The flight took about 8 minutes, flying straight up the u-shaped valley carved out by the Fox Glacier. We flew past amazing waterfalls and over the huge tongue of ice that is the Fox Glacier. Because of the possiblility of poor afternoon weather, the pilot dropped us off above the Chancellor Hut, on a small snowfield.
Sue didn't get sick. In fact, she did just fine.
We landed about 4 metres from the other members of our party. It seemed that we landed really close to them as they huddled in the rotor-wash of flying snow. We quickly unloaded and squatted next to them as the helicopter departed.
After a few photos, we shouldered our packs and started out across the plateau towards some steeper snow leading up to the dome. Craig led, and we followed his steps up the hill. The snow was perfect for mountaineering: about 6" deep and still stiff from the night's freeze. After 20 minutes or so, we hit some steeper snow that had been wind-blown a bit, so we roped up and put on crampons.
I am not sure how long it took us to get almost to the top of the dome, but with a couple of breaks, it was probablly about an hour. When we reached the rock outcropping at the top of the dome, we removed our crampons, and stowed our ice axes. Rob fixed a rope and one-by-one we climbed a short pitch then traversed to our lunch spot on the summit. Towards the end of lunch, we all noticed that the 360° views that we had been enjoying were suddenly clouded over, and the brilliant views towards Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook were mostly not there any more. The valley up from the ocean had filled with clouds, and the weather was tightening in.
We moved back across the rocky traverse and down to our stash of crampons and ice axes. We roped up again and descended the same ridge we gained to get to the summit.
It started to snow lightly.
The clouds rolled in.
We were walking in a milk bottle. Downhill.
After passing the drop-off zone, we continued downhill on a gentle slope until we got to a 150 metre headwall, where Rob and Craig short-roped us together and fixed an anchor for us to rapel on. Alan lead the gully and we progressed to the bottom through some knee-deep snow.
When the group was back together again, we followed the ridge down and to the right to the Chancellor Hut. To our left was a big drop the the main reach of the glacier and there was the steep headwall to our right. We followed a meandering ridge down to the hut where two helicopters were going to try to get in under the weather to collect us.
We took a quick look in the hut and then piled our gear up near the heli-pad. We tramped the snow down so that the pilot could see it better.
We waited and hoped that the helicopters could make it in.
Shortly, the larger helicopter appeared way down on the glacier and flew up to where we waited.
Rob, Jan, Jim and Alan hopped in and they took off.
When our hilicopter arrived, we loaded our packs and squeezed in. The pilot lifted off slightly and dropped off the face of the ridge towards the glacier. I am sure it seemed way more steep than it really was, but the rush was incredible!
Within five minuutes we were back at the heli-port and back in the sun.
8 January, 2003