As far as near death experiences go, I have had a few. In Africa, I was caught in the middle of dueling Cape buffalo bulls, separated from their rage and fury by the thin netting of my tent. In Russia, a car next to me exploded in a Russian Mafia hit. As a youngster, in the Valley of the Things That Bite in rural Mexico, I was stung by a scorpion and slipped into a near comatose state for a day. Even now, as I reflect upon experiences and journeys, I never felt as close to death as when glacier climbing in New Zealand.
Taking the train across the mountains from Christ Church to Greymouth, we made my way down the West coast of the South Island using public bus. We meandered down the picturesque coast to the glacial region. Shortly after Hokitika, while driving at breakneck speed, the bus driver opened his side window and threw something from the bus. Surprised, I ceased looking at the landscape to watch his driving habits more closely. We passed over a one-lane bridge. I had seen one-lane bridges for two-way traffic before, but this was my first experience with one accommodating cars, buses, pedestrians, and trains. I asked the driver what happens when the train comes, and he replied, “It only comes in the morning.” I was relieved to be on the afternoon bus. Just past the bridge the driver slowed a bit, opened the bus door, grabbed a tightly wound paper and hurled it out the door towards a driveway. Paper Delivery! The public bus was doubling as paperboy. Sure enough we passed about 15 driveways between Hokitika and our destination and at each one, the driver tossed a paper into or near the driveway.
New Zealand’s South Island is breathtaking. The West coast remains sparsely populated and has a unique climatic condition that contributes to its beauty and mystique. The warm breezes collect off the Australian shores and collide with New Zealand’s descending Southern Island Alps. This creates combinations of tropical foliage mixed with glaciers; snow capped mountains, and clean clear beaches within 5 kilometers of each other. In a T-shirt and shorts, I marveled at this phenomenon. Clean, and fresh, and very few other people around, I imagined that this is as it was hundreds of years ago.
Arriving in Franz Josef in the evening, I discovered reservations were not required for any of the glacier sojourns. It was first come first serve and dependent upon the weather. Franz Josef was a small town made mostly of hotels and inns converted from homes, two or three places to eat, a gas station, and a tourist center.
In the early morning I hurried to the tourist center. The overcast weather prohibited us from taking a helicopter flight to the upper glacier. I signed up for the glacier hike starting at its base. I boarded a bus with a few other people and drove to the mighty Franz Josef Glacier. As we walked through the jungle to the base, we caught glimpses of the glacier through the canopy. We hurried along the path, stopping at the wash. In the wash, nothing grew. It was merely a giant stretch of open space covered with rocks and intermittent streams. Clearly, in storm time, this was not a place to be. From one side of the canyon wall to the other, little existed except the tell-tales signs that this area was frequently wiped clean – leaving pebbles and tributaries as a warning for all to beware. We descended into the wash, stepping over the streams up to the glacier base.
We were eager to get on the glacier. From afar the glacier sloped gently upwards, boxed in by steep canyon walls sparsely decorated by towering ferns and tiny waterfalls. However up close, a steep staircase chiseled into the face of the glacier was the only way up.
No warning signs, no training classes, no seminar on glacier safety. Just a young man, in shorts, saying let’s go. Each member of our 10-person group strapped on metal cleats and took one glacial ice ax from the guide’s bag. Up we went.
The gentle slopes, after the initial climb up the steep staircase were quite easy, and allowed us all to marvel at the stark contrasts been the jungle-like canyon walls and the blue-white glacier. The pace was brisk. Soon things started to change. The path disappeared, as our guide hopped like a goat across crevasses, chasms, and bottomless pools of water. He cut makeshift steps and ledges along sheer ice walls. The group, filled with excitement, sallied forth nervously. We stopped to eat some lunch. At this point the group separated into the fit, confident, and ready, and the less fit, unsure, and nervous.
After lunch some light rain showers began. The top ice slush washed away, making the glacier slick. Rivers sprang to life throughout the glacier. We could hear torrents of water in the hidden tunnels below. We pressed onward. Terrestrial contrasts emerged more frequently. As navigated through deep ravines and ice chasms, viewing the rock and jungle canyon walls became rare. When we did emerge, we saw the splendor of the canyon walls strewn with waterfalls. The fog and storm clouds dropped down below the canyon tops and edged closer to us. Absolutely stunning! However while down in the ravines and crevasses I had no sense of direction. Constantly going up and down giant moguls and ice pits, turning right then left, then right again with no recognizable landmarks, obliterated all sense of heading up or down the glacier. Everything was blue-white. I could no longer tell North, South, East, or West, making me uneasy.
When the rain came down full time only two or three people were keeping up with the guide. Some people in our group were visibly struggling and frightened. A combination of afternoon light and thicker storm clouds reduced visibility. Other groups that we had seen off and on during our climb had already headed back while we pressed onward. We arrived at a 15-foot pool in a U shape with sheer 20-foot walls on both sides with a large waterfall at the base of the U. I have eagerly greeted such formations in the tropics of Southeast Asia with swimsuits and marveled at how nature could create something so spectacular. It surprised me that a glacier contained such beauty. Amidst my awe, I noticed that the guide had started using his ice axe to cut mini-ledges into the walls and began a course towards the waterfall. Instead of going around, he was going to take us through! I have rarely backed down from a challenge, but this made my gut sink. On a rainy, slick glacier, with no safety gear or training, our guide was expecting us to make a difficult traverse along a sheer wall up through fast moving water. One slip meant a freezing plunge into a pool of unknown depth. I wasn’t alone with my thoughts. Even the hearty exchanged looks.
We alternated confident people with less confident people for safety and followed in our guide’s cleat marks. Each carved ledge only went three to four inches into the ice wall. As the first person neared the half way mark, the guide was on top of the waterfall and cheered us on. We each moved as fast as the person in front of us. Slowly, but steadily, the group moved along, some facing towards the wall some facing the pool of ice water just inches away from our feet. I began by facing outwards, looking down into the depths of the abyss. I edged along carefully, attendant to my wards on either side, giving them words of confidence and reassuring them. When I neared the mid point, I attempted to rotate from facing the pool to the facing the wall. I thought this would be more secure position for my ascent up the waterfall. I swung my left foot clockwise. As I finished the swing and landed on the makeshift ledge, my right foot lost its hold as a chunk of ice gave way. I hurled my ice ax as hard and fast as I could into the ice wall, stopping my fall, but not before my right foot tasted the chilly water. Both of my wards yelped, as did I. Pulling my foot back up to a ledge, my thoughts were filled with the fact that the ice cleats on the bottom of my boot were so heavy that if I had slipped into the water, I would have gone straight down. I had been one fraction of a second away from this unpleasant end. Even though I felt sick and twangs of embarrassment, I gathered my composure, and continued – what other options did I have?
It took nearly an hour for all of us to make the traverse. Now it was getting late and darker. Our guide stood up on a pinnacle and saw the other groups already at the base of the glacier, the darkening skies, and the constant rainfall. He stated it was time to head back.
His pace quickened, but many of us were already quite shaken and tired. There were no easy way down. We had to make several other similar and equally terrifying ascents and descents. We went slowly, and all of us moved cautiously.
On the way down the glacier, several people slipped and one person lost their ice ax. One climber was crying visibly, and two others were tearing, but not sobbing. At long last we made it to the bottom. When we finally made it to the bottom, only a few bits of light remained. We now had another problem. The rain caused the wash tributaries to swell into rivers. The guide stopped at the edge, counted his flock and told us to link arms as we crossed. The morning stream, that had been two feet across and up to the edge of my boots, was now close to waist high and eight feet across. Glacier bits sped down the newly formed river. As we crossed, ice chunks crashed into our legs causing us to wince in pain from the combination of cold and blunt trauma.
We all made it across and onto a higher ground. The group hurried back to the bus shivering and exhausted. Our guide quipped: “I’ve never been out on the glacier this late.” “A first time for everything.” he continued cheerily.
I turned back to the glacier, all details invisible save a stark blue white glow. Sounds of river rushing, water falling, and ice cracking filled the air. With a mix of adrenaline, frustration, and accomplishment, I pondered my near early demise. No epiphanies. No moments of clarity. No life flashing before my eyes. I only had a greater appreciation for life and the challenges ahead. Sharleen, holding my hand, whispered: “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” Indeed.