Hiking on Tasman Glacier in New Zealand
Did you know that New Zealand has over 3,100 glaciers? So where better to do a glacier hiking experience!?
That was at the top of our bucket list that we wanted to do on our trip to New Zealand.
After some failed attempts to do a ‘heli hike’ at the famous Franz Joseph glacier, then the nearby Fox glacier due to poor weather, we were incredibly disheartened to think we’d missed our chance.
A week or so later we were in Queenstown and still reflecting on that disappointment. I wondered if there were any other options. Our next stop was Lake Tekapo and I realised Mount Cook was not far from there, naively I thought is there a glacier there? Yes, only the Tasman Glacier which is the longest and largest in New Zealand and runs alongside the mountain.
Thankfully there is a company that will fly you up there that called Southern Alps Guiding. They take you up in a helicopter or ski plane (depending which section you’re going to and conditions), drop you off so you can hike and explore, including checking out some impressive ice caves, then take you back down again.
I rang them up two days before, praying for availability and thankfully they could fit us in. They do small groups so we knew we got lucky and had to take our chance. On the day itself it was touch and go as to whether we’d go up due to rapidly changing conditions up on the mountain.
We were all weighed and the helicopter would have to go on two flights to get us all there. Being the smallest I had to sit right at the front shoved in between the pilot and the guide. Is this the best place for someone who is afraid of heights and flying? Tough luck! I had to get over that very quickly.
Off we went, the helicopter started to lift instantly and we felt weightless. We flew across the valley gracefully hugging the mountain side to avoid sudden wind gusts. It took about 10 minutes flight time and we were over the glacier.
Landing in another world
Quickly we were ushered out and had to stay low on our hands and knees while the helicopter took off. As it glided away and silence resumed I lifted my face up and looked around. It really felt like you landed on another world and we were greeted with awe inspiring sights all around us. Instantly we could feel how solid and thick the ice beneath us was, and I could see the deep blue colour inside. You also see snow covered mountains in all directions and the edges of the glacier coming down the rock. Immediately we got our crampons strapped on our feet so we were able to move without slipping, then took in the surroundings until the others arrived.Once together we started trekking across the extreme ridges and shapes of the icy landscape, stopping regularly to drink the pure glacial water.
Next stop: Ice Cave
As we trudged along we came across the main destination, an entrance down into a deep ice cave! Our guide went ahead and put in a handline (using his ice axe) and we were instructed to come down one by one. Somehow I ended up going down first. It was roughly 10 metres below the surface and at a steep 45-degree angle – it was a little daunting. Especially as the cave was so perfectly formed and smooth that it was incredibly slippery, along with a small trickle of water making it even more so.
Down I went stepping in some makeshift footholds, created by our guide’s axe and also just by jabbing my crampons into the ice. At one point I had to turn around and go down backwards. At this stage, one of our fellow hikers was attempting to come down too. He swiftly slipped, knocking a big piece of ice down the cave tunnel and unleashing a big stream of water that hit me in the face and shot down the inside of my coat. The cold alone nearly knocked me off my feet, along with the now flowing water. I managed to regain my footing and didn’t fall all the way down. Good job I had a tight grip on the handline.
Recovered, I continued down and landed in the middle of the expansion of an incredible cave. The first thing I noticed was the unbelievable blue lighting caused by the thick blue ice. The walls were also so smooth it looked practically man-made. There was a large hole in one part of the roof where the sun was beating down and melting that section. Plus a deeper section where the cave went down further but it got much darker. We didn’t venture down there but made our way through a few levels of the cave and it opened out into a valley of ice and fallen rock. It was mind-blowing.
By now it had been several hours and it was time for the helicopter to come back and get us. Before we knew it we were back gliding through the air, level with the mountains and buzzing off the whole experience. Back on land, it seemed surreal to believe we’d just experienced such a wonder of nature.
Beautiful but disappearing
It is a pretty harrowing thought to know that if global warming continues at its current rate that glacier won’t exist in 35 years time… how terribly sad it is the way we all contribute to destroying this world. Already the glacier has recited dramatically. Tasman glacier is melting rapidly—according to the official climate hot map at an average rate of 180 metres per year since the 1990s— so much that a lake formed at the end of the glacier in the late twentieth century. By 2008 the lake was more than four miles long, 1.2 miles wide, and 245 metres deep. Previously you could just walk to the glacier and get on it, now you have to fly over this lake to get to the actual ice.
New Zealand (along with the rest of the world) is due to warm up so this deterioration is only going to speed up.
Now is the time to do this, go see the glacier in all its glory.
We both highly recommend this experience, not only for a fantastic adrenaline rush but for the opportunity to really see a splendour of nature. Seeing it first hand is when you can appreciate the stunning world we live in, but also how we need to do what we can to preserve it for future generations.
The experience does come at a premium, but it is a unique and awe inspiring ride that I can thoroughly recommend. You take away a whole new appreciation for mountains and ice!
Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d like to do? Or have you done it at one of the other glaciers in New Zealand?
Always great to hear your thoughts!