Where South Island, New Zealand How Long 6-7 hours
Our guide carved a new path through the ice with his pick and – feeling like explorers scaling the ice for the first time – we walked in a line behind him, literally in his footsteps for fear of slipping down a crevasse.
There's a sense of nature taking charge all over New Zealand, but nowhere more so than in Glacier Country, on the wild west coast of the South Island. Here, nature wears her history on her surly snowcaps, where the moving remnants of the Ice Age creak and scrape as they advance, eventually trickling down to feed into thick rainforests below. The incongruity of seeing ice faces and rainforests in the same frame feels otherworldly, like a day out in Middle-earth – but as I fitted boots with crampons, I began to feel decidedly more Ranulph Fiennes than Frodo.
Eight miles of ice
Fox Glacier is the longest on the west coast, falling some 2,600 metres on its eight-mile journey from the Southern Alps. It has been advancing at a staggering rate – roughly 90 centimetres a day since 1985, approximately ten times the speed of most valley glaciers around the world. As a result, no two visits to Fox can ever be the same. New ice features form hourly, while others – if you're lucky – break off dramatically.
We climbed slowly up the ice face from the salt-and-pepper slush at the bottom, spiking with our crampons and pulling our weight up with the help of alpenstocks. We walked through ice tunnels, up to the sheer faces of electric blue-white ice mountains and into gaping ice caves. All around, pinnacles of ice were dusted with snow, juxtaposed with rounded Dalí-esque valleys of ice and plateaux cut with miniature jagged peaks.
We ate our lunch on a relatively flat part of the glacier and took in the sounds of silence – even the tour group sat in silence, listening only to the prehistoric creaking of the glacier on the move and the odd bird coasting on the breeze.
The descent was, if anything, tougher than the climb. Every muscle was concentrated on not slipping down the ice, which, melted by a day of dull sun, was now slightly wet. Even with aching muscles and the magical colours turning into a mundane grey slush and scree at the bottom, I was already planning a return trip.
When to go
The glacier is open for treks year round, but November to April has the best weather.
The nearest airport is Queenstown. From there it's a five-hour drive north to Fox Glacier.