“You HAVE to go on a guided hike of New Zealand’s Fox Glacier! It’s something you’ll NEVER forget!”
This advice, offered from a friend, echoed in my brain as I stood on Fox Glacier, soaked and bloodied, with nothing on but hiking boots, shorts and a bra.
Is this what she had in mind?
The clouds hung ominously low over the mountains that chilly February summer morning 8 years ago on New Zealand’s South Island. Today I would take part of a guided helihike on the breathtaking Fox Glacier.
“Just make sure you don’t wear jeans,” our tour guide instructed as we prepared for our journey.
Packing a few weeks before the trip, winter clothing never entered my mind since it would be summertime in NZ. Shorts, jeans, tees and swimsuits for those warm days… a sweater and light windbreaker for those rare chilly evenings. Since they instructed against jeans, shorts it was!
TIP #1: Unless you enjoy freezing your bits & pieces off, DO NOT wear shorts while trekking a glacier! I’ts a BAD IDEA! Find an alternative – borrow someone else’s pants if you have to.
After being outfitted with heavy hiking boots, crampons (spiked plates fixed to your boot to provide a firm grip on the ice) and walking sticks…we ascended to the skies to a higher elevation of the glacier.
The glistening glacier was filled with black crevasses and uninviting crystalline, bottomless icy pools. A shiver went through my body as I wondered just how far down those pools went. My fear of drowning had never been as present as it was then.
Our guide reminded us that Fox Glacier was constantly on the move and that Mother Nature was as dangerous as she was beautiful.
I made sure my steps were deliberate and secure.
The tour guide led us over the terrain and inside ice caves.
We then traversed a hill with a fairly steep decline to our immediate left. As the crampon on my boot secured itself into the ground, the ice crumbled from under my foot, causing me to lose my balance, slip and fall to the ground and slide with increasing speed down the slick and oftentimes bumpy face of ice.
I soon realized that this wasn’t going to end well.
At the end of the slide was the most pristine, bone numbing pool of bottomless water, and I was about to be launched right into it.
My nightmare was about to become real.
Many thoughts ran through my mind before I was launched into the abyss:
- Are these heavy boots going to take me straight to the bottom?
- Why didn’t I ever take a professional swimming lesson in my 31 years of life?
- Shall I attempt a cannon ball? (okay, maybe not…lol)
- How fast will hypothermia set in?
- How will I get out?
- Will I get out?
- Is this the end?
The sharp pang of freezing water felt like an electric shock through my body.
I wildly splashed my arms around praying that my doggy paddle would be enough to get me over to the side.
I never liked swimming in water where I couldn’t touch the bottom. To me, 6 feet was deep…this was ridiculous!
TIP #2: Swimming Lessons! No matter what your age, it’s never too late to learn how to swim. Although my parents showed me a few moves when I was little, I always felt uncomfortable in the water.
The amazingly clear, turquoise water was so deep that you could see glacier canyon formations down below followed by a black abyss – destination unknown.
Did I mention I’m the worst at treading water?
I knew I had to compose myself or my panic would get out of control…(like it hadn’t already!)
I somehow managed to swim to the side of the pool (don’t ask me how!), but the ledge was too steep and slippery to pull myself out, so I hung on to an icy projectile (that I swear God put there just for me) for what seemed like an eternity.
With each passing second, my breathing slowed down and I grew fatigued. My body ached from the fall, and yet I was numb. My hands were red and raw.
Images of my family and friends flashed before my eyes, and tears streamed down my face wondering if this was how my life was going to end – cold and numb, surrounded by ice, freezing in a bottomless abyss without the warmth of my family’s love around me. I said a prayer.
TIP #3: Always tell your family you love them because you never know when you could find yourself in a precarious situation.
There came a point when silence filled the air and all I could hear was the sound of my own breath and water dripping into the glacier pool.
I looked up to my right to see my tour mates standing frozen in shock…some were crying. Strangely, I felt at peace with my possible fate.
I grew increasingly calm and started to take in the beauty surrounding me. It reminded me of the planet Crypton, and I was waiting for Superman to swoop down out of the skies, pull me out of the water & lovingly wrap me in his red cape.
Instead, a hand reached down from above, and with one forceful yank on the back of my shorts (giving me the mother of all wedgies to boot!), I was pulled out of the pool and onto the ice where I laid on my stomach with jackets being thrown over me.
“What is your name love?” asked Boris, the hike leader.
“Are you okay? Is anything hurting?”
“I think I’m fine…just freezing.”
“Are you able to stand up?”
“Yes, I think so.”
They supported me as I stood up. Noticing I was wearing a drenched sweater beneath my windbreaker, Boris said, “Love, we need you to remove your sweater.”
“It’s saturated and you need to warm up.”
My mind raced back to that morning as I was dressing. What undergarment had I chosen to wear?
TIP #4: You never know what will happen during your travels, so always remember to bring your personality, a sense of adventure and a nice set of undies!
There I was, in the middle of a glacier field wearing nothing but shorts, boots and my (poorly chosen) soaked bra.
Little did I know that day that I would be providing mid-tour entertainment in the middle of Fox Glacier!
One of the guides wrapped me in their jacket & proceeded to rub my arms & legs vigorously to stay warm.
As I turned to look back at the black abyss that almost swallowed me mere seconds ago, reality slapped me in the face, and I started to cry & COMPLETELY lost it, screaming, “I could’ve F****NG died!” I think I repeated that phrase like 2-3 times…or was it 10?
“Do you want to finish the hike or be helicoptered back to the lodge?”
A true Kiwi would push on with iron will, but this California girl had her share of adventures for the entire trip. All I wanted to do was crawl under a blanket, curl into a ball and pretend it never happened.
I opted for the helicopter ride back, especially when I noticed the scrapes on my hands and the stream of blood flowing down my legs from my badly cut knees.
As I walked away from the icy pool, I felt something dangling from my wrist – it was my digital camera. I was completely unaware that it had suffered the same fate I did, but unlike me, my camera didn’t survive. I began to cry thinking of all of the memories I had captured that were now erased. (Little did I know at the time that although my camera did perish, my memory card did not…hooray!)
TIP #5: When traveling near water, snow or glaciers, opt for a water proof camera or a waterproof cover for your camera. You never know when a spontaneous dip will come your way!
With record time, the guides helped me back to the helicopter, and I was flown immediately back to the lodge where hot soup and dry clothes were waiting for me when we landed.
As we left the lodge later that afternoon and headed to Queenstown, I decided to cancel my sky dive the next day. One near death experience was quite enough – I didn’t need two.
Upon hearing this, our tour guide showed disappointment in her face. “Don’t let a spill in a glacier pool ruin your vacation. You handled the worst – sky diving is a piece of cake…and you’ll love it!”
I let her words sink in as I drifted in and out of sleep on the tour bus.
As we rolled into Queenstown several hours later, I smiled knowing that even though the impromptu glacier experience shook me to the core (literally!), it was exactly what I came to New Zealand for – to have an adventure-filled trip of a lifetime!
And after sky diving, bungee jumping, participating in a challenging rope course, eating asphalt after falling off my vespa and standing half naked on a glacier…I did just that!
…And I’d do it all over again!