FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER, New Zealand – Ice dancing is an activity usually associated with the blade-sliding crowd, currently minueting for gold at an Olympic rink in Nagano. Years of effort have gone into their romance with frozen water, and they don’t have a lot of trouble standing up or waltzing.
Of course, their wonders are performed on the well-known level playing field. However, my wanders have introduced me to a steeply slanted ballroom, defaced with chasms, parapets, and other daunting obstructions, while a catchy two-step – “Nearer My God to Thee” – pumps through my neural mush. I’d like to sit this one out.
Too late. As though unloading a recon platoon in hostile territory, the helicopter has deposited us high on this vertical ice spill called Franz Josef Glacier. Hostile? No more so than the steroidal ice cube that took out the Titanic. In fact, it could pass as that berg’s big brother. But what can I do? Phone in sick? Well . . . but the chopper is quickly gone, not to return for a couple of hours. So here we are on this waterfall with rigor mortis. It was named in 1865 for his emperor by an Austrian patriot, Julian Haast, the first to inspect the area thoroughly.
My emperor-for-a-day, guide Richard Saunders, a robust, athletic, young New Zealander, hands out ice axes to his “Walk the Glacier” tour group of 10 – we are actually paying for this! – and begins to demonstrate the use of this tool in a sort of hack-and-hike choreography. Spiked boots, also supplied, are the accepted dancing pumps, and my friend, Aurelio, steps out confidently, as though they were ballet slippers and she an Anna Pavlova in Antarctica. Show-off.
Saunders is calm and patient. “We’re going to take a nice, relaxed single-file stroll. It’s not a race. Don’t worry if you’re last. Somebody has to be.” At least I’m a somebody.
A few hours ago, the great white way of glaciers looked a lot better. From above. It’s a virtual glacier jam around here, the Whataroa neighborhood on the west coast of the South Island.
Within seven miles along Route 6, no fewer than two of these gigantic coated tongues – Franz Josef and Fox – uniquely stick out of the rain forest carpeting the Baird Range, taking a plunge and extending almost seven miles, stopping barely short of the road. They’ve spawned a small commercial community catering to those who wish to inspect these marvels one way or another: from small planes and helicopters; in-your-face! at the ground-level extremity; or attacking the treacherous beasts on foot.
A morning chopper ride to the top had been splendid. Rising above the dusky green valley and a seemingly endless series of knife blade ridges, the flying putt-putt offered riders a triptych: glaciers, forests, and Tasman Sea. Later, a third, smaller glacier, the Balfour, could be seen. On the meringued crest of Fox, the snow is 300 feet deep. Ashley Clarke, the pilot, sat his machine down on a flat patch at 10,000 feet and let us out for the obligatory photos and throwing of midsummer snowballs beneath a comforting sun.
Fine. Then. But now, we’ve come to the dance, and I feel like a terpsichorical illiterate, as though my feet have never been on the same floor together, and ought to be introduced to one another. Clump . . . clump . . . clump. Each step through snow and ice is uncertain, each foot always at a different level. Whoops! A frantic swing of the ax and connection with something solid keeps me from toppling. Again and again. This is the ultimate stairmaster as we slog up, up, down, up, sideways around corners.
Way down there, at base, my friend Tucker Aufranc is, I can sense, salivating. He’s an orthopedic surgeon. You know, one man’s feat is another man’s job opportunity.
Occasionally, the crump of falling towers of ice somewhere above are reminders that this thing is alive and moving, though, deceptively appearing to just lie here, soaking up the sun.
“Don’t worry about it,” advises Saunders. “We’ll fly over that ice field on the way back. Lined with crevasses and huge, shaky blocks. Dangerous, but we won’t go near it. It’s a great sight, though.”
“Not even tempted,” I mutter, laboring along, always losing sight of the person ahead of me who vanishes among the undulations..
“You’re doing fine,” says Aurelio, a capable liar, periodically gavotting to the rear to hearten me. Kindly she resists the obvious line: You move slower than a glacier. Instead: “Look around. Forget your feet. Isn’t it glorious?”
“They’ve forgotten me. Cold feet despite sun-warmed hands. But . . . yes.”
Yes, yes. This glittering mess of a mass (the tears of Hine, the avalanche maiden, according to Maori legend) spreads as a stunning panorama, ever-altering at the whim of Ma Nature. Ridges, streams, even lakes, arches, grottoes, gulches, knobs, blobs. Eskers and seracs (two great crossword puzzle words) as well as her divinely crafted ice sculpture – here a valentine heart, there a leaping dolphin – in ivory and blue.
It evokes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, “The Ice Palace” – “the magic of the great crystal walls . . . a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.” – but I also think of some of his characters, lurching, unsteadily drunk.
Saunders leads us along a catwalk, then decides we must go down a chute – down? Down there?
“Just follow me.” He descends on skinny steps that he chops out of a sidewall as he goes. “Just back down. One step at a time. Don’t look. Feel with your boots. Use the ax to hang on. Trust me – and yourself.”
A tall order for those short on nerve.
“Not too bad,” he says as this tail-ender arrives in a basement. “You know, these walks are never the same twice. Terrain constantly changes.”
The sound of the rescuing helicopter is no more welcome than a hot, muscle-caressing bath. Deliverance. Free at last from the damn ax, and presently the boots. Will I feel chilling post-glacial depression, as reported by famed Bostonian polar trekkers, Admiral Richard Byrd and Brad Washburn? Nothing that a colder beer won’t cure.
What is a self-respecting glacier doing in a rain forest anyway? Saunders tries to explain the climatic craziness that encouraged these several freaks to develop in this precinct, replenish, and thrive outside their customary spheres. I accept. Captain James Cook, the English explorer, thought they were clouds when he spied them from a distance in 1769.
He was smart to keep his distance. Although the glaciers receded severely in 1965, leaving behind acres of boulders, they’re making a comeback. Slyly, ominously, they move ahead about four feet daily. You don’t want to turn your back on them.