We woke up in Franz Joseph and parted ways with Maciek to head toward the Franz Joesph glacier. It had been raining all morning so we weren’t too keen, but decided to drive up there and check it out at the least.
When we arrived 15 minutes later at the trailhead the rain had slowed to a light drizzle and we decided to give it a go using rubbish bags as makeshift rain slickers. We would be happy to have these later.
The hike up to the glacier took about 45 minutes, starting in a thick, lushly forested area but quickly opening up to what felt like a massively wide but mostly empty riverbed of gravel and rock. Huge rock faces rose on both sides, hundreds of meters above the valley floor, covered with green vegetation from bottom to top, with thin white lines of waterfalls, some crashing down to the riverbed forming streams to our right, others disappearing into the mountainside. Other pairs and entire teams of hikers made there way likewise closer to the ice in the distance.
Here at the base of the glacier, we were warned, conditions change extremely rapidly. A dry footpath can easily give way to rushing flood waters in a matter of hours.
This is not surprising considering the nature of Franz Joseph, which looks like a massive river of ice flowing down the mountain, moving at an average daily rate between 1.5-1.7 meters per day, one of the fastest moving advancing glaciers in the world. This environment creates highly unstable and constantly changing conditions.
We could see it in the distance, but both Dwayne and I noticed it funny that we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the glacier as we hiked, although we could hear increasingly powerful running waters on our left, as we crossed narrow streams and picked our way up the damp and rocky trail. The temperature was dropping and the rain was picking up.
We arrived at the end of the un-guided trail (you can actually hike up on the glacier itself on guided tours, but we didn’t have the time or the cheese for that), right at the base of the glacier. From here we could see the river flowing from the base of the glacier, which we had heard, pure glacier melt with massive chunks of ice lining either side of the river bank, broken from ice formed thousands of years ago. The river water is a distinctly pale-white, we learned, from the microscopic rock and mineral fragments that have been pulverized, crushed, and ground into dust by the action of the glacier, washed away from the mountainside after millennia.
Signs at the end of the trail warn hikers not to go any further, with past newspaper clippings of tourists killed by sudden ice and rock falls.
By this time it was quite cool and raining steady; the glacier right in front of us, we took only a few minutes to snap some pictures. Twice during this time we heard rock falls breaking loose, then looking up to a smaller hillside off to our right, seeing the slides coming down. These were strange because they only looked like small boulders, no larger than the size of a basketball, from our vantage point. But the sound they made did not match. These rocks tumbling emitted a deep, hollow, echo, like giant slabs of cinder being smashed against each other. They sounded huge; they just didn’t look that big.
I had a distinctively eerie feeling that we should get out of there. It was raining hard now and pretty cold, especially for us being rather ill-equipped. Like standing near the sea during a storm, I simply didn’t trust the stability of conditions in this turbulent environment. We walked briskly, looking over our shoulders often, as we were now cold and wet and looking forward to getting back to the car.
Only later, looking at the pictures and zooming on my camera, did I make a shocking discovery for Dwayne and myself. Looking at the glacier photos in full zoom, you can just barely make out a tiny trail of ants, barely visible in full zoom: one of the teams of hikers we had seen, about a dozen people, basically invisible to the naked eye. Only then did we realize how huge the glacier really is, why it had seemed we weren’t getting any closer, and why the rocks falls we saw didn’t match the sound they made. While I thought they were the size of basketballs, they were probably closer to small refrigerators.
Thinking back to the words of our bus driver to Milford Sound, there are only brief and passing moments when most of us see and understand the sheer size, and movement, and violence of the physical world around us. This was one of them for Dwayne and me.