Kyle Miller finally got his heli fix in New Zealand, making use of the access to shred the Tasman Glacier beneath the shadow of Mt. Cook. But he quickly poached his travel budget again and signed up for more, linking up with a crew from Splitn2NZ for another heli drop—this time for a trip to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers that led to a summit of the other Glacier Peak. After a powerful northwesterly, a glacial whiteout, and a serac-hovering heli exit, Kyle returned unscathed with another mini-epic from down south.
Words by Kyle Miller, Images by Kyle Miller and Ryan Nicol
If you look in any tourist book of New Zealand, you hear about the west coast of the island nation for a multitude of reasons, one of which is the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, two ribbons of ice that make it all the way to within a few miles of the Tasman Sea. I had heard of but never seen these glaciers, and when the chance to fly to the high country came together with a few like-minded touring friends, I jumped at the offer.
When summiting Elie de Beaumont, I had gotten a taste of the 3,000ers and I wanted more, so we made plans to attempt two others if the weather held and, if not, we would ski some low-lying peaks jutting out of the glacial cap. Our basecamp and home for the next five days was the Centennial Hut, which like many other huts around Mount Cook National Park is barely hanging onto rock surrounded by ice.
Our first day was more of a leg-stretching, supply-moving and hut-digging day, but we were able to get out and ski two amazing corn runs, one of which was off the summit of Mt. Aurora, before settling into camp and patiently awaiting the 6:00 PM forecast. It promised two days of sunshine before the next front hit (sound familiar?) and we made plans to go for the Minarets, another 3,000-meter peak, which provided a steep headwall, long run, and enough other factors to get our hearts thumping.
We set off in blue skies and front-pointed our way to the summit plateau before clouds arrived from the east. Our view from the summit was amazing to the west, staring directly down to the sea, but to the east was nothing. A whiteout had settled in. We carefully made our way back down, with clouds coming and going, until we made our way below the cloud deck. We descended around seven kilometers and 3,000 feet before skinning back to camp while racing the setting sun and howling winds. The day was a success and we were itching about what to do the next day. We decided that we would go for a peak that bore the same name as my favorite in Washington, Glacier Peak.
The approach was going to be long, as we would have to travel up and over the Franz Josef Glacier to the Fox Glacier before heading up Glacier Peak. So we started early in the day on top of bulletproof ice. From West Hoe Pass, we got our first view of Glacier Peak, and from our viewpoint it looked like the bergshrund crossed the entire mountain and would block a potential summit. After a bit of talking, we decided to get to the base of the ’shrund and see if it was climbable. After a bit of steep climbing, we found a semi-sketchy route through and above, which would be fine—provided we delicately and lightly made our way across a snow bridge and front-pointed next to blue ice. One by one we made our way across, then front-pointed the sustained steep slope all the way to the summit and took in views of Mt. Cook, feeling like it was so close you could throw rocks at it.
The ride down was steep, sustained and had a few obstacles that got us a little gripped. But we made our way down one at a time, slowly going edge to edge until we passed the crux, then we opened it up back to the bottom. We were elated. We had pulled it off and were on our way back to the hut for the 6:00 PM forecast, which brought up the dreaded term “northwesterly” again. So for the next three days, we were hut-bound and working on our Scrabble skills before a weather window came in and we descended down to the Almer Hut, which hangs on a rock halfway down the Franz Josef Glacier. After a night of food, chatting and epic sunsets, we tried to take advantage of a brief clearing in weather and toured up another peak in clear conditions, only to be surrounded by clouds and flat light on our way back to the hut. We radioed for a chopper to get us before the next northwesterly arrived. By the time the heli arrived, the clouds had moved in and the pilot’s only chance for visibility was to hover above the ice seracs. It was crazy, it was fun, it was nerve-racking, and sadly it was quickly over.
Kyle Miller, who now has five hair-raising heli flights under his hip belt, would like to thank Richard Harcourt @ Splitn2NZ for putting the trip together.
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