Once upon a not-quite-winter morning, four intrepid females and their two mentors awaited the arrival of the roaring machine that would transport them to their next adventure...
Us girl guides, we're something of a minority at FJGG. A couple of months ago there were eight "Team G(irl)" members in the guiding corps, now there are just four: Jess, Bex, Beck, and me. Among so many boys, it's easy to just blend in and forget that you're actually female sometimes, so we were all pretty stoked to be told that Mike and Craig would be taking us for a girls-only training day.
We started off the day sliding around benches at the helipads here in town, practising exiting a hovering helicopter. Then it was into the chopper to do it for real. I was a little bit nervous - it's pretty important to get it exactly right - but everything went smoothly; "textbook", even! Mike did his best to keep us amused in attempting to close the helicopter door, which had locked open, while hanging on the side of the still-hovering chopper. We landed up on the Heli-hike site, which is just below the main icefall of the Franz Josef Glacier, around 800m above sea level.
From there we took a stroll up to the true left (left looking down-glacier) and found a spot near a waterfall spilling into a massive hole in the glacier. It started off chilly, but the sun spread across the ice as we learnt about setting anchors, and had a go at it ourselves. Anchors on the ice involve setting ice screws at particular relationship to one another (too close and you put too much stress on the ice, too far apart and the angle puts undue stress on the ice screws), then attaching tape (not the sticky kind! It's like a wide, flat rope) to them with karabiners so that you have a v-shape on which you attach your rope for climbing or abseiling. We played at being anchors ourselves for a bit, trying to find the ideal distance between ice screws for maximum strength of pull.
We also practised making v-threads. This is for when you only have one ice screw, or don't want to leave one behind when abseiling. You have to screw the ice screw all the way in at a 45-degree angle from the ice, take it out, then repeat in the opposite direction, so the two holes (if you've got the angles right!) meet in the middle in a - you guessed it! - V-shape. Then you feed through some prussic (thin rope), tie it into a loop, and thread your climbing rope through it. Believe it or not, as long as you choose nice hard ice, that anchor is just as strong as the ice screw (which can hold about 1200kg by itself) would have been.
All of that practice behind us, we started making our way down the glacier, since we had about 3.5 kilometres of ice to cover before we got to the bottom, and had the most difficult part ahead of us.
The Franz Josef Glacier is the steepest commercially guided glacier in the world. What this means is that we have some amazing icefalls, icefalls being the glacial equivalent of a rapid or waterfall in a river. There are three major icefalls in the Franz Josef. Defiance icefall is the lowest of the three, and is mostly quite navigable. The Main icefall (terribly original names we have around here) is the highest, the steepest, and is almost impassable. The Pinnacles icefall, which was to be our thoroughfare, is somewhere in the middle in all of these respects.
Cruising along the plateau between the main icefall and the Pinnacles was easy going. Cutting left out towards the valley wall was where things got a bit gnarlier. Among the challenges we faced were traversing along the top of an ice wall (attaching ourselves to the ice with a rope on an ice screw in case we slipped), abseiling down a 25m ice wall (off a v-thread that I was quite proud to get the angle right on the first try!), and cutting a track around some fairly impressive holes (again, tying into ice screws for safety). I'm not the biggest fan of heights, but I definitely developed a lot more confidence working at height as the day progressed.
Along the way we took turns guiding the rest of the group, and put our heads together a few times to decide on the placement of the next bit of track. We even split up at one point and chose two different possible trails to the next meeting point, to see which was the quicker. This was valuable practice for us all as junior guides, since this is one of the skills you need to perfect to become a senior guide in the company.
Also valuable were the couple of rounds of "Block, Flake, Block" that we played. Hazard identification is another proficiency that senior guides need, and this game is a fun way to develop it. One group member chooses an unstable-looking piece of ice (a block is a piece of ice on its way to disconnecting (by melting) from the larger piece of ice it's part of; a flake is a sliver of ice, usually part of a wall, that's doing the same thing), then on the count of er on a scale of one to ten that describes how dangerous the block is, and how imminent is the danger. The most interesting and educational part is that everyone has to explain their reasoning, which tends to vary between guides no matter their level of experience. The most fun part is that once everyone has decided how dangerous it is, someone gets to bash the block down from its perch, which there is a definite art to! By applying force in the right place, you can knock down a substantial (as in, several hundred kilograms!) block of ice with only a few hits.
After covering some imposing and inspiring terrain, we reached the edge of the glacier and made our way over the next inter-icefall plateau, from where we'd undertake the comparatively speedy journey down to the terminal face
But first - photo time!
Craig had been snapping away all day, with some pretty amazing results, but we were al
All four of us ran off to a spot that Craig pointed out atop a wave beyond a field of waterless rivulets in the ice, and lunged our little hearts out. It was about 4pm or so by this time, and the dimming sun filtering through the mist of developing cloud created a stunning lighting effect.
It was half five by the time we crossed the yellow rope barrier at the terminal face, and well and truly dark when we reached guide base, so there were four well-exerted Team G members on the floor of the bosses' office for o
Craig and Mike, massive thank you from the girls for doing this for us; it was an unforgettable and invaluable experience!
(And yes, you've definitely earnt your "Team G" wings!)
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