One fine weekend, five Franz Josef Glacier guides headed off to climb The Minarets. At 3031m, The Minarets is the highest of the peaks around the Franz Josef Glacier neve and is not a climb for the inexperienced. But for these guys, who are very experienced climbers, it was an awesome mission full of incredible challenges and even more incredible rewards - like gazing across to the East Coast and then to the West Coast from atop Graham's Saddle. Makes you want to get your crampons on and go. Here's the story....
Part 1 - Franz Josef to Minarets to Alma Hut
As Rowan slipped down the crevasse I fell onto my ice axe, forcing it down into the snow as far as it would go, trying to stop Rowan, who was attached to me, from falling further. Tai yelled at me to dig my feet in to help stop me from being dragged into the crack in the snow after Rowan. I gripped my ice axe tight, and carefully dug my crampons into the snow as far as I could. Like a first date with a pretty lady, my heart was beating, and one wrong move and it could be all over before it began. I’d used my ice axe to arrest a fall before, but this was the first time I’d done it with somebody on the other end of the rope. I felt the rope go slack. I tried to figure out exactly what that meant. Still lying on my ice axe in case Rowan fell further, I carefully got out my snow stake and hammer, and with one hand built a snow anchor. I attached the rope to it, and extracted myself from the line leading down to the crevasse. I checked everything over before walking over to join the other three glacier guides who were looking down at Rowan grinning up at us.
“OK, next step, we’ll construct a rope system to pull him out,” Tai, the most experienced of us, instructed. We quickly ran through the rest of the training exercise, utilizing our rope rescue skills previously learnt on the job. I’ve done quite a lot of rope rescue training exercises before, but never something quite like that.
We were 2 hours into our hike in the neve of Franz Josef glacier, and for four of us it was the first time up there. We were there to climb the Minarets, at 3031m, the highest of the peaks surrounding the neve. The neve itself is the accumulation zone for the glacier, and consists of a snowfield approximately 30 km2, or around the size of 3000 international rugby fields. Our party was being led by Tai, an experienced senior glacier guide, and consisted of Rowan and Richo, both keen outdoorsmen, Jagged the Crevasse Cowboy, looking like the Marlboro man in crampons, and myself. We all work for Franz Josef Glacier Guides. Our first goal was Centennial Hut, a cosy hut perched on an exposed rock overlooking the snowfield. Our stay there was short, around 6 hours, as we planned for a 2am wake up.
We were all quiet as we ate breakfast, partly from only getting 3 hours sleep, partly from the nervous excitement we had in anticipation of what the day was to bring. We ‘roped up’ straight away, tying ourselves to one another using climbing ropes. We split into two different parties and made our way down the first slope. While I had to concentrate on walking at the pace set in front of me, I also made sure to look up and take in our surroundings. The stars were out in force, with only a quarter moon showing. It was the kind of night sky you only find in the remote places of the world, free of light pollution from civilization. There was no wind, the only sound coming from our crampons crunching on the hard snow. In the distance I could make out the silhouettes of the peaks surrounding us. I felt so insignificant, yet so exhilarated, by the sheer size of the neve.
From a distance, all that would have been seen of us would have been the tiny white lights of our head torches, strung out in a line. It made me think about two of the early explorers of the area, the Graham brothers - Alec and Peter - who became two of New Zealand’s most famous climbers. Alec Graham was the first to guide on Franz Josef glacier, and Peter was the lead guide on Mt Cook. The two of them would have crossed the neve countless times in the early 1900s. They didn’t have the luxury of head torches, dynamic ropes or purpose built huts. The more I explore this place the more I grow to respect those who have been here before me.
We arrived at the base of the Minarets, still hidden by darkness, and started our ascent. It wasn't long before we came to the first bergschrund, a massive bottomless crevasse. We used the skills Tai had drilled into us the day before, setting up anchors ad belays, to cross over it. Tai was the guinea pig as he made his way over the first steep snow bridge of the day. We crossed safely, before we traversed above another large crack in the ice. Every one of my steps was measured and slow. I wanted to make sure my toe spikes were in the snow, and my ice axe was going to hold. Another anchor, another belay. It was slow going as we were still getting used to setting up the anchors and breaking them down. One more anchor, and we came to a stop. A bergschrund spanned the whole face. One snow bridge spanned it but it was less than a meter deep. There was no way we were going over that. That’s the kind of bridge they can walk over only in movies.
Plan B - Grahams Saddle.
We descended down from the face of the minarets, and cut across to Graham saddle, a short walk away. Rowan and I raced ahead, once again finding a bergschrund stretching across the face. This one had a bridge that was passable, but it was right underneath an extremely active rock fall.We ran over the bridge, with small stones, and the occasional tennis ball size rock coming down at us. Roped in, running in crampons over ice and rock above a crevasse, we had to trust each other like two brothers playing on a see-saw, our fate depending on the other person not falling off. The other three followed as we watced from a safe perch. We emerged onto Graham Saddle after a short but steep climb. It was turning out to be a stunning bluebird day. We gazed down toward the east coast, with views of Aoraki/Mt Cook and Tasman, New Zealand’s two highest peaks looking down at us. We basked in the morning sun, with the frozen snow on our backs. It made me reflect how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful country.
After an hour we of relaxing we turned back toward the west and started toward Alma Hut. With the sun out the blue of the crevasses lining sections of the neve lit up like the neon lights of a boy racer’s car. We not only had to cross those crevasses, but also Tiechelmann's corner. Tai had talked to us about the corner, it had a big bergschrund going across it, and he thought he could see a snow bridge from the helicopter on the flight up. “She’ll be right,” he said more than once while talking about it, but I got the feeling he was a little worried about it.
The corner is named after Ebenezer Teichelmann, a doctor who started mountaineering at the ripe old age of 40. Nicknamed ‘the Little Doctor’ he had a lot of influence over the Graham Brothers. The story goes that Teichelmann trained for his yearly mountain adventures by climbing up and down a ladder perched on the side of his Hokitika house. After a few hours of the neve we arrived at Teichelmann's to find the one bridge still standing, but only just. It wound its way through the crevasse with steep slopes either side of it. I put an anchor into some hard packed snow to belay Tai across. The bridge was narrow, with steep drops either side. I crept over second, feeling a bit nervous. The others followed, one by one. We made it across safely, and headed to a flat spot where we sat in the sun and admired the view. We were right in the section of the glacier where the neve becomes the glacier itself. I’d talked about this area a lot while guiding tours, but this was the first time I’d been there. The area was dotted with big crevasses and large seracs, as the ice of the neve is pushed into the much narrower franz Josef valley, forming the glacier.
From Teicelmas’s corner it was a short walk to Alma hut. Looking down on the glacier, from the hut we could see the guided tours of the Heli Hike below us. The hut sits on top of a pile of precariously placed stones, and with its red paint job, it looks similar to an Angry Bird pig. You got the feeling that an angry kea would swoop down toward the hut, take out one of the stones and the hut/pig would come crashing down. We had an afternoon nap, before getting woken up by a helicopter landing at the hut. Another glacier guide, Rob, along with two friends, piled into the small hut. We were pretty happy to see them, as they pulled out some cider we had ordered in advance, and then surprised us with a pizza as well. This was service. Cider and pizza, delivered by helicopter, looking down at one of the most famous glaciers in the world.
We sat with our ciders watching the sun duck behind the mountains, trading stories and making future plans, and discussing our route back down to the village in the morning. As I looked down on the west coast of New Zealand I remembered something Tai had mentioned earlier at Grahams Saddle. He talked about how every time he looked down at the east coast, he would then turn around and look down at the west, and be so happy that he lived there. Looking down at the ruggedness of the land, the glacier, the rivers, and the Tasman Sea, I had to agree with him.
In Part 2, we continue from Alma hut down to Franz Josef village, taking a ridge line dubbed the goat pass, trying not to get lost in the thick clouds covering the pass and the valley.