After the raucous pub crawls of Queenstown, the wooden-housed village of Franz Josef is deathly quiet, and both the pubs close at 10pm. The only sight there is to see is the Fish and Chip shack. Oh yeah, and the massive behemoth of a glacier looming behind the town. That was what I was there to see, up close and personal on a glacier walk that I had planned even before getting on the plane.
After an enforced early night, I layered up to face the cold. 10 of us crossed a dried up river to get to the glacier itself; the rocky, slate-coloured river bed sparkled in the sunlight. It was like an alien world, moon rocks surrounded by jungle plant. From a distance the Franz Joseph Glacier was everything I’d imagined, like a great white tongue flopping through grey rock. As our traditionally laid back and quirky New Zealand guide instructed, we strapped crampons to our walking shoes and began the hike.
Dust and grime coated the snow at the bottom of the glacier and as we got closer I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment that it didn’t look anything like the blue shiny images I’d seen on the internet. Climbing crudely hacked staircases of muddy ice, I started de-layering as the sun shone overhead. I tried to suck the sweat back into my pores while making wheezy small-talk with a very attractive Scottish guy. He didn’t have a problem with the ascent of approximately 65 billion steps. A petite girl in proper glacier climbing gear in front of me stopped to check if I was ok as I paused for breath. I wished the ice would swallow me up.
Heaving myself through a corridor of packed ice, I emerged over a frozen crest. The magnificent view of the Space-like volcanic valley below was lost on me as I wheezed like a sweaty pug. The petite girl shielded the sun from her eyes, surveying her surroundings like a model for the outdoor adventure club, barely even panting.
The guide pointed out a glowing blue ice-cave at the top of the climb. That was it; the sleek, Arctic-looking world I pictured when I booked the walk. The guide said it was a tight squeeze and he couldn’t fit through it.
“Who wants to go through?” he asked anyway and five of us put our hands up. I hadn’t come all this way to miss out on an ice-cave. Besides, the entrance didn’t look that small.
The petite girl lead the way into a world of slippery deep blue and we had to trudge through single file. The walls started to get closer closing in around my shoulders. I was right in the middle of the group so there was no way to turn back and I had to concentrate on my breathing so as not to burst into hysterical panic. From where I was there didn’t seem to be a beginning or end to the cave, just an endless mass of blue. The walls got closer again and even the petite girl in front of me struggled to get through a tight gap, contorting her body like a gymnast. I, however, am not a gymnast. My shoulders jammed against the ice. I squirmed around like an eel in a fishing-net, unable to go back or move forwards. The ice dug in to my side and I panicked.
“Just pull me through!” I shouted to the petite girl.
She tugged at my arm and I swear my shoulder nearly popped out of the socket, but I still didn’t end up safely on the other side of the hole. Instead I found myself lying along the cave floor, buttocks wedged firmly between two freezing walls of ice. I wanted to bury my head in the crushed ice floor to drown out the gasps of strangers around me.
“Are you ok? Can I help at all?” the Scottish guy behind me asked, faced solely with my immovable rear end. Pushing my buttocks free would certainly be a social faux pas. Voices in all different accents united to shout contradictory instructions about where I should put my legs and I had to remind everyone that I was not a gymnast.
I lay down for a bit, trying to ignore the shouts from my hiking buddies. Perhaps the heat from my buttocks would have eventually freed me, but God knows how long it takes to melt a glacier.
“Alight,” I sighed “just push me.”
The Scottish guy gave my rear end a good hard shove and I was out of the hole, red-faced and unable to look him in the eye for the rest of the hike. I could hear the oohs and aahs of everyone else enjoying the captivating New Zealand scenery from the top of the glacier, but I kept my eyes firmly on the ground, politely declining any other ice-cave adventures, even the widest ones.