Reason #1 why you’re all jealous

April 2, 2011 Comments Off on Reason #1 why you’re all jealous

262 km

Today was the heli-hike! We had to backtrack up the coast to Franz Josef, which is a tortuous road where you can never get above 45kph. We got breakfast prior to presenting ourselves, which is important because I ordered a mocha and they brought it to me in a tureen. It was an enormous coffee. And that wasn’t a good thing, if I was going to be in a helicopter and on a glacier, cut off from restrooms and possibly motion-sick all day. Also we discovered a hubcap missing. No idea where, when, or how it happened. Huh.

Then it was time for the heli-hike, which my brain insisted on spelling “hella hike” every time I said it out loud, and, in the end, it’s kind of apt. There were five other people: two other couples and a German student interning in Wellington. They took us to a little room where they supplied us with rain jackets, boots, socks, mittens, waterproof pants, and crampons. Simon and I felt badass because we had hiking boots and woolen socks already. Jeans were still not allowed, but I had borrowed a pair of long underwear from Simon and wore that under the waterproof pants. I ended up trading my gloves that I’d brought for the mittens Simon borrowed from the company, because he wanted to work the camera. It was the last time I saw them.

They gave us a short helicopter safety talk, then took us out back and along a little forest path to the landing pad. I didn’t know this until this summer, but I’m appalled that this isn’t more widely disseminated and so I’m going to repeat it for everyone’s benefit: never go around the back of a helicopter. There’s a rotor back there that you can’t really see while it’s spinning. Think about that for a minute. Now don’t do it. Why isn’t that something they teach you in elementary school?? Augh. Okay. Anyway, none of us went around behind the helicopter. It was one of those tiny bubble copters, with only four seats, plus the pilot’s seat. Our guide Ryan, the German girl, and Simon and I went in the first trip. I don’t remember the first time I was in an airplane, so I don’t remember being pressed to the window thinking, I’m about to fly!! But I felt this way once I was belted in, with the headset on (but not plugged in, I found out much later), waiting for my first helicopter flight.

My view out the windshield.

It was magic. There was no takeoff, no pressing back in your seat or any kind of physical lead-up to actual liftoff. Just a gradual lessening of your weight, and suddenly the ground is falling away from under you. It’s like being in a soap bubble. And unlike airplanes, where I can’t help but think of all the paper airplanes I made that plunged straight into the ground when thrown, every helicopter-type toy I had as a kid worked. (Like those sticks with the blades on top that you spun between your hands, remember?) The concept makes sense to me in a way that allows me to be calm about hanging my life on it.

We flew up the valley, up over Franz Josef Glacier, sometimes very close to the ice. There are three icefalls on the glacier, which are like rapids, in that they represent a steep drop in the topography beneath the glacier that disrupts the ice flow and is reflected in the disorder on the surface. We flew up over all these, buzzed the crevasses and seracs, and then turned back towards where we were going to land. The pilot decided to show off a little and started making these swooping high-G turns. He finished with one so flashy and dramatic that I actually thought we were a little upside down, then set us down gently on the ice. The guide got out first and chipped at the ice, making a rough path that led about twenty feet away from the helicopter. He came and led us one by one to the end of the path, then gestured us to kneel and turn away while the helicopter took off to get the second load of people.

The glacier used to ride high in its valley, putting enormous pressure on the floor and walls. Now that it’s receding, the geologically sudden reduction of pressure is making the rock walls unstable, creating constant rockfalls at the sides of the valley. They made really impressive thundering noises and raised so much dust that they’d actually asked if any of us were asthmatic, because the dust would probably be a problem. While we waited and admired the rockfalls (which were too far away to be worrisome…mostly), Ryan chipped a better path that went farther away. On its way in with the second group of people, the pilot “strafed” us. It was sort of cool but at the same time it made me deathly afraid of ever being really strafed. Once everyone was there and the helicopter had left, Ryan taught us how to put on our crampons, and like magic it was easy to walk on the ice. We’d thought it was slippery, but he showed us how, 6cm down, the ice became really hard and shiny, and explained that it was very difficult to walk on that, compared to this easy stuff we were treading on now. We felt properly abashed.

It was less a hike than it was “run around and play on the ice time,” but, for your first time on a glacier, that’s perfectly fine, and might have ended up being the same thing anyway. We got used to the crampons and walked around, gaping at everything. There was water everywhere, which I hadn’t expected; big streams snaking over the ice and then vanishing into a crack the size of a shoebox, and up over near the side of the valley was a huge, roaring waterfall. Our guide found us a couple blue ice caves that you could go all the way through. In the first you had to use your crampons to dig in until you got to the point where you could slide. (I kept looking for the penguin from Fight Club.) The second was much bigger, and Ryan drove a spike in at the top of it and let a rope down. You had to lower yourself to near the bottom, then scootch yourself around the enormous puddle at the bottom, which Ryan said was waist-deep (not that you could tell because of all the ice floating in it).

Braving the descent.

It was a blast! Both these experiences were very wet. It seems like an idiot thing to say, but ice is hard! On the second one, where you had your whole body pressed up against it—and it wasn’t even, either, there were lumps and bumps all over—you couldn’t help but notice resentfully that it was bruising you. I guess it’s easy to think about ice cubes and how they skitter around on the floor and slide around in your mouth, and therefore they are smooth and slick, and therefore they are not hard—at least, you can crack them with your teeth. Smooth and very, very hard are not characteristics we’re used to thinking of together, and then when you fall down on a frozen lake or slide down a glacier you are painfully reminded that you’ve been mentally neglecting an inherent quality of ice.

We had a little extra time before the helicopter returned, so Ryan let us look down into a crevasse. He explained that crevasses are never more than around 30m deep, because around that depth the ice is under enough pressure that it begins to flow, and cannot crack. He let us come one by one up to the very edge of a crevasse, and he braced himself on the edge and when you came up to look he grabbed you fiercely by one arm and the front of your shirt, which was sort of alarming for a minute. He pushed back on you as you leaned over to look down. It was way cool but not as impressive as I’d been expecting because there was no scale—you couldn’t really tell how deep it went, only marvel at how pretty the blue ice disappearing into the depths looked.

Because we were the first group up (with the guide), we were the last down. When the helicopter came back up, we got on, buckled ourselves, &c., and I noticed that Ryan was having trouble fastening the door I was sitting immediately adjacent to. I wouldn’t mention it except that we were most of the way down the valley, several hundred feet up, when the door blew open. It was maybe the most startling thing that has ever happened to me in my life. Thank god I was buckled in and not leaning against it when it went, otherwise I might have straight-up died of fright. As it was, my heart went a mile a minute for the rest of the ride. The door was caught somehow so it only opened six inches or so, and I looked down at the handle and it looked like a simple latch, so I started to reach for it, but Ryan tapped me on the shoulder from the backseat and gestured that I should leave it. I was so startled I didn’t even realize the pilot was asking me if I was okay over the headphones (which were plugged in this time)—all I’d been able to hear was chatter that didn’t make any sense, so I’d stopped listening until the German girl, who was sitting next to me, nudged me. We were thirty feet above the landing pad when the door blew all the way open, but fortunately I didn’t have to deal with that for long. It was exciting! And, like I said, I trust helicopters more than planes, so I was actually okay, except for a vague fear it would mess with the aerodynamics somehow.

We went back to the outfitting room and ditched all our gear. This is where Simon unthinkingly balled up my gloves and tossed them into the bin with all the other mittens and socks and so on. Fortunately they weren’t great gloves, but he still owes me another pair. It wasn’t until that evening, a couple hundred kilometers away, that I casually asked about my gloves, and he looked stricken. Always a bad response to see. Ah well. He can get me a better pair this fall.

But the day wasn’t over yet! Not by a long shot. We still had a lot of driving to do. We were planning to get as far as Haast, which is still on the coast, but when we got there it was early and the town turned out to be a hole. (At least as far as we could tell—it’s the last gas for a very long time in either direction and so it was overpriced and appeared to be the town’s only purpose. Plus it was ugly.) So we decided to push on to Wanaka, which is a cute little town by a lake. It had a nice waterfront where we had what might have been the best dinner on the whole trip—even better than Food Alley! I had wild goat loin with mushroom salsa, mmm. We split a whole bottle of very good wine and had wonderful conversations about what we wanted to do in life, and when we got back to the hotel we went in the hot tub for a while before bed. It was a lovely, lovely day.



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