CategoriesAdventuresTravel

Glacier Hiking – Why You Should do It

glacier hiking
Heading into a crevace.

I’ve written about glacier hiking a few times in the past. I started with some tips about Franz Josef, and added a look at Falljökull in Iceland.

But looking back at the posts, I could’ve done better. I want to take another shot at it. So let me swing back to the glacier hiking on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

Look, I really want you to go to Franz Josef Glacier. I think you’ll take something incredible from the experience. If you’re fit enough, sign up for an all-day session on the ice (You can’t just go glacier hiking on Franz Josef unguided – I was skeptical of the need for guides at first. But you need them, for real).

glacier hiking
Epic size. It took us 3 hours to get just past the black rocks. Click the photo for a bigger look – and try to find some people for scale.

Part of what amazes me about this is that Franz Josef is one of the few places on the planet where you can go from hiking through a tropical rainforest to glacier hiking in, oh, about 30 minutes. That’s right.

This isn’t a very technical glacier experience. You won’t need training or ropes or anything crazy. At some point, you’ll strap crampons to your feet. A short way into the day, you’ll need ice axes. And you’ll always need to mind your guides to the letter and keep your wits about you.

glacier hiking
High up on Franz Josef glacier.

OK, I have that out of the way. But here’s the really big deal about glacier hiking: It’s a chance to see the Earth -- alive, changing, noisy, real. And to feel something about it.

I am convinced that every person needs this sort of connection to the world. Think about how many of us live among concrete. It’s all so static, so dead. It’s easy to see how a person can forget that we’re on a giant ball of interlinked organisms and matter. It’s easy to see how a person can just shrug and say "screw the environment."

Here’s my promise: If you stand on a glacier, you will change. You’ll hear the water rush under you. You’ll feel the vibration as ice grinds against rock. And you’ll desperately wish that most of the world’s glaciers weren’t disappearing. And just maybe, you’ll think about ways you can help reverse the process.

glacier hiking
Starting from the bottom of Franz Josef Glacier.

If you’re like me, you’ll spend some time feeling like a hypocrite. I drive too much. I fly too much. I wish I rode my bike to work more.

But hey, maybe you’ll do something smaller and less grand -- and it will start to add up.

When I look at my day glacier hiking on Franz Josef, that’s the real takeaway. It’s far important than the beauty – though I promise the views will captivate you.

Now, go. Take a trip to New Zealand. Book your tour. Come back, and tell me what your day at Franz Josef Glacier did for you.

glacier hiking
Looking out from a high point on Franz Josef Glacier.
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CategoriesAdventures

The Iceland Diaries РDay 5 (Skaftafell, Fallj̦kull, J̦kullsarlon)

Falljökull
Sarah is ready to demonstrate her ice ax prowess.

It’s not easy to rattle Icelanders. But I’ve just figured out how to get a sure-fire rise out of an Icelandic glacier guide while hiking on Falljökull: Tell them you’ve been on New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier.

"People die there!" Gisli exclaimed, sounding dismayed that we’d go there.

How’d this come up? Well. I’d guess it was my polished crampon and ice axe technique. And maybe knowing a few tidbits about glaciers – like what makes the ice turn blue. After talking to me for awhile, Gisli’s fellow guide Robert said something like "you’ve done this before."

Falljökull
Gisli is ready to lead us onto the glacier.

Darn tootin’, we had. Nearly five hours on the ice at Franz Josef. That thing’s a monster. Apparently, a tourist-eating monster that just weeks earlier had claimed a few more lives. To be fair, it’s not the glacier’s fault. Don’t do stuff your guides tell you not to do.

Falljökull
We’re thrilled to be back on a glacier.

So far, the crew at Glacier Guides had found Sarah and I to be pretty much model glacier hikers. We take care of our gear, we pay attention to their instructions and we have one helluva time. (See more info about Glacier Guides at the end of the post).

It’s easy for us to have a great time on a glacier. We loves the things. This time, we were on Falljökull (pronounced Fall-yuck-cultl), which means "falling glacier." That’s because of the way it seems to spill over the nearby mountain, plunging down the cliffs. It’s a seriously beautiful glacier, with an epic, sweeping view of the landscape. I could’ve sat in the same place all day and just looked at the landscape.

Falljökull
A view of Falljokull from the bottom.

We were also pretty enthralled by the rushing water pouring over Falljökull. You could drink it and enjoy some of the purest water you’ve ever tasted. Most of the guides had carabiners duct taped to plastic water bottles – they started the trip empty, and just filled them on the glacier. Silly me for showing up with a full Camelbak!

Falljökull
A view from the top.

As you can see in the photos, it was actually warm on Falljökull. It wasn’t what I’d call physically demanding. At the high point of the route, we ate the lunch the guides packed for us and headed back down. Yet again, Sarah looked sad when she handed her ice axe over.

Falljökull
A wall of ice.

Soon, we were back at our old school bus. We boarded and headed from Falljökull to Jökullsarlon, where we’d take a boat ride in the famous glacier lagoon. This was more fun than I expected. The lagoon and its icebergs will blow you away. And it looks different every time, too. So you won’t see the same bergs and growlers, but a whole new set.

And maybe your guide will fish a hunk of glaicer ice form the water and break it into chips for everyone to taste. It was a cool experience -- sucking on a thousand-year-old ice cube.

There’s also a place to grab a snack. Go for the seafood soup if it’s a chilly or windy day.

Glacier Lagoon, Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

After about 45 minutes in the lagoon, we boarded the school bus for the trip back to Skaftafell National Park. There, we gathered our packs from the Glacier Guides office, pitched our tents and caught up on our sleep. Some nearby backpackers also kept us entertained by singing Joan Osborne tunes. It was a most magnificent day on the glacier. I’d call it an essential part of anyone’s visit to Iceland.

Ice, guide, jokullsarlon
An icy treat that’s nice to eat.

About Glacier Guides: This is a very friendly, competent guide service. They gave us a lift from Skaftafell to Hof the previous day so we could get to our guesthouse (our bus didn’t go there). Then they picked us up for the Falljökull hike the next day and stored our backpacks while we were out having fun. They were accommodating and informative. I highly recommend Glacier Guides. If you see an Icelandic sheep dog named Hekla with one of the guides, give her a scratch between the ears and tell her Sarah and Justin say hello.

icebergs, glacier lagoon, jokullsarlon
Icebergs floating in the lagoon.
Skaftafell, camp, Iceland
Campsite, sweet campsite. Bring on the Joan Osborn sing-a-long!
CategoriesAdventuresTravel

A Day in Iceland: Kirkjubaejarklaustur – Hof

pseudocraters iceland Kirkjubaejarklaustur
Sarah and Dokna in the pseudocrater field near Kirkjubaejarklaustur.

Dokna could easily allow herself to be the world’s saddest dog. She loves sticks – but some cruel twist of fate has put her in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland.

Klaustur, as it’s often called, has as many sticks as Arizona has native species of whales. Trees? The people at the Hotel Laki Efri-Vik where Dokna lives have planted some, but that’s about it. They rarely shed branches. Those that fall to the ground are limp and perhaps a bit unsatisfying. When she does find a stick, she bounces side-to-side on her front paws until you throw it for her. This happens often enough to keep her happy.

Dokna – whose name I am probably misspelling and is the Icelandic word for "Spot" – also amuses herself by latching onto hotel guests and walking around with them. Continue reading

CategoriesAccommodationsAdventuresTastes

Escape Winter’s Clutches in New Zealand

New Zealand’s scenery is unforgettable, from glaciers to volcanos.

Snow is great when it first starts falling. But give it a month, and you’ll be ready to get away from it. So where should you go?

New Zealand, no contest. Here’s why.

1. It’s summer down there. But to most of us in the United States, a Kiwi summer is like a mild spring. You will only see snow on the tallest mountain peaks. Otherwise, it’s swimming/hiking/outdoor weather!

2. It’s cheap. One US dollar gets you about $1.26 in NZ dollars. And prices down there are just reasonable all around.

3. The scenery is off-the-hook spectacular. Tongariro National Park. The Southern Alps. Franz Josef Glacier. Queenstown. You won’t believe your eyeballs at any of these places – and I’m leaving out dozens of scenic spots.

Our “room” at Woodlyn Park. We even had the cockpit!

4. It’s relentlessly laid back. Want to relax? Even if you spend your whole vacation stomping around with a backpack, you will feel the easygoing Kiwi nature.

Getting There

You’ve got your choice of Qantas or Air New Zealand. Pick whichever has the best deal and schedule at the time. They’re both a treat if you’re used to flying domestic airlines. Don’t like long flights? Well, harden up, as the Kiwis would say!

 

The Skinny on Hotels

Hotel rooms in New Zealand often have kitchenettes. There are very few huge chain hotels. There’s also a lot of novelty (look no further than Woodlyn Park and its Hobbit rooms and the Bristol airplane converted into two suites).

Highlights

glowworm, waitomo
Wiggling through the Glowworm Caves

The Glowworm Caves in Waitomo are worth spending half your day underground. Rap, Raf ‘n’ Rock can set you up with a great tour. I also loved hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – if you’re up for it, you can summit the volcano that portrayed Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Even two years after my visit, I’m still blown away by the full-day hike on Franz Josef Glacier, where Franz Josef Glacier Guides will walk you from tropical rainforest to the snout of a glacier before strapping on some crampons and hitting the ice.

Food

If you like fresh fish, lots of fruit and a heavy Asian influence, you will have no trouble eating in New Zealand. There are plenty of exotic and flat-out weird tastes, like possum pie and whitebait. Craft beer is also getting big among the Kiwis: Check out Croucher Brewing in Rotorua – they were not yet open during my visit, and I’m curious about them. Oh, and coffee! You’ll find a classy cafe with a skilled barista in even the tiniest towns. I guess I should mention the wine – I’m not a big wine guy, but people who like wine love what the Kiwis have to offer.

 

franz josef, travel, wandering justin, new zealand
An epic day on Franz Josef Glacier.

City Scene

Kiwis would have you believe Auckland is a dystopian megalopolis straight out of Blade Runner – or nearly as bad as Las Vegas. In reality, it’s got a very pleasant, Seattle-like vibe. Wellington is cosmopolitan and fun, with music, arts, food and museums aplenty. Nelson and Queenstown on the South Island are much smaller, but with active nightlife and plenty to do, both indoors and out.

Getting Around

Rent a car on the North Island. I’d recommend buses for the South Island … the roads are a bit tricky. The occasional bout of rain and driving on the opposite side of the road won’t help you any.

 

possum pie, wandering justin, new zealand, sandfly cafe
Have a bite of possum pie, mate!

Odds & Ends

Bring some rain gear – New Zealand weather can change instantly. Sturdy boots are a must for the hikers. And bring a good camera. You’re not doing this scenery any justice if you’re using a cell phone camera, and I absolutely do not care how many megapixels it has.

Another thing: lighten up. Kiwis are talkers, and they’re very welcoming. In the U.S., I realize that their amped-up friendliness could seem weird. Maybe even creepy. Down there, it’s just the way people are. We could stand to learn from it, really.

CategoriesTravelUncategorized

Iceland Travel Tip – Is the Winter Fare Sale Worth It?

Check out a chunk of Iceland this winter with IcelandAir's special fares.

November 4 is the last day to book an IcelandAir flight from the United States to Keflavik for as little as $379 for a round trip (check out the complete list of deals). Here’s the deal: The price is for flights from Jan. 10 – March 31, depending on your point of origin.

That means you’re flying straight into Iceland when it is – how should I put this? – really freakin’ cold.

That means you can’t stay outdoors as much. Glacier Guides, one of the better-known tour companies, doesn’t run tours to the glaciers near Skaftafell National Park during that time. You certainly can’t get to Landmannalaugar for a few days of backpacking among some of the most mind-boggling terrain on the planet. So should you bother?

Heck, yes.

There’s still plenty to do in Iceland. Reykjavik is extremely lively. There’s a thriving cafe scene. If you’re a fashionista, you’ll have no problem finding some shopping. And let’s not forget – hotels in Iceland can be expensive … especially in Reykjavik. So there’s no better time to score a deal than late winter.

If you have an adventurous streak and don’t want to be confined to knocking back espresso in the morning and brennivin (the infamous Icelandic schnapps) at night, there’s still hope. Arctic Adventures runs some winter tours to Sólheimajökull, a glacier near the small town of Vik. You can also dig into some ice climbing.

IcelandAir is a pleasant surprise for fliers use to the brutal grind of domestic air travel.Â

Oh, and remember that it’s a good time to catch the Northern Lights. If you can schedule a few nights somewhere remote like Vik, you’ll have no light pollution and some really awesome skies.

So for a $379 flight on an excellent airline, I say check it out. Then come back in the summer to hike Landmannalaugar, hike the glaciers near Skaftafell and explore the crazy terrain of Myvtan.

CategoriesUncategorized

Destination: Franz Josef Glacier

UPDATE – See what my Franz Josef Glacier hike was like and get some tips.
From blog photos

Well, score one for my wife. She uncovered a very first-rate adventure someplace I didn’t even notice. During my New Zealand planning, I’d completely ignored Franz Josef Glacier. Big mistake! Fortunately, she was there to bail me out with a great discovery.

So, what’s so cool about it? I mean, glaciers aren’t exactly the speed demons of the geological world. Well, how do blue ice, ice caves, crevasses and stunning views sound to you? Yeah, they sound pretty awesome to me.

I booked us a tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The question was … which one? They have a lot of tours available, everywhere from two hours and up.

“If you’re gonna hike a glacier,” Sarah said, “hike a glacier.”

In other words, don’t do it halfway. Get out on the ice, and stay awhile. Get high up there and see the blue ice caves! Right on, then. I’d bet on this to be one of the high points of the trip.

Stand by for a full review upon my return!

From blog photos

Photos courtesy of Motorhomeforhire.