Sunday, May 08, 2005

Walking on Franz Josef

Gleaming ice on the Franz Josef glacier

An early start this morning, for a 7:30 meeting and equipment collection for our walk up the glacier. Amazingly, the weather had totally cleared from yesterday and was gloriously sunny and clear, but of course very cold. We trooped into town to the Glacier Guides place and received our equipment - boots, crampons (called Talonz), coat, trousers, hat, gloves etc. After a short minibus ride we were at the Franz Josef National Park, and there it was. It looked only a few hundred metres way, but actually took us an hour to walk to the ice face along the valley. The actual face was very dirty, as all the rocks and gravel garried along are deposited here when the end melts. The glacier was named after the Austrian Emporer in 1865 by a group of sycophantic Austrian explorers, and it is one of the lowest glaciers (in terms of sea level) in the world. It is also one of the fastest moving, rumbling along at an average speed of 1m per day - although it can reach 5m a day (10 times the speed of Alpine glaciers).

We stopped at the ice edge to put on our Talonz - metal crampons that clipped to the bottom of our boots. Our guide led the way, chipping out steps with a massive pickaxe and knocking in ropes with a hefty mallet. We were also given ice axes, but only really for using as walking sticks. It was slippery, but banging the foot down helped the crampon lock into the ice, so none of us fell over. It was a good job too, because some of the ice steps we climbed up and down had crevasses to one side. Nothing crazy, but you wouldn't want to fall down them. We even stepped over a few higher up on the ice - which even though they are small still gives you something to think about.

The ice colours were incredible, all shades of white, blue and grey. The sun sparkled off the ice too, and in places you could even see water running past underneath. We moved upwards between ice blocks, sometimes pushing through clefts that were only just passable - leaving you wet and cold, but it was absolutely worth it. Our guide had no real plan of our route, he just went where the ice looked strong enough - and eventually we got near a few overhanging blocks that were too dangerous to pass, so we turned back. We were on the ice for 5 hours though, so there was a lot of climbing and hacking done. The way back was easier, because the sun had melted some of the steps and softened the ice, making the going better. What a day though, the whole trip was fantastic - walking on a glacier is really like nothing else.