I find myself setting the pace for a group of ten people as we ascend the mighty Franz Josef glacier, of over 3,500 metres. How did that happen?
Me? I’m not known for my athletic ability or tolerance. I was always one of the last to make it back from a cross-country run at school. Swimming, yes. A little bit of aerobics now and then, yes. I’ve even got a nice tennis racket somewhere.
However, if you find yourself in New Zealand, travelling by campervan around the islands, and a shiny new husband who’s panting to go bungee jumping, zip-lining across gorges and black water rafting in pitch black caves, glacier trekking seemed like the most appealing option (though I did do a spot of zip-lining and jet-boating later on which was brilliant!)
So there we were, booked on to trek up a mountain. In the booking office we had to agree that we met the required level of fitness (I’m sure I must have lied), and be shown the height of the ice steps we would have to ascend, and how we must lift one foot over the other in a relentless sequence to ensure safety. (Ice steps turn out to be like a Stairmaster on steroids without an off button).
Everyone in the group is jolly and joking to begin with but this soon ebbs off when we eventually reach the huge, iron grey rocks at the base of the glacier which we would need to climb first before we hit any ice. Everyone is strangely quiet while we attach our crampons.
This is the beginning of my test of endurance. I manage to clamber up the base rocks, and once we are on the ice our guide stops and asks us to put up our hand if we want to take it slow. Stupidly I put my hand up, notions of ‘Wait for me!’ on my mind. I am rewarded with a place at the head of a single line, just behind the guide, who assures me that being at the front I can now set the pace for the group.
I am not sure of the logic to this. In theory I can see how it is meant to work, but in reality? I felt the pressure of ten fit and eager climbers behind me with every single step of the way, up and back down again.
I have to be utterly honest and confess to not really enjoying this experience while it was actually happening. I was in real pain after a couple of hours in. Climbing for over six hours with only a short break for food, muscles burning and trembling with the exertion, concentration and self-preservation (there were some nasty crevasses you could slip down if you put a foot wrong, which would take you deep within the glacier, never to be seen again!)
I was physically exhausted by the end. Climbing down was just as hard and I had to chop up the descent into achievable goals. If I didn’t, I would have collapsed on the ice and waved everyone on with a gasp of ‘Save yourselves. I need to sleep.’
There was one hair-raising but amusing moment however, when my husband decided to show off and try a bit of ice-caving but got stuck in the middle. My sense of humour was restored fleetingly just for a moment, but only once he came out the other end after a few scary minutes proudly brandishing a bloody knee. Not exactly ‘127 hours’.
Reaching the base of the glacier only meant another hour of scrambling over rocks to get back to the forest floor and that lovely bus. I managed to fall over at this point, legs finally giving way!
But in retrospect I can revel in the sheer, blinding beauty of the ice, the whiteness all around, the uniform blue of the sky in contrast, the views of the old river bed below. Of the sparkling ice stairs that zigzagged up and up, the tunnels we crept through, the achievement of it, for me.
Touching the void? No, of course not. But it was my very own personal endurance test, which to this day, I am still amazed I achieved.
(…and later, the hot shower, roaring fire, bottle of rioja and plate of nachos I had back at base camp made me smile again, even if I couldn’t walk the next day!)