Heli-Hiking on the Tasman Glacier
Aoraki Mt Cook: it doesn’t get more alpine than this! We can even see the peak of New Zealand’s highest mountain as we leave Twizel. The closer we get, the more the giant mountain fills up our camera lens, and the more we get stoked for our next adventure. Landing in the mountains on a ski plane, snow-shoeing through ice caves, stargazing in an International Dark Sky Reserve… It’s all to come in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, starting with heli-hiking on New Zealand’s longest glacier!
Gearing up for an alpine adventure
After a scenery-sensation of a drive along the milky blue Lake Pukaki backed with the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, including New Zealand’s highest, we arrive at Mt Cook Glacier Guiding at Mt Cook Airport. We meet our fellow heli-hikers, Graham and Nicole from the UK, and our guide, Tex from Texas – go figure! The enthusiastic American gets us pumped for the glacier hike as we put on some shiny new boots, a windproof jacket, and some crampons to stick in our bags. Along with all the equipment we need to hike on top of a glacier, Tex gives us a quick briefing on how to load onto the helicopter.
A helicopter Flight over the Tasman Glacier Valley
We get into the heli one-by-one, while Tex loads our backpacks into a container attached to the legs of the heli… (As you can see, we know absolutely nothing about aviation jargon…). The engines start up, the propellers start piercing through the air, and we have lift off! The intimate helicopter experience is far from that of a plane flight! We feel the movement of the air around the cabin as the ground gets further away from us, revealing the view of a whole network of braided rivers making their way from the glaciers to Lake Pukaki.
Glacial Lakes from the sky
The sound of the helicopter pilot’s voice talks to us through our headsets telling us about different features of the glacial valley, particularly Tasman Lake. It’s brilliant turquoise colour dotted with ice bergs have been left behind during the Tasman Glacier’s retreat. The only way we can comprehend its size is by the pilot pointing out the little yellow boats of people whizzing around the lake.
Landing on the glacier
Then, we see it, the huge Tasman Glacier spanning as far as the eye can see. A lot flatter than we imagined, the Tasman Glacier goes from wavey ice formations to smoothed out ice to ice carpeted in snow. That’s when we realise that this glacier experience is going to be a lot different than any other we have landed on before.
It’s only us out here on the glacier. The pilot has to scout an ideal spot to land. Second time’s a charm! Tex helps us out of the helicopter one-by-one. We feel so badass ducking and kneeling on the ground away from the chopper. (Although the “ducking” part is totally unnecessary).
Isolated on the Tasman Glacier
The helicopter flies away, taking its intense chopping noise along with it. Now it’s just the five of us alone on New Zealand’s longest glacier…
Tex shows us how to put our crampons on. It’s the finishing touch to looking like hardcore alpine explorers. We are ready to hike!
Hiking on an icy giant
Fresh snow backpacker traps
Because there has been fresh snow on the glacier over the last four days, there are patches of fresh snow with the unknown trapped underneath them – crevasses, yetis, the last tour group? The rule of thumb is to walk over them. Tex checks out the larger snow patches, giving them a prod with his pickaxe to check for air holes. Then, he stamps his foot in the snow to tell us following hikers that it’s safe to cross. Nevertheless, we do have a couple of hilarious stumbles in the (thankfully!!) shallow soft snow: once with Robin trying to multi-task with cameras, and once with Laura somehow getting each foot stuck in two separate snow patches and ends up saddled on an ice ridge. Yee-haw, ice pony!
Glacier pools and avalanches
Other than small crevasses, there are many ever-changing features out here on the Tasman Glacier, such as small pools of glacier-fresh water for a quick drink.
“Usually by this time of the day, we’ll be hearing avalanches…” Tex says right on cue for a rumble that echoes through the valley. We spot the avalanche across the valley, however the sound of the ruckus doesn’t reach us at the same time as we spot giant pieces of ice fall down the mountainside.
Echoes through the valley continue drawing our attention for the rest of the trip, all of us so desperate to see an avalanche bigger than the last. However, Tex is racking his brains to find a feature that he is desperate to show us… he just can’t find it.
Going down the worm hole
Tex finally picks up the pace, starts axing steps down a small hill of ice for us to go down. Sure enough, he’s found the feature! It’s a perfectly circular ice hole! The worm hole goes down into the ice and appears out on top of another ice hill. It’s only big enough for most humans to get halfway through, going feet first, before they have to return the way they came. But Laura is no mere human! With the determination and flexibility of a rodent, she turns her body around in the hole halfway through so that she can climb out the other side! She did it! Laura is the Queen of This Specific Ice Cave of the Tasman Glacier that is Probably Going to be Gone Soon Anyway!
FLying in style back to Aoraki Mt Cook Village
We now make our way back to the flatter section of the Tasman Glacier where the helicopter can land. Within the last two hours, Tex has given us a huge insight into the behaviour of the glacier and how it greatly differs from previous glaciers we have hiked on in New Zealand.
The 12-minute heli-ride back to Mt Cook Airport is just as wonderful as the way in. We try to soak in every last second we get in the air with these aerial views.
Join us tomorrow where we explore more of this phenomenal national park.
Here comes our ride off the glacier!
Here comes our ride off the glacier!
Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Here comes our ride off the glacier! Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
That’s awesome! If you liked this blog post, maybe you’ll dig these articles:
- 10 Facts You Did Not Know About New Zealand’s Glaciers
- 7 Ways to Take on New Zealand’s Glaciers
- Aoraki Mt Cook National Park – Guide for Backpackers
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See you tomorrow!