Travellers to New Zealand’s South Island often visit at least one of either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef for guided walks, climbs or a combination of flights and hiking. Competition is fierce between the two guiding companies - so much that they won’t even speak each other’s names. If you don’t have time or money to visit both glaciers, you may be wondering which hike is right for you.
We did the Franz Josef Glacier Guides ‘Half Day Glacier Experience,’ followed by ‘The Nimble Fox’ all-day glacier walk with Fox Glacier Guiding three days later. Though we’re here in the summer, winter is the best time to visit the glaciers because it isn’t as rainy (glacier country is surrounded by rainforests).We arrived in Franz Josef to heavy rain and worried it would wreck our planned excursion. Apparently the guided glacier trips proceed in pretty much any weather, but we were thrilled to awaken the next morning to a beautiful sunny day for our half-day hike. For Fox Glacier we weren’t so lucky and steady rain fell on us pretty much the entire day.
New Zealand’s glaciers flow almost to sea level and Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are accessible from the edge of the townships named for them. While visitors can walk almost right up to the faces of these giant frozen rivers on their own, a guided tour is a must for walking out onto the ice. Our Franz Josef guide told us that some very silly people have tried walking onto the glacier in jandals (thongs or flip-flops, if you like). And yes, people have died from falling on or off the glaciers, even on guided tours. This is completely avoidable if you stay with your guide on the path and follow his instructions exactly. We felt very safe during both our hikes.
The types of trips offered by each company are very similar. We showed up to the offices at the prescribed time and were suited up with our gear: a rain jacket, overtrousers, socks, boots, crampons, gloves and hats. At Fox Glacier we were also offered fleece jumpers, backpacks and alpenstocks (walking sticks with a spike at one tip). The equipment is similar. I preferred the boots at Fox Glacier because they fit me better but the overtrousers at Franz Josef were much higher quality. Provided backpacks are handy so your own doesn’t get soaked in the rain. But after the full-boot crampons provided by Franz Josef, I couldn’t believe the little spikes we latched on to the middle of the soles of our boots at Fox. They were adequate but I much preferred the Franz Josef crampons. The disadvantage there is that we had to carry our crampons in huge waist packs that we continued to wear throughout the tour.
We were then transferred to the glacial valley for a 30-60 minute (depending on the glacier) hike to the face. The difficulty of the hikes is probably about the same. At Franz Josef we walked through a forest, a valley and then climbed a tall hill to reach the ice. The pre-ice hike at Fox Glacier is pretty much just a walk through the valley with a climb up a hill at the end to reach the ice. The face of the Fox Glacier is much more beautiful than at Franz Josef at the moment, however, with the rushing river spilling out from a huge blue ice cave.
The differences lie primarily in the glaciers themselves and how they are guided. Franz Josef extends 12 kilometres from the three glaciers that feed into it and the terminal face is 19 kilometres from the sea. Fox Glacier is fed by four glaciers and falls 2,600 metres from the base of the Southern Alps to the West Coast. It is longer than Franz Josef at 13 kilometres and the gradient is less steep to climb. If you’re doing a heli-hike, Fox Glacier offers you views of Mounts Cook and Tasman. The guided hike at Franz Josef is on a pre-cut, pre-determined path while the paths at Fox Glacier are set by the guide on the day. Depending on the conditions, the group and the guide, the tour may vary. The glacier experiences are quite different from one another for this reason.
Fox Glacier is slightly less expensive than Franz Josef, however, visitors on half- and full-day walks on Franz Josef are offered complimentary access to the Glacier Hot Pools, which are fed with water from the glacier. The township of Franz Josef also has more accommodation and facilities than that of Fox Glacier, though the latter is very nice and has plenty of good places to eat. Aside from the ice climbing experiences, Franz Josef walks and heli-hikes claim to be up to an hour longer than those on Fox Glacier. For us, the amount of time on Fox Glacier was plenty on our one-day trip as it gets quite cold on the glacier and a lot of energy is expended moving around.
So which hike is better? The answer depends on what each individual is looking for. If a person has never done any hiking over loose terrain (or much hiking at all), I would recommend Franz Josef. The Fox Glacier experience is completely safe and suitable for beginners, but even with all my hiking experience, I still felt unsure of foot in several parts. They baby you a lot more at Franz Josef. Our Fox tour moved very fast and felt like more of an adventure over rough terrain. While our guide constantly checked the track and made sure we were all safe and comfortable, he wasn’t always giving us specific instructions or slowing down the pace.
John and I thought both of our guides were excellent and we saw some really beautiful formations on both tours. But Fox Glacier Guiding hosts fewer people and we preferred the more free-style approach to the tour that this allows. It was a challenge and I really enjoyed that. The fitness levels required for both hikes are probably about the same and whichever hike you choose, you’ll have a great time.
Dress warm. You may be dissuaded from wearing too many layers or hats and gloves in the summer, but if you’re a person who gets cold, I recommend wearing a scarf and hat. I caught a nasty chill on my neck at Franz Josef and had sore neck muscles for days even though it was sunny. Dress in layers so you can peel these off if you get too hot.
Use their gear, especially if you’re travelling the next day and the weather is wet. If you wear your own clothes and carry your own backpack, you’ll have to worry about drying these out.
Shorts are fine. I can’t speak for the winter weather but it’s fine to wear shorts on the glacier in summer. You can put your overtrousers on top of the shorts once you get onto the ice if you‘re cold (recommended if it is raining). Do not wear jeans as you won’t be allowed onto the ice with them.
Don’t forget sunscreen. The sun is very hot in New Zealand and the glare is amplified by the reflections off the ice. Even on an overcast day, the intensity of the sun will burn you very quickly.
Stay on track and listen to your guide. He will teach you how to put on your crampons and give you instructions for walking on the ice, so pay attention and don’t talk during these demonstrations. A couple of visitors on our Fox tour kept going closer to crevasses for a better look and the guide had to caution them back. The glaciers can still be very dangerous even though you’re allowed to walk on them. Don’t be stupid and put your life at risk just to get what you think will be a better photo.
Glaciers exist all over the world. Have you visited any?