Checking a Glacier heli-hike off my list was not even something I thought about when I first decided to go on a working holiday in New Zealand. However, as I was building up my to-do list, this seems like an experience that I must complete! It was a very unique hiking experience on the top of a glacier for me. I’m not sure how many countries you can do this in but this was a must-do for me in New Zealand. Basically, you take a helicopter directly to the top of the glacier and everything gets taken care of thereafter. It just seems way too fun and cool to say no to.
So here goes, join me as I bring you through my first ever experience hiking on a glacier in New Zealand! If words are not your thing, check out the video of my experience on the Franz Josef Glacier in this video below:
Starting the journey
1. Gearing up before the Glacier hike
First and foremost, arrive early at the heli-hike operator to register and also check if your scheduled timeslot is still set to fly for the day. It is very common for operators to have to cancel on the day itself because of bad weather. So arrive early if you can and preferably stay over the night before too so you can be very well on time!
Once you’ve registered, you may have to wait in the lobby until everyone else in your timeslot is also registered. Then, you will go to a walk-in wardrobe where you pick your waterproof jacket and outer trousers for the hike. Then, change into their hiking boots and collect your little handy sling bag and crampons. Grab some snacks, water, a camera, your important valuables and belongings to bring up the hike. Put them all into the bag they’ve provided you with and there you go, all ready for your heli-hike!
2. The Helicopter ride to Franz Josef
Once we were all set, the weather turned gloomy again:( Fortunately, the skies were kind to us and cleared up in time for us to proceed with the heli-hike. When the operators gave us the thumbs-up, we excitedly skipped over to the helipads and patiently waited for our turn to fly. Each flight could only sit six at a time, with four at the back and three in front (including the pilot).
I was very excited as it was my first time on a helicopter. I was at the window seat in the back row and excitedly put on my headphones and seatbelt preparing for the take-off. As soon as the helicopter took off, I was very surprised with the speed of us gaining altitude. In a matter of seconds, we were already gliding in the sky. What came next without any warning was this huge pain that struck my head, nose and ears. I couldn’t describe that feeling but I know it arose from the sudden change in altitude and pressure. I’m glad it didn’t last long as the helicopter ride took no more than five minutes. The pain left me almost instantly the moment we gained enough altitude and by then, the glacier was right in front of us and we landed almost immediately after.
3. While on the Franz Josef Glacier
While on the glacier, I can’t help but spammed a lot of photos because of that excitement I could not contain. How often does one get to go on a heli-hike to a glacier right? And because of how ever-changing the glacier environment is, this picture I have now may be different just months down the road. So it really serves as a good memory of yourself and the glacier then 🙂
Before we began, the guide got us to unload the crampons from our bag and attach it to our boots. This helped us to avoid slipping by having a better grip on the icy beds. The guide then took us to hike through tall ice caves, between ice valleys, across icy lakes and lastly to even just chill on the ice beds. We also climbed through a really low ice cave on all fours! The guide inspected it for safety and stability first before tying a cable across for us to navigate through it more easily. It was so fun even though it was such a simple activity. Check out my video below for what I meant!
4. The Descend back to Base
The hike lasted for nearly 45 minutes to an hour before the helicopters came to pick us up again. As usual, as each trip could only bring six passengers along, we had to wait around a bit before everyone got brought back to base. Of course, I didn’t waste those minutes and ended up taking a lot more photos again for memory’s sake.
I knew what to expect this time around on the trip back and braced myself for that sharp pain again in my head, nose and ears when we were landing. If you usually feel this pain such as when on an aeroplane, do take note to bring the necessary medications you need or even check with your doctor if this activity is suitable for you before you sign up for it!
What to note before the heli-hike Franz Josef?
Note that this is a very weather-dependent hike and may be cancelled hours before your timeslot. The unfortunate news is that the West Coast always experiences really erratic weather. Hence, prepare for a few additional nights in town if you want to be sure to complete the heli-hike successfully!
As mentioned above too, if you are usually sensitive to changes to altitudes while on air transports, please make sure that you are physically fit to participate in this activity before your even sign up on it.
What to bring on the heli-hike to Franz Josef?
Depending on which operator you sign up with, they will provide you with a bottle of water and the necessary gear you need for the hike. Here’s what I recommend you to bring and wear:
- 2 to 3 layers of warm upper body clothing (the waterproof jacket and outer trousers provided by the operators are usually thin and not warm-prood though wind-proof)
- Sunglasses and sun protection
- A bottle of water and some simple snacks or nuts
- A Camera
Items that your operator would usually provide:
- Waterproof jacket + outer trousers/ pants
- Hiking boots and crampons
- Walking poles
- A handy sling bag to put all your loose items in
How much does the heli-hike cost?
There are two operators that offer the heli-hike tours, namely the Franz Josef Heli Hike and Fox Guides.
This is the one I went with, no particular reason though! Prices are now between $455 to $485 (do note that prices may change, so do check out their website linked above instead for the latest pricing). A skilled guide would bring you through various interesting spots on the glacier.
Fox Guides have various options for different levels and durations of hikes, for novice to expert hikers. I like that they have different packages to help you decide if you want to just have a typical icy hike on flat ground or pick an extreme 6-hours glacier hike. Prices also range from $400 (for a family package) to $499 per pax. Other packages range from $125 to $750, so do check out what suits you and sign up accordingly. This would definitely be something that I love to try the next time I visit South Island again!
Hope this article was useful for you to have a glimpse of how a heli-hike on Franz Josef goes in New Zealand. If you’re interested, so also check out my other favorite hiking tracks of New Zealand too.