By Richard Varr
Our helicopter swerves over the sharp and peaked edges of the snow-packed mountain range, where our final destination is now in clear view. We’re headed for the flat, ice-covered floor of the Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest.
Upon landing, I can hear the crunch as my feet step onto freshly-fallen snow that will soon be part of the thick glacial ice.
There’s not a footprint in sight as I gaze at the frozen valley of white before me – snow-covered mountain peaks shrouded by both wispy and puffy layers of cloud bands above.
“It’s just something that can’t be touched – it’s totally natural,” trumpets Mark Hayes, our chopper pilot and guide. “The glacier is alive – no two ways about that. It moves during a 24-hour period, eight inches a day, and it changes all the time.”
Within Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, the Tasman Glacier is now 27 kilometers (17 miles) in length. Slowly receding like most glaciers around the world, it blackened rock-covered edge breaks apart into icebergs and melts into the milky pale-blue waters of the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake, the water’s opaque color due to a high concentration of “rock-flour,” or finely ground rock from the moving glacier.
Local guides tell me the glacier is losing about 200 meters a year, but snowfall continues to add to its thickness, as it takes 30 feet of snow to compress into one foot of glacial ice.
I stayed one night within the National Park – part of my three day adventure in this mountainous region of New Zealand’s South Island. At every corner of the park, with its commanding rocky ridges and sturdy pine tree forests, it’s easy to catch a glimpse of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the country’s tallest mountain.
At The Hermitage, a multi-story upscale hotel in Mount Cook Village offering excellent views, a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary stares intently at the 12,316-foot-high Mount Cook. A New Zealand native, Hillary climbed Mount Cook in 1948, but became a legend five years later when he and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were the first known climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Several hiking paths in and around Mount Cook Village lead to rocky outposts, scenic river and lake vistas, and closeup views of the area’s three nearby glaciers.
Later that day, I gaze upon yet another view of the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake from above; this time reaching the top of an adjacent mountaintop traversing rock and gravel-filled roads in 4×4 vehicles. “It’s a bit of a moonscape and it’s so crystal clear up here,” says guide Willy Nunn. “And the air taste delicious.”
“When there’s no wind, there’s dead silence,” he adds, “with only the sounds of the gravel falling down in mini avalanches.”
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FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Mount Cook Ski Planes (and Helicopter Tours): www.mtcookskiplanes.com
Tasman 4WD and Argo Tours: www.mountcooktours.co.nz
The Hermitage: www.hermitage.co.nz