The blades began to turn more and more quickly as I was ushered into the front seat of the helicopter. This is really happening! I felt like a small child – I could hardly contain my excitement. (!) Until earlier this year, heli-hiking on a glacier in New Zealand was one of those epic bucket list experiences that I would continue to dream about doing “one day.”The helicopter lifted off the ground and gracefully headed up, up, and away, and I saw the Alpine Guides headquarters below me getting smaller and smaller.For the next 12 minutes of flight my eyes were wide with elation and I heard “oohs and ahhs” escape my mouth when I hadn’t meant to say anything. I was in awe.The scenery was unbelievable and unlike any I’ve seen during any of my prior travels. I saw the cerulean waters of Lake Pukaki, flew over Tasman Lake and its icebergs, passed wild streams and floated above rugged mountains.
Amazing. I figured it couldn’t get any better… But, then it did.
The helicopter approached a stark white sparkling stretch of snow and began its descent onto Tasman Glacier.
Once we touched down, two of the guides helped me out of the chopper. I knew to crouch down and cover my head from the pre-flight briefing. Then, just as delicately as before, the helicopter lifted off the glacier and floated out of sight. After a couple seconds I couldn’t hear the sound of the blades or motor running anymore.
It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The other four hikers in our small group also seemed to be awestruck. Lucky for us, we were the first of three helicopters out on the glacier. All I could see around me was jagged peaks, icy cliffs and what appeared to be miles and miles of snow.
Our guide, Anna, handed me a pair of crampons to affix to my hiking boots to help me navigate the ice. Anna gave us some tips on how and when to bend our knees and instructed us to dig our crampons into the ice to scale the glacier hills and descend icy valleys.
The dangers on the glacier are still present and very real despite heli-hiking being a fairly popular tourist activity. Our small group was instructed to stay behind Anna while we moved across the glacier so she could test the ice and pickaxe a safe pathway for us to trek through. Even though she led a group across the same area the day prior, this process was still important because the glacier’s terrain constantly changes.
When I read this about the experience before the trip I was concerned that I would feel like a child being led on a field trip, but that wasn’t the case at all. The rule to follow our guide was for our safety and wasn’t so strict that I couldn’t step to the side to take a photo or hang back to check out an ice formation. I was relieved that I didn’t feel like I was being led around on a leash.
Our hike lasted for close to two hours. I had also been concerned that I would get out on the glacier and after 30 minutes or so have that “okay, I’ve seen it and done it – I’m ready to go,” feeling. This fear was also unrealized. Time flew by and I could have happily trekked longer.
Not only did Anna provide us with safe passage, but she was also extremely knowledgeable and explained the glacier and its formations to us. When it was nearing the time for her to radio to headquarters for the pilot to pick us up, she began to hack a landing pad for the helicopter… Yes, you read that right – she had to hack a landing pad for us!
There were such interesting formations the day of our hike due to inclement weather in the days before that Anna led us out in a straight line instead of the typical loop. She choose this route so that we could see and experience more within the time we had out on the glacier. But doing so meant we didn’t end up where we started and there was no flat surface for the chopper to land on – so Anna made one!
Would I recommend this experience to other travelers?
100% absolutely, without a doubt, YES! Heli-hiking on Tasman glacier with Alpine Guides was one of my favorite travel moments to date, if not my very favorite (which I discuss in this post). The experience was ridiculously unique – it’s not every day I get to “co-pilot” a helicopter, land on a glacier in New Zealand and hike around it!
Heli-Hiking is a must-do for anyone that loves stunning scenery and unique travel adventures.
What you need to know about heli-hiking on a glacier in New Zealand:
Dress appropriately. Just because you’re trekking on ice doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cold. I traveled to New Zealand in January, which is summertime there. Obviously, because of the altitude (and ice) the glacier is cooler than sea level, but I was quite comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. If you’re uncertain what to wear, I would recommend that you dress in layers and ask your guide for recommendations. (On a related note, you could choose to hike with a backpack, but I chose to only carry my camera with me).
Make sure you wear comfortable socks appropriate for hiking. Remember, you will be wearing hiking boots and crampons. Some parts of the “hike” are more of a careful stroll, while others times I had to make certain to dig my crampons into the ice to trek up glacial hills or down into sloping valleys. Even though you’ll be wearing the boots for less than three hours total, you don’t want to have blisters for the duration of your New Zealand vacation. (FYI- If you don’t have a pair of hiking boots or don’t care to pack them, Alpine Guides will provide you with a pair. We ended using the company’s boots. My husband and I are avid hikers and we both commented on how surprisingly comfortable we found them).
Wear sunscreen with a high SPF – even if it’s not super sunny. The glacier is highly reflective and you’ll get sunburn if you forego the sunscreen. (If you forget to bring it with you, Alpine Guides had some at their headquarters for guests to use). I’d also recommend that you wear chapstick with SPF to keep your lips from getting burnt.
Know that it’s going to be windy. Really windy. You’ll be climbing in and out of a helicopter while the blades are spinning full speed… Ladies, this means that your hair may look unsightly for those glacier selfies if you don’t have it pulled back. Regardless of whether you’re male or female, I’d recommend that you wear a hat. A hat is not only helpful to keep your hair under control, but also to block your face from the sun. Remember to take your hat off and hold on to it (along with anything else that could fly off your body and be swept away by the wind) when you’re entering and exiting the helicopter.
Did I mention that it’s REALLY windy? You’ll be instructed to exit the helicopter, take a few steps and then immediately squat down on the ice until the helicopter takes off again. When the helicopter came back to pick us up from the glacier, it was so windy that one of the other guest’s packs went flying into the air (as in “Heads up, watch out!” flying through the air), which probably should have been a warning to me… Standing less than 5’2” and weighing about 100 pounds, the wind suddenly sent me flying as well. (Luckily, my husband was paying attention and grabbed my leg before I rolled down one of those ice crevices). This seemed to be a freak instance, especially since I didn’t have any issues when we were dropped off on the glacier, but I mention it so that you know I’m actually not exaggerating here (which I’m known to do from time to time…). Just be aware of the wind factor.
Plan your itinerary for this experience. The helicopters won’t go out if there is too much wind or rain, so if you’re dead set on heli-hiking (which you should be), you’ll want to make sure you spend at least a couple days in the Mount Cook area. January is arguably one of the best times to visit New Zealand because the weather is generally more predictable and pleasant than most other times, but it’s still New Zealand – weather can (and will) turn on a dime. Despite it being peak season, I was told that the helicopters only flew about 50% of the days in January due to a bout of bad weather. I lucked out. Knowing what I know now, I should have planned a couple nights in Mount Cook.
Okay, heli-hiking was great, but how about Alpine Guides?
The whole experience couldn’t have been any better. From the employees working in the airport, to the helicopter pilots, to our fantastic and knowledgeable guide, everyone with Alpine Guides was as friendly and helpful as could be.
Have you gone heli-hiking on a glacier in New Zealand? If not, is it something you’d like to do?
Although I was a guest of Alpine Guides, I’m keeping it real with my readers. I was not compensated or contracted to write a positive review of my experience – I just loved it THAT much!
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