The engines grew louder, and the helicopter took to the air. As I watched Fox Glacier disappear into the distance, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. I wish I could tell you that the heli hike had been a highlight of my trip to New Zealand. I wish I could join hundreds of praising reviews that describe the experience as incredible and amazing. At the very worst, I wish I could at least promise that it is absolutely not worth the money. But unfortunately, the truth is always somewhere in between.
What Is a Heli Hike?
To begin with, what exactly is a heli hike? Simply put, it’s a hike where you use a helicopter to get to the beginning of the hiking trail. While the term applies to any such activity, it is most commonly used to describe the helicopter tours at Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in New Zealand (just google “heli hike”). The tours generally include a helicopter flight to and from the glacier and a few hours walk on ice accompanied by a professional guide.
As anything involving a helicopter flight, the heli hikes are expensive. As of this writing, prices start at NZD$469.00 for both Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. That is a lot of money to pay for a tour. Naturally, a question arises – is it really worth the investment? Well, a lot of peoplesure think so. My guess is that partly, that’s because both glaciers have retreated massively in recent years. Taking a heli hike is now pretty much the only remaining way to step on them. But also, it simply sounds like such a cool (pun intended!) and fun thing to do.
All This Money Just to Walk On Ice?
I have to be honest, at first I didn’t find the idea of doing a heli hike super enticing. I’m used to snow, so to me, paying a lot of money for what is essentially a walk on frozen water didn’t sound too enticing. But I had to change my mind after looking at the incredible photos from the heli hikes that I found online. Images like theseor these, where people enter the ice caves or squeeze through the narrow ice tunnels. Going through an amazing deep blue maze is an experience that’s not easy to get even where I’m from. A photographer in me instantly got excited.
Once you decide to spend the money, choosing the company is the next step. The tours are very similar in what they offer, so picking one really comes down to personal preference. Eventually, we decided on Fox Glacier heli hike by Fox Glacier Guiding, simply because it fit our itinerary better. With the tickets booked, we were really looking forward to an unforgettable experience. A helicopter flight, an incredible day at the glacier, and some amazing photos to top it of. What could possibly go wrong? Turns out, quite a few things.
An Hour Waiting, Ten Minutes in the Air
It was raining from the very morning on the day of our tour. Unsure if the flight was happening, we called Fox Glacier Guiding and were told that conditions were being monitored. They wouldn’t know for certain until the last minute. The situation didn’t get much clearer even after arriving at the office. The decision was being repeatedly postponed while the tour company was deciding what to do.
Eventually, we were informed that the weather showed signs of improvement and given the go ahead. By then, it was almost forty minutes past our scheduled departure time. After the safety briefing, the guides handed out the equipment and took us to the helicopter. The flight to Fox Glacier turned out to be a very short one, ten minutes at most. We got to see a couple of cool views, but it didn’t even compare to the hour-long helicopter tours I had taken on Kauai and over Grand Canyon. This flight is not about sightseeing but about getting people to the ice, where the real adventure starts.
The Reality of a Heli Hike
The rain was still pouring as we landed. Under the grey sky, Fox Glacier looked dirty and uninviting. After putting on the crampons we finally set off. The guides lead the way with everyone else following in their footsteps. Literally. Even with crampons on, Fox glacier can be dangerous, so the guides instruct everyone to step exactly where they did. Moving in a row like this made the entire process painfully slow.
It also makes photography extremely difficult. As a landscape photographer, I like putting some thought in my photos. I try to get a feel of the place, wander around a bit, then wait for the right conditions. Sadly, none of this is possible on the Fox Glacier heli hike. Your best bet is to try and snatch a photo on the go or wait for a quick break. All the photos in this article were taken like that and that some of them came out half decent is nothing short of a miracle.
But how about the ice caves that I was looking forward to so much? Well, nothing – we never got to see the caves. We were just heading towards one when our guide informed us of a message from the ground control. Apparently, the weather was getting worse, so all groups had to turn back and leave the glacier immediately. Otherwise, we risked getting stuck on the glacier overnight. By my own account, we had only been walking for about 25 minutes.
The rest happened quickly. Everyone was rushed back to the landing side with no time to stop, explore or photograph. Crampons were collected and one by one the groups were flown off the ice. As I watched Fox Glacier disappear in the distance, I couldn’t help but wonder – was this even worth it?
Is the Heli Hike Really Worth It?
For me, the easy answer is no. I was hoping for some great images, but all I got is a couple of half decent shots. I was looking forward to exploring the ice caves, but we never reached them. The helicopter flight was cool but only lasted 10 minutes. All in all, given the outcome, I would much rather have saved the money and explored something else.
But then again, our excursion only lasted 2 hours instead of the 4 that it should have. I understand that weather is unpredictable and that safety must always come first. And yet, I can’t help but wonder. If the conditions looked so bad that day, why not cancel the tour? The cynic in me says the company just wanted to do the minimum and avoid the cancellation losses. The optimist points out it gave people a chance to at least have a look at the glacier up close, if only a quick one.
Perhaps on a clear sunny day, Fox Glacier heli hike could be the once in a lifetime experience that some people claim it is. I don’t know. Perhaps, I will never know. I do know, however, that those ice caves still look pretty cool. And that I would be more than willing to give them another try. When the conditions are right.
As always I’d be interested in your opinion. Would you do the Fox Glacier heli hike? Or perhaps you already did? Did you enjoy it? Let me know in the comments, let’s chat!