franz josef, march 13th, 2001 1:30pm

half-day hike on the franz josef glacier

we arrived in franz josef around 1pm, it was already starting to rain. the afternoon hike up the franz josef glacier was starting at 1:30, so i decided not to sit around in a cafe or pub all day and instead go on this hike. while gearing up in the office, with about 30 other hikers, the rain came down harder and harder. jesus, i thot to myself, should i back out and get a refund?

a bus took us to the beginning of the hike. accompanying us were 4 guides, one of whom was this totally cute american woman. ("gosh, i hope i get to be in her group!). the hike to the base of the glacier was about 45 minutes, walking over a wide dried river bed in the center of the valley, dry with the exception of a small river. as we neared the base of the glacier we had to cross a small stream that flowed into the river.

the rain was coming down harder and harder. we were wearing waterproof raincoats the tour provided us. i couldn't stand wearing the hood because it narrowed my view of the amazing surroundings and i wanted to hear everything around me. so i took the hood off inspite of getting my head rainsoaked.

as we stepped onto the glacier, with our bare boots mind you, i heard all around me thundercracks along the valley walls. it wasn't thunder. the rain was coming down so hard boulders and rocks were barrelling down the valley walls onto the glacier. i kinda laughed to myself and thot, "we're insane to be out here. we're gonna get hit!"

we climbed straight up along the gravel base of the glacier, lead by our guide dan. soon the gravel ended and we were climbing stairs hacked into the ice. walking on ice, especially in the rain, is slicker than shit! i was really nervous. one slip and you'll bust your face on the glacier, break your leg, or go sliding down part of the glacier to your death. i couldn't believe we hadn't attached the metal claws to our boots yet! at the base of the third set of stairs i stopped, last in the line, and watched my group go ahead of me. i was pissed and terrified. dan turned around to see where i was and i gave him a pissy stop signal by making slicing gestures with my hand across my throat. he came back down to see what was up with me.

"dude! i'm not going any farther! i don't have any traction!" he calmed me down, asked me what my name was, what i did for a living, etc. he strapped the claws onto my boots for me and urged me onwards. he said if i just stood there and waited for them to come back that i'd get cold. and when you get cold you get clumsy. so i went on and joined the rest of the group.

now that i had my claws on my boots were gripping the ice like a charm. i felt a lot more confident and told dan i was having "traction issues." when we joined the rest of the group everyone at that point put their metal claws on. i was still feeling pissy tho and kept thinking how insanely dangerous all this was, thinking for sure i was gonna die on this trip. but instead of continuing to voice my concern i shut up for fear that i would cause the rest of the group to panic. the rain came down harder and harder still.

the hike was intense. straight up the glacier. i'm not sure i can describe adequately how beautiful it was. but all around me, on the valley walls that hugged the glacier, were many many white, silvery veins of water. it was raining so much that the valley was full of waterfalls. it was intense. the thunder kept cracking too as boulders pounded down onto the glacier.

dan told me that this was one of the most amazing dramatic days he's led a hike up the glacier. as he was gazing in awe at one of the biggest waterfalls, he turns to me and says, "we should be getting back, the rivers probably rising rapidly." WHAT??!

we turn back, one group of hikers is a ways in front of us, two groups are still behind us climbing. when we finally reach the river, i just can't believe my eyes. the river is flash flooding.

six people from the group ahead of us are linked arm in arm in a line crossing the river. one person upstream is doing all the blocking while the rest of the people are walking in the eddies created by the first, supporting that person's weight. the water is up to their knees and thighs. keep in mind this is the small stream we crossed earlier. this stream flows into the river. our crossing point is about 6-7 meters from the mouth of the river.

then it's my turn. the water is icy cold from the melting glacier and thick with mud from the soil washing down the valley sides. i position myself second from the downstream side in a line of five people. (i think eddie was on my left. picture coming soon.) we start to cross and i realize how unexpected the force of the water is on my body. it's really hard to stay vertical. the water's up to my thighs. halfway across the scotsman, in his 60s, goes down and nearly knocks everyone else down like bowling pins. he can't get his footing, the force of the water dragging him from us towards the river. the guide on my right arm and myself dig our feet into the streambed to keep from going down. in a calm voice i tell the scotsman, "it's ok. we got you. you can do it. we got you." i didn't want him to panic and take us with him. finally he regained his footing and we made it the rest of the way across. as i near the bank i'm thinking to myself, "not today! not today! i'm not gonna die today!" if anyone of us had been dragged into the river, that would've probably been the end.

but this story doesn't end there...

as several other groups continue to cross one of the guides tells those of us on the other side to continue on. we still had a 45 minute hike through the riverbed back to the bus... um... what riverbed? the entire valley was covered by a flash flooding river. we couldn't get back the way we came. the guide leads us along the left side of the riverbed at the base of a slope where there's a small path cutting along the river. this path is about 2 meters above the level of the river. "oh shit, our path is gonna be washed out. i wonder if they'll be able to get helicopters in" i think to myself.

as we quietly, dutifully trudge along i say aloud, "i'll bet everyone's composing their journals in their heads right now!" the woman in front of me turned and smiled. (that was andrea, picture coming soon.) just when things couldn't get worse, there was a waterfall crashing directly over the path into the river, a waterfall that was much much bigger due to the rain. we had to cross through the waterfall to continue on path, our only path. oh my god. feeling that battery acid death tang in the back of my throat, i took in deep breaths as it came to be my turn to cross. if i fuck it up i'm gonna get thrown into the river below. "god i hope i live to tell the tale." one more breath, crouch real low to bring my body's center of gravity down. i cross through without a scratch. "not today!"

trudge trudge trudge, i was sure the damned path was gonna be washed out. we finally made it back to the bus. not a dry spot on my body.

to cut a long story short... back in town, after i dried off i went to the pub to have some pizza and beer and to recover and reflect. the place was relatively empty. i was feeling antisocial again, thinking this was just gonna be another quiet nite by myself in the pub. shortly after ordering who should walk in but dan the guide! and his brother. i hung out with dan and his bro and had a really good time. dan was awesome. i don't know if it was just my imagination, but i felt like me and dan had a bonding moment. when i said goodbye to him that night i felt the urge to get his email address. but i didn't.

the end (revisions and pictures to come)

oh, and p.s.... i thought i was being a big baby about not wanting to hike on the glacier without the metal claws on. i talked with a few other people later and they all said they were petrified and wished they'd had their claws on. so neener! i also heard that some woman in another group sliced her hand open on the glacier. ice is sharp, especially when sharpened by torrential rain.

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