An adventure on the Tasman: Heli-hiking New Zealand’s biggest glacier

Whirly birds and blue ice await you beneath Mt. Cook

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Before I moved to New Zealand, I had little familiarity with glaciers, only seeing them from a distance in Europe, and certainly never walking on them.

The first glimpse I got of Aoraki/Mount Cook almost five years ago on my way to do Mueller Hut for my birthday with friends, I was blown away. Jutting out from the surrounding mountains, this iconic peak, New Zealand’s highest, lords over the surrounding Alps with ease.

Walking in his shadow, I quickly fell in love with this part of the country. Can you blame me?

As we struggled on the big climb up the Mueller Ridge, I could see the icefalls of the nearby Mt. Sefton twinkling in the sunlight, occasionally interrupted with a big icefall tumbling down to the valley below (well away from people, I might add).

This new icy world quickly fascinated me. I was hooked.

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand
The view flying up Fox Glacier

This was also around the time I was hearing rumors about how doing a heli-hike on Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers were THE THING to do while on a trip to New Zealand. By happy chance I’ve been able to spend quite a bit of time over in Fox Glacier and have been able to join in on a few helicopter flights and heli-hikes on Fox Glacier up on the ice for a few years and I can attest they are amazing.

You catch a helicopter flight from the Fox township up onto the ice on the Fox Glacier which tumbles down in a blue river of ice from the back of Mt. Cook on the west coast of the South Island. One of the only glaciers in the world that descends down into a rainforest, it’s an incredible experience.

You’re guided on the ice for a few hours before choppering back down to reality.

heli hike new zealand
Heli-hiking on Fox Glacier
heli hike new zealand
Chancellor Hut next to Fox Glacier

A few years ago they expanded and now offer heli-hikes over the Tasman Glacier from Mount Cook Village.

Mount Cook sits somewhat smack in the middle of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, a mountain chain running north to south, the backbone of the South Island. In the heart of the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, there are many walks to enjoy of all levels and abilities with views of the 19 peaks that are over 3,000 meters high.

Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers drop down to the West Coast, while the Tasman Glacier runs down towards the east towards Christchurch and Mount Cook Village. Geographically the towns of Fox and Mt. Cook are so close you can geotag them on posts online, but in reality there is no road connecting them, and it’s a six hour drive around through Wanaka.

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand

I love the Tasman Glacier, which is totally different from it’s neighbor Fox Glacier on the other side.  The Tasman is New Zealand’s longest and largest glacier, almost 25 kilometers long, it’s a whopper. Seemingly wider and more open than Fox, you really get the scope of the area as you explore it on a heli-hike.

What’s also really incredible is the often dramatic difference in weather to either side of Mt. Cook.

Many times it’s raining over in Fox Glacier, and sunny in Mt. Cook. You can often look towards the West Coast and see the clouds sitting on the divide of the Alps, which means you can often still hike and fly in Mt. Cook when you can’t in Fox, or vice-versa.

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand

You don’t have to have any experience in mountaineering or using crampons to go on a Tasman Glacier Heli Hike, which is awesome for people like me, who want the experience of being on the ice in the mountains with safe conditions and guides.

You’ll get a thorough safety briefing before trying on the gear and heading out to your chariot into the hills: a helicopter.

I’m obsessed with riding in helicopters here in NZ, they are so much fun and truly let me live out all my Top Gun fantasies, and it definitely makes you feel pretty badass climbing out of a helicopter onto a glacier!

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand

The scenic flight out to the landing site on the Tasman is one of my favorites in all of New Zealand.

You’ll get a great view of Mt. Cook to your left and out over the Tasman Lake, which is often filled with calving icebergs off of the Tasman Glacier. Try to imagine that the Tasman Lake didn’t exist in the 70’s. Hello climate change!

Surrounded by huge mountains, you’re guaranteed to be marveling at the scale of it all. Impressive to say the least, there is nothing quite like experiencing these magnificent peaks from a helicopter, unless of course you can climb it.

Sidenote: no, you can’t climb Mt. Cook unless you’re a very experienced mountaineer. I’m truly surprised how many people ask me that. It’s a big, complex and dangerous mountain. It’s much safer to go heli-hiking, with many of the guides being experienced mountaineers who’v climbed Aoraki.

heli hike new zealand
The Tasman Glacier face
heli hike new zealand
An enormous iceberg in the Tasman Lake, seen from a guided boat cruise

Before you know it, you’ll be climbing down from the chopper onto the ice, strapping crampons to your feet and getting used to walking and trusting them to grip the ice.

What makes heli-hiking the Tasman so fun and unique is that the glacier is always moving and changing, at a much faster rate than you could ever imagine. What features you might find one day on the ice, could be totally different the next day.

Even though it’s a guided operation, you really feel like you’re exploring a new world, because you are. You never know what you might find on the ice!

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand

The guides are super knowledgeable and experienced, many of them are my friends, and they lead you safely throughout the glacier, sharing stories of this magnificent place

You’ll likely get to peek down moulins, wiggle through tunnels, and perhaps even slide in an ice cave or two.

To see the shiny blue ice up close and personal is just incredible. It seems almost every shade of blue is reflected in this magnificent glacier, and I couldn’t help but touch it constantly.

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand

At the risk of being a total downer, it’s incredibly we still have places like this in the world, and that these glaciers haven’t disappeared yet.

Now’s the time to experience their wonder and beauty for yourselves, and hopefully like me you’ll become an advocate for climate change and for protecting our planet too.

The Tasman Glacier is one of a kind, and once you’ve touched the ice up there, you’ll be changed too!

Have you ever been on a glacier? Share!

heli hike new zealand

heli hike new zealand

Many thanks to Mt. Cook Glacier Guiding for hosting me on the Tasman. Like always I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own – like you could expect less from me!

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6 Comments on “An adventure on the Tasman: Heli-hiking New Zealand’s biggest glacier

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  1. Hi Liz! When did you go to the glacier? I’m planning to go mid-March next year so I’m not sure if it will be as amazing as this.

    BTW, informative content as always. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

  2. Liz, your blog has been inspiring me for years. I’m currently finishing up my second year in the auxiliares de conversación program in Malaga, Spain before heading back to the US for a “real job” – I was never too interested in traveling for natural wonders until it hit me after reading some of your content about NZ. I’m now going on my last hurrah trip to the Soča Valley in Slovenia and will be hiking solo (only been hiking a couple of times before). Tips for a newbie going solo? The longest hike I would like to take is about 8 hours and I’m a little nervous because it’s so new to me! Again, insanely excited and dreaming of visiting NZ in a couple of years!

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