Heli-hiking on Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
After the thwump-thwump sound of the helicopter has receded down the glacier, I’m left standing in a beautiful white silence. With half a dozen others and a guide I’ve got the next couple of hours to explore the upper reaches of Franz Josef Glacier, one of a pair of blinding rivers of ice that cascade almost to sea level on the western side of the South Island’s Southern Alps. In Maori legend these are Ka Riomata o Hinehukatere – “The Tears of the Avalanche Girl”. The story goes that the beautiful Hinehukatere so loved the mountains that she encouraged her lover, Tawe, to climb alongside her. He fell to his death and Hinehukatere cried so copiously that her tears formed the glaciers.
The guide checks everyone has put on their crampons correctly, and, stout stick in hand, we set off slowly working our way through a labyrinth of seracs (ice towers) and crevasses. It is a bit of a shock to the system and initially nerve-wracking but the guide seems to know what he’s doing, continually assessing the changes on this fast-moving glacier. The ridge leads to a series of ice caves, features you couldn’t hope to experience on hikes lower down the glacier. Deep blue and gently sculpted, they’re wonderfully enticing.
Franz Josef Glacier Guides (http://www.franzjosefglacier.com) offers a range of guided hikes including heli-hiking.
Mountain biking the world’s most dangerous road, Bolivia
The reputation of the road linking La Paz with the tropical lowlands of Bolivia is enough to put most travellers off. But for downhill mountain bikers and all-round thrill-lovers, it’s an irresistible challenge. The World’s Most Dangerous Road, as this byway is colloquially known, is a stunning ride through some of the most dramatic scenery South America has to offer, and with a vertical descent of around 3500m over just 64km, it’s one of the longest continuous downhill rides on Earth.
Starting amid the icebound peaks of the Andes at over 4000m above sea level, the road plunges through the clouds into the humid valleys of the Upper Amazon basin, winding along deep, narrow gorges where dense cloudforest clings to even the steepest of slopes. The descent is an intense, white-knuckle experience, not made easier by the sight of so many stone crosses marking where buses and trucks have left the road. The surface is so bad that in most countries it wouldn’t even be classified as a road.
One-day bike trips are easy to arrange with operators in La Paz; the original and best is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking (http://www.gravitybolivia.com).
Trekking across the Arctic Circle, Canada
Bouncing along in a wooden kamotik, a traditional Inuit sled pulled by a snowmobile, you might have serious doubts as you think of what lies ahead: polar bears, hypothermia, avalanches and blizzards. You may question your sanity about trekking all the way to the Arctic Circle Marker in Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island. But in the end, you won’t regret it for a moment.
Home to ten-thousand-year-old glaciers, towering granite mountains and awesome icy landscapes, Auyuittuq (pronounced “I-you-we-took”) is an extraordinary place to explore on foot. Most visitors come during the summer to trek 97km through the scenic Akshayuk Pass, a corridor used by Inuit for thousands of years. The guide drops you on the frozen shores at the Overlord Warden Station, the southern gateway to the park. Adrenaline pumping, you begin the 15km trek to the Arctic Circle, along the glacier-scoured terrain of the Weasel River Valley.
Guided by inuksuit, stone markers built by Inuit to navigate the land, you cross the turquoise-blue ice of braided streams, along the base of sheer cliffs a kilometre high and over boulders of every shape and size conceivable. Nearly five hours after starting out, you’ll catch the first glimpse of the holy grail in the distance atop a gravel bed: a lonely inukshuk bearing a simple sign with the words “Arctic Circle” written in English, French and Inuktitut.
You can get more information on the Auyuittuq National Park at http://www.pc.gc.ca. All visitors must register with Parks Canada.
Walking the ice: the Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
Fed by one of the planet’s largest freshwater reserves – the Southern Patagonian Icecap – the Perito Moreno Glacier is the world’s biggest ice-cube dispenser. It looks like a gigantic frozen Blue Lady, thanks to centuries of compression which has turned the deepest ice a deep shade of curaçao, whose sapphire veins can be tantalizingly glimpsed through plunging fissures. One of the few advancing glaciers in the world, it does move, but at, well, glacial speed. It’s noisy, too, squeaking and whining and sporadically exploding, as every few minutes a wardrobe-sized chunk splashes into the lake’s chilly waters and bobs away as an iceberg.
A great way of getting to know this icy beast is to go for a walk on it. Standing on the glacier, you can see every crack and crevice, every tiny pinnacle. The ice can be slippery, but it’s not dangerous as long as you stick to sensible footwear and snap on the crampons issued by all the tour companies offering glacier-treks. And when you’ve walked far enough, you’ll be glad to know that most treks end up with a tumbler of whisky on the rocks, made with ice-cubes chipped out of the glacier, of course.
The nearest town to the glacier is El Calafate; the official website http://www.elcalafate.gov.ar is a useful resource.
Walking on the ice cap, Greenland
Now get your head round this: the Greenland ice cap (also called the inland ice) is 2400km long – that’s to say, it’s the length of the journey from Greenland’s east coast to London. It contains 2.85 million cubic km of ice (more than a billion Olympic swimming pools to you and me); if the whole lot were to melt most of the world’s coastal cities would vanish under water, and several island nations would be wiped out. It covers a land area more than three times the size of France; and the oldest bits of ice are a staggering 250,000 years old.
The super-hardy like to ski from one side to the other, but for the rest of us, a simple summer stroll out onto the ice will do, for the ice cap is astonishingly accessible. Its edge lies just a 25km drive from Greenland’s international airport at Kangerlussuaq. And there’s a road that leads right there.
You leave the huddle of squat buildings that makes up Kangerlussuaq and drive out through spectacular rolling tundra. Small groups of musk oxen, with their stooped posture and strangely cute upturned horns, stand a short distance away and stare; occasionally a reindeer grazes, or an Arctic fox trots out in search of smaller fare. Then, rounding a bend in the road, you see it: a cliff of bluish-white ice in the distance soaring ever upwards. Drawing closer, you discern its spiralling peaks and diving crevasses, and the streaks of grey that smear the surface. And then you’re there, walking out over this rugged, frozen mass of ice.
Air Greenland flies six days a week from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq in summer. From Kangerlussuaq, you can take a guided tour to the ice cap with Albatros Travel Greenland (http://www.albatros-travel.dk). Visit http://www.greenland.com for more information.
Trekking to the source of the Ganges, India
Of all India’s holy rivers, the Ganges – or “Ganga” as it’s known in Sanskrit – is considered by Hindus to be the holiest. And of all the sacred sites along its course, the most sacred is the spot, high in the Garhwal Himalaya, where its waters first see the light of day.
Aside from bringing you much spiritual merit (a mere wind-borne droplet of Ganga water is believed to purge the body of a hundred lifetimes of sin), the pilgrimage to the river’s source provides the fastest possible route into the heart of the world’s highest mountain range. Winding through rhododendron and deodar cedar forests, a paved road runs nearly all the way from the Indian plains to Gangotri, at an altitude of 3200m.
From here on, you have to join the ragged procession of pilgrims and ash-smeared sadhus as they cover the final 20km leg: a long day’s walk over a moonscape of grey dust and scree. Laden with sacks of offerings and supplies, many chant the 108 honorific titles of the river as they walk: “Imperishable”, “A Sun Among the Darkness and Ignorance” or “Cow Which Gives Much Milk”. And for once, the earthly splendour of the surroundings still lives up to its mythology.
Having crossed a rise on the valley floor, the full glory of the Gangotri Glacier is suddenly revealed, snaking away to a skyline of snow peaks. A 400m vertical wall, grey-blue and encrusted with stones, forms the awesome snout of the ice floe – Gau Mukh, the “Cow’s Mouth”. For the community of sadhus who live semi-naked in this freezing spot year-round, nearly 4000m above sea level, there’s nowhere on Earth more uplifting. Come here at dawn, and you’ll see them plunging into the icy water surging from the foot of the glacier, wringing it out of their long dreadlocks and settling down on the eroded rocks of the river bank to meditate or practise yoga. Even without the magnificent mountain backdrop the source would be one of the most enthralling places on Earth. But with the crystal-clear mountain light, the rituals and the vast amphitheatre of rock and ice rising on all sides, the atmosphere is nothing short of transcendental.
Gangotri is accessible from May to October. Most visitors stay in the dorm of the state-run Tourist Bungalow (no phone), in Bhojbasa, 5km from the glacier.