Is the Franz Josef Glacier Helihike Worth it?
This was the very question Tim and I wrangled with in advance of arriving in Franz Josef. We had budgeted for the steep price tag ($459 NZD per person) but still weren’t sure if we really wanted to spend it or save it. Neither of us grew up with a ton of money or international travel opportunities, so we both still have a very thrifty mindset. Basically, we hate spending money. Most of the time this is something I’m proud of – I love that we are so mindful about our finances! But, we sometimes risk not fully taking advantage of where we are for the sake of staying under budget. For example, when we traveled on our first round-the-world trip in 2014, we skipped visiting the Daintree Rainforest and the Whitsunday Islands in Australia for the sake of the budget, even though in the end it would have only set us back a little over $100 each and we still would have come out under budget. I wish we had taken advantage of those opportunities then when we were there.
Before this trip, Tim and I agreed we would not skip meaningful once-in-a-lifetime activities this time for the sake of saving a little cash. Plus, we both earn a little here and there working online as we travel, which go towards our “fun fund”. That said, I tend to agonize over big ticket items even if we’ve planned for the expense.
And of course that’s what I did about helihiking Franz Josef glacier, and I suspect others have too.
What is a Helihike Anyway?
Basically, helihiking is when you ride in a helicopter up to the point where a hike starts, and you may even ride in a helicopter back down after as well. It’s similar to the concept of heliskiing, where you ride a helicopter up a mountain instead of a chair lift and then ski back down. It’s best for getting to remote spots that can’t be reached on foot or via lifts. And, like buying a plane ticket, a seat on a helicopter is expensive.
What’s a Glacier Hike?
A glacier hike is any walking you do on a glacier. Oftentimes you’ll wear crampons (like soccer cleats made out of metal) attached to your shoes to help you have good grip on the ice (like we did in Iceland), but sometimes if the glacier is covered in powdery snow you’ll wear snowshoes (like we did in Svalbard). Unless you have a lot of experience hiking on glaciers, you should always go with a guide. With constantly changing terrain and hidden crevasses, glaciers are dangerous to the inexperienced. Given the specialized equipment and expertise required for a glacier hike, this activity on its own will normally cost at least $150.
A helihike on a glacier means you ride in a helicopter up to a safe landing spot on the glacier, get out, strap on crampons and walk around the ice with your guide until it’s time to meet the helicopter for the ride back down. Since you’re combining one expensive activity (helicopter ride) with another (glacier hike), the price is enough to make your stomach hurt.
What to Expect on the Franz Josef Glacier Helihike:
When we woke up the morning of our hike, we heard the hum of helicopters flying overhead – a promising sign. The trip gets canceled due to weather 60% of the time, so even if you’ve made the decision to do it, Mother Nature may have different plans for you.
We headed over to the Franz Josef Glacier Guides office at 9:30, checked in with 9 others, and then went through the standard safety briefing. This was going to be my first time in a helicopter, and while I wasn’t scared, I was definitely feeling the adrenaline of my excitement. We put on the pants, jacket, socks and boots they gave us and then walked as a group the 5 minutes to the helipad.
Only 6 passengers are allowed in one helicopter, so our group was split into two. I was surprised by just how much wind the propellers generated – the force and volume of the air pushed out all around the helicopter was a little disorienting. Once inside the helicopter, we put on our headphones to be able to hear the captain, and shortly after, the aircraft levitated above the ground, hovered, and took off.
The flight was incredibly scenic, as we passed over the valley and alongside mountain walls. A quick 5 minutes later and we were approaching the glacier, which, to state the obvious, now looked so much larger than it had from the ground.
Once we landed and exited the helicopter, we all put on crampons (metal attachments for your boots to aid in walking on ice), got walking poles and followed our guide up a manmade set of stairs in the ice. Because the glacier is constantly moving and changing, the guides have to adapt the walking trail accordingly. This means carving stairs, installing temporary handrails, and checking the path ahead for safety every day.
On the ice, we were able to walk through narrow crevasses, explore little ice caves, and fill up our water bottles with pure glacial water freshly flowing through the ice. We also got a good view of a gushing waterfall pouring out of a cave in the distance. The amount of waste steadily rushing was astonishing, and put into perspective for me just how much ice melt is constantly flowing through the glacier.
After a few hours on the ice it was time to helicopter back down to town. This ride was even more exciting than the first because the captain made some sideways turns for fun – it was both a little scary and really exciting!
Watch: Our Helihiking Experience
So is it “worth it”?
Ultimately people have to answer this question for themselves based on what’s important to them.
Alternatives to the Helihike
To help give guidance, though, I’ll first review some of the alternatives to helihiking Franz Josef glacier.
- Valley Hike (easy 1.5 hours)
This hike is an easy, flat stroll through the glacial valley to the face of the glacier. It’s the closest you can permissibly get to the glacier face, and the view is great. Along the way you’ll pass by waterfalls and dramatic cliffs above the valley. Since the glacier one extended out over the valley, you’ll be walking on glacial moraine, which is the rocks and debris leftover from the glacial retreat.
- Alex Knob Hike with view down on to glacier (difficult 8 hours)
This hike is for experienced and well-equipped trekkers. It’s a 4 hour climb to the summit, and conditions can vary greatly even within the same day. Check the forecast before you go.
Both hikes are free, but the trails start 3.5 km outside of the town so you may want to pay for the shuttle (about $16 round trip) to get you there.
If you’re most interested in glacier views, these are great, cheap options for enjoying Franz Josef. If you want to set foot on the glacier, however, the helihike is your only option.
Have You Ever Hiked on a Glacier Before?
If it’s something you haven’t done before, but you want to do it, then I think you’d be really happy with the helihike experience. For us, we’d already hiked a glacier in Iceland and in Svalbard (but that one was covered in snow and didn’t feel like a glacier). Given our experience hiking the glacier in Iceland in particular, I was worried helihiking Franz Josef would be redundant. It was an amazing experience in Iceland, but if it’s something I’ve already done before, do I really want to spend so much money to do it again? For me, then, it was important to know whether this experience would be unique enough from what I’d done previously.
I polled friends who had done the helihike and shared pictures from our Iceland glacier hike. I asked them if hiking Franz Josef looked very different from Iceland. Most people said they weren’t sure but that they looked similar. I couldn’t find anyone who had done both.
Have You Ever Ridden in a Helicopter?
Many friends I asked said the helicopter ride was a big part of the excitement for them. I’d never been in one before, so even if the glacier hike itself was similar to the one I’d done before, the helicopter ride was a guaranteed new experience. For me, this sealed the deal on my decision to book a helihike. If you’ve never ridden a helicopter, I think this will be a highlight of your day!
What if You’ve Already Hiked a Glacier and Ridden a Helicopter?
First of all, lucky you! Chances are, helihiking Franz Josef glacier won’t be a net new adventure for you. The glacier hiking itself isn’t too dissimilar from any other, and a scenic helicopter ride will be pretty but not novel. That said, if you’re looking into helihiking you must have liked both of those experiences, and it’s likely you’ll enjoy this one too.
Is it Ethical?
Knowing how quickly glaciers are melting worldwide, and that scientists estimate Franz Josef in particular will have between 20 and 80 years left before it disappears, a reasonable question is whether it’s ethical to hike on such a vulnerable landscape. It’s one I certainly considered before booking since responsible travel is really important to us.
Ultimately everyone has to decide for themselves what they feel ok with. When it comes to visiting endangered areas, even the scientists and researchers are torn. You can minimize your damage by buying carbon offset credits, but admittedly that doesn’t do much directly to protect the ice you’re walking on.
So is it ethical to hike a glacier? Honestly, I don’t know. Would glaciers be better off without humans? Yeah, probably. But researchers generally agree the damage done by global climate change is way greater than that done by tourism.
In the end we did the helihike and loved it! The helicopter was exhilarating, and the glacier was stunning. We even got to drink fresh glacial water straight from a stream in the ice, and I can assure you this is the most delicious water on earth. While I still feel it’s expensive, it’s just what this particular kind of activity costs. The experience is incredible, and I don’t miss the money at all.
Have you done the Franz Josef Helihike? What did you think – was it worth it? Did anything influence your decision one way or the other? Comment and let me know!