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If you enjoy alpine hiking, then you have probably seen a glacier or two.
These huge areas of blue ice cover ten percent of the planet, and are often the topic of much environmental debate.
As global warming continues, some of the worlds’ most iconic and oldest glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate.
Hiking on a glacier is unlike anything else.
The creaking and groaning of ice beneath your feet, and seeing the sculptures, undulations and danger made by melting ice and wind, mean that glaciers are not an environment for the faint-hearted.
Glacier hiking is an activity that is growing in popularity. It can be a standalone activity, or in combination with mountaineering.
The skills involved in traversing these immense, moving sheets of ice are part of any keen mountaineer’s armoury, but can also be a way to introduce hikers to mountaineering skills.
What is a Glacier?
Glaciers are formed by snow. Over time, sometimes hundreds of thousands of years, tonnes of compacted snow forms into a dense ice-like substance.
It is an ever-moving mass that flows through the process of melting and refreezing, like a slow moving river.
Check out this time-lapse video showing the movement in action:
The power of glaciers are immense.
The combination of flow, weight and time make glaciers strong enough to carve out valleys, ravines, deep lakes and other landscape features.
Trekking on top of a glacier is an experience to remember.
There are two main types of glaciers in hiking terms.
This is when the surface is covered with snow, or partially covered.
Hiking wet glaciers requires extra care, as snow can be hiding dangers beneath, such as holes and crevasses.
The glacial ice is visible, making hiking safer.
It is easier to spot dangers.
Equipment for Glacier Hiking
Walking on ice is not easy and there are many potential hazards that come with glacier hiking.
It is important to have the right kit to keep you warm, dry and safe.
Here is the basic equipment for glacier hiking that you will need in addition to regular hiking gear, such as warm clothing.
For more extreme ice climbing, extra equipment may be needed.
Crampons – spikes that are attached to footwear, helping to get a grip on ice and snow.
Carabiners – a device used to safely attach ropes and harnesses together.
Harness – attaches hikers to safety ropes. May be needed when climbing or descending steep slopes.
Helmet – protects when participating in ice activities with risk.
Ice Axe – helps you to pick footholds when climbing the ice. It can also save your life during a fall with a technique called ice axe arrest. This is where, during a slide down an icy slope, you turn onto your stomach and jam your ice axe into the surface. This helps you to slow and stop your fall.
Ice Screws – used to fix an anchor point, allowing ropes to be attached.
Ropes – a lifeline between you and other hikers. Ropes are useful for connecting you to safety equipment, as well as many other jobs.
Safety when Glacier Hiking
Trekking distances on a moving river of ice comes with potential hazards.
There are risks of falling into open crevasses as well as hidden ones, there may be piles of soft snow that hide sharp rocks or ice.
To keep safe on a glacier, always hike in pairs or in a group and use the proper equipment.
Being in a group means more eyes on the ice, plus there is help should one of your party get injured.
If you are inexperienced, having a guide with you on a glacier is essential.
There are many companies that offer guided glacier hikes, so it is worth doing some research and booking before you visit a glacier.
Learning the skills to hike on glaciers is also something you can apply to other hikes or mountain climbs.
Avoiding sunburn and glare is also important when hiking glaciers. The sunshine reflects off the surface, so wearing sunscreen and sunglasses will protect your skin and eyes from sun damage.
Best Places to Hike Glaciers
Other than Australia, glaciers can be found all over the world. Some of the top countries to hike glaciers are:
The Los Glaciares National Park, in the Southern Patagonian ice field, is the location of the Perito Moreno Glacier.
With an area of over 250 square kilometres, and being easy to access, this glacier is becoming a must-see destination for many hikers.
This country doesn’t get its name for nothing! With over 100,000 glaciers, you are spoilt for choice.
Famous glaciers include Vatna Glacier, the largest volumes of ice outside of the Polar Regions, this ice sheet covers 8100 kilometres and sits on top of several volcanoes.
Fox Glacier flows for 13 kilometres near the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. This easy-to-reach glacier is a popular attraction for hikers, and guided hikes are available.
Another glacier in New Zealand is the Franz Joseph Glacier. It is kilometres long and is the steepest in the country.
The USA has many glaciers, especially in the north. Alaska is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, a huge sheet of ice over 19 kilometres long.
It is in a nationally protected area, with guided tours available to visitors.
The Hubbard Glacier is locate in both the USA and Canada. At over 122 kilometres long, this is one of the largest glaciers in the continent. Hiking is not permitted unless you get special permission, however just getting to looks at this amazing piece of natural history is a treat in itself.
The largest glacier in Europe, the Jostedalsbreen covers 487 kilometres.
Located in the Jostedalsbreen National Park, tourism is welcomed and guided hikes are available.
Chamonix is located in the French Alps, and is home to the Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice, one of the most well-known glaciers in the area.
Hiking this glacier is a good starting point for alpine climbing beginners.
A more challenging hike in Chamonix is the glacier of the Vallée Blanche, as this at an altitude of 3400 metres.
Glacier hiking is a unique experience, and also a bittersweet one.
On one hand you are surrounded by the beauty of a frozen landscape, with its icy blue hues, dramatic sculptures and formations.
On the other hand, it is a constant reminder of how climate change is affecting our planet.
One thing that you will get from hiking a glacier is the urge to visit another!
Seeing the glacial process take place on such a large scale is awe-inspiring, as you experience both the power and fragility of the natural world.