While studying abroad in New Zealand, I fell down a flight of stairs and broke my right wrist. When I had broken my arm as a kid, I’d had my mom to cook for me and wash my hair. Now, at age 20, I felt startlingly alone. I studied for a final that I would have to take orally, set aside my guitar learning, asked my roommate to cook meals for me, and tried not to feel too sorry for myself.
A week after my accident, my long distance boyfriend flew from America to visit me for a month. I had a two week break between semesters and we were planning on taking a road trip around the south island.
As we traveled together, we both adjusted to my temporary handicap. For dinner, he’d chop veggies and I’d cook them. Every morning I’d flip my heavy dreadlocks forward and he’d carefully put them into a lopsided ponytail. Then I’d tug and pull with my one useful hand until my hair looked fairly normal. Then we’d take off to see yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, and the inside of breweries.
Many people we met asked me how I broke my arm. I’d always shamefully admit the truth; that I’d fallen down a staircase at my friend’s birthday party.
The closer we got to Queenstown, the more often people assumed my cast came from an extreme sport, as Queenstown is full of bungy jumpers and sky divers.
“Snowboarding accident?” People would ask.
“No. Staircase,” I’d say.
Often times they’d then shoot my boyfriend a dirty look, as the staircase had also bruised up my jaw pretty badly and I looked quite battered.
“Quit telling people you fell down a staircase,” he’d say to me later.
“But I DID!”
Dan and I moved on from Queenstown to the west coast. We went on two cruises through the fiords. Our boat weaved between the cliffs while dolphins leapt and played in the water around us. I saw more rainbows in a few days than I had in my life, and also too many waterfalls to count.
All of the touring was magical, and New Zealand truly seemed like the ideal location for any traveler.
As we ventured north along the coast, we neared the glaciers of New Zealand. We spent one afternoon walking in front of the Fox glacier, and marveling at the blueness of its ice. We had signed up for a full day glacier hike the following day. Dan was excited. I was a little nervous to hike on ice while wearing a cast, but his enthusiasm was infectious.
The morning of our hike, we bundled up in glacier-proof clothing. I whipped my hair down so Dan could put it in a ponytail, as was usual to our morning routine. I smiled below my dreadlocks as he gently gathered my hair in his hands. He’s getting better, I thought.
Suddenly, he released my hair and started choking. I looked up, startled and surprised. “What’s wrong! Oh my God!” What is it?” I reached for him as he backed away, holding his throat.
He coughed a few times and pounded his chest. Then he swallowed with watery eyes. “Wow,” he said. “Part of your hair tie snapped off when I stretched it and went down my throat.”
I stared at him in shock. “What!? What a freak accident!” I poured him a glass of water and watched him while he drank. “Um. Are you ready to try again?”
About an hour later we went to a tourism office to sign a waiver. I flipped through the pages and said to Dan, “What do you think it all says?”
“Just that we won’t sue them if we die.”
Our guide overheard us. “It’s ‘cuz of you Americans that we have those forms!” He said.
We laughed and signed our names.
We rode on a bus to the glacier and our guide, Alistair, talked to us along the way. “Franz Josef was an Austrian emperor in the mid 1800’s. He never set foot in New Zealand. So why does he have a glacier named after him, you might ask! Well, German explorer Julius von Haast discovered this glacier in 1865 and he thought that the way the ice came out between the mountains was similar to Franz Josef’s beard! He gained a lot of fame and wealth back home for having named a glacier after the emperor.
“Glaciers advance and retreat over time. This glacier is now much farther back than it was when Haast was here. It’s almost like a living thing in that it seems to breathe.
“Now, this glacier is a temperate glacier. And what does that mean? It means the air and land around the glacier are not all cold! In fact, we will be walking through a small rainforest before we reach the glacier itself.”
The bus slowed to a stop. Several people did their last minute sunscreen application as we got off the bus. Alistair grabbed large plastic from the back of the bus and opened them up. Inside were what looked like shoe frames from hell. “These are crampons. Everyone grab two,” said the guide. “They’re adjustable.” I took two and examined them. They strapped over a boot and had spikes on the bottom.
I began to wonder how hardcore the next seven hours would be.
Alistair then opened a military styled bag and pulled out durable hiking poles with speared ends. “Everyone take two of these as well.” He started passing them out and then paused, looking at me. “You best just take one,” he said.
And then, with pole and spiked boot bottoms in hand, I was off. I marched along the gravel path behind the other hikers. As we walked alongside a steep mountain, we passed signs that said “Danger! Falling Rocks!”
Soon we were at the base of the glacier. People trailed along various parts of it in groups, their jackets colorful dots in the distant ice.
“Go ahead and put the crampons on your feet,” Alistair said. His feet were ready to go before most people had figured out how to properly attach a crampon onto one foot. “Now, when you’re walking on the glacier, you want to step down hard and let these spikes grip into the ice. Make sure your front foot is secure before you pick up your back foot. Take your time.”
Dan had finished attaching his crampons before me, and he pulled me to my feet. “Ready?” He asked. And I nodded.
As the blob of people started forming into a line, I scooted in behind the guide. He had an ice axe and a lot of experience, as well as wavy blonde hair and a lot of muscles. The hike started with stairs. They were stairs that were chopped into the ice. “This is awesome!” I said as we climbed up.
“These are re-cut in every day,” Alistair said over his shoulder. “People wake up at sunrise and start making new paths because the glacier is always changing and moving. These stairs will be gone tomorrow.”
I stepped fairly forcefully as I walked, getting used to the crampons. After a while, we paused to rest.
“There’s some fresh water right here,” our guide said. This spring doesn’t freeze, and it’s the cleanest water on earth. Feel free to take a drink or top off your water bottles.”
Nobody moved. We just looked at the miniature pond of glacier water. Our guide dipped his cupped hand in and then drank from it. We all started sampling. It was naturally refrigerated, fresh, and clean.
“Now, he glacier is like the ocean,” our guide explained as we drank the water. “The waves are low at the base and get bigger and higher as we hike on. We’ll make our own path from here on out.”
We recapped our water bottles and lined up to follow him again. I stayed close to him, watching as he observed the areas around him, deciding on right or left, up or down. From time to time we’d be walking along an ice slope, and he’d use his ice pick to chop foot-sized chunks flat as we followed behind him.
We all walked at a slow pace and never had to wait for him to chop in foot holes. In fact, he often chopped so quickly that he’d jet ahead to check out the territory in front of us, and then come back.
We were about three hours in to the hike when I fell. We had been walking on a surface that was flatter than most, and I’d relaxed just enough to quit stepping so hard with each step. This meant that my crampon landed on top of the ice, rather than digging in. And so I slid, suddenly.
I didn’t go far, thanks to the flatness of the ice. However, when I fell, a crampon spike from one foot slammed into my other leg, while the spike on the end of my hiking stick jabbed into my one good hand.
Everyone around me gasped, and Dan ran to my side. Alistair and Dan stood on either side of me, making sure I was okay. I had jarred my right arm when I landed, and my wrist flared with pain. Also, I could feel my hand throbbing and knew it was bleeding. I pretended I was tough, clenching my jaw and making my hand a fist so that my palm would only bleed into itself.
“Did you cut your hand?” Asked Alistair.
I slowly opened my hand, exposing a small gash. I blinked quickly as I looked at my blood, trying to stop the tears. He pulled a first aid kit from his backpack and found a band aid for me. Everyone in our group gathered near me, trying to see how badly the clumsy one-armed girl had hurt herself.
“Well, it’s about time for lunch,” Alistair said to the group. “We can settle down here to eat.”
“You okay?” Dan asked as the group moved away from us.
“Yeah, but that really hurt my wrist,” I said. “I couldn’t catch myself because of this stupid cast.”
We sat with the group and pulled out our sandwiches.
“One thing you’ve got to remember is to pick up any piece of garbage from your food,” Alistair was saying to the group. “This includes things that are biodegradable. This glacier is like a freezer. A banana peel will stay yellow for years if left behind here, and we like to keep it clean. So be sure to carry out all your food waste and garbage.”
I finished my sandwich and picked a few stray pieces of lettuce off the giant slab of ice that we were sitting on. I crumpled my bag and zipped it into my pocket.
“Is everyone ready to continue,” Alistair asked looking right at me.
I nodded and stood, faking a smile.
Now I was determined to be more careful. I pounded my foot into the ice with each step. But as the glacier became more treacherous, I realized how dangerous this hike really was.
At one point we rounded a corner and, though the ice temporarily leveled out, there was a gap in the ground. I peeked around the guide and couldn’t see a bottom in the gap. Will he have us turn back and find another route? I thought.
“Hey guys, looks like we’re jumping,” Alistair said.
As I leapt over, hoping to successfully dig my foot spikes in the ice when I landed, I looked down. There was a bottom after all. The two slabs of ice actually veered down towards each other, making a wedge in the ice far, far below.
We were much farther back in the glacier now, and we were walking between the big waves. Along either side of us, the ice shot straight up. The walls of ice were blue and shadowy and breathtaking, which I noticed in the moments when walking wasn’t terrifying.
We found another crevice and started walking through. And suddenly, there was no ground.
“Be careful,” I heard one person in our group tell her friend.
In most parts, the crevice was about the width of two people standing side by side. Alistair, now a good distance ahead of me, was cutting into the ice as we progressed, flattening out places for our feet yet again. He had to cut into a 45 degree slope and make it walk-able. Each foot step was a short distance from the one behind it, and everyone stepped carefully while using their poles to dig in either side of the ice around us and support their body.
The drop off was on my left. My cast brushed against the ice while I held my useless hiking pole sideways where it occasionally jabbed the ice. It was more of a prop than an aid.
Dan turned back and looked at me. I was looking down and breathing in an excessively controlled manner. I met his eyes as he turned his head.
“Oh Anna. Your mom would kill me if she knew I took you here.”
I gave him a dirty look and continued breathing and stepping while keeping my arm as far in front of my body as I could manage.
Soon, we were out of the crevice. And a two hours later, we were back at a staircase and going down.
As we neared the end, my spirits rose. I started to think about dinner, and wine, and shoes without spikes.
The glacier had been impressive. And incredible. And beautiful.
It was just no place for a one-armed girl.
*Written in 2011