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15 June 2016

The Best Glacier Trips in the World

Glaciers: hulking, frozen relics of a time when a much larger portion of our planet’s landmass was entombed in ice. They are awe inspiring to behold, laid out across the landscape like huge, rough icy tongues, either growing or receding at speeds too slow to comprehend. Seeing one calve is akin to seeing the slow awakening of some ancient giant, shedding chunks of old skin.

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For these reasons and more, thousands of people visit them every year, either on foot, by air or by boat. Just to be in the presence of one is a fairly bucket list entry, but there are a myriad of different ways to experience them, depending on where you are. You can walk across the surface of some, slip between the rising walls of others and even venture into the caverns beneath a select few.

Perito Moreno – Argentina

There are a number of prominent glaciers around Patagonia, many of them fed by a huge ice cap in the Andes, 47 to be exact. It is this collection of large, low-lying glaciers which give the Los Glaciares National Park its name, and the Perito Moreno glacier is the most famous of them all. Only small contingent of the world’s glaciers are still advancing, and Perito Moreno is the only one in Argentina that comes under that list.

It’s moving at an average rate of a little bit over 2 metres per day. As a result, it’s calving almost constantly, and there’s a stunning hiking route which runs past and almost across it, with 3 viewing stations enabling you to survey the action from different angles.

Pasterze – Austria

This 18.5 square kilometre behemoth is the largest glacier in Austria, and one of the largest in Europe full stop. It sits right in the middle of the Hohe Tauren mounts in Carinthia, in the shadow of Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain. The downward views of it are nothing short of spectacular, a long, white table of ice fringing the edges of the climbing peaks.

It’s also one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, due to its close proximity to the Zell am See lakeside resort, and the funicular railway from the Grossglockner alpine road up to the higher viewing point. Sadly, it’s receding about 10 metres a year, so the time to see it is now.

Franz Josef – New Zealand

Franz Josef is one of a pair of glaciers near the Waiho River, the other being the Fox glacier. Unusually, Franz Josef sits at a relatively low altitude, around 300 metres above sea level, and is surrounded by warm rainforest rather than rock and snow. The low lying position makes it one of the easiest glacial hikes you’ll find anywhere in the world, although if you actually want to walk across the surface, you need to take a helicopter flight past the terminal face, which is dangerously unstable.

The walks typically end at one of the larger frozen waterfalls which run down the mountainside to merge with the flats, but people also explore the higher reaches and the various ice tunnels which permeate the surface. It is thought that Franz Josef follows a cyclical pattern of advances and retreats, and was advancing from 2004-2008, but scientists now estimate that it will lose 38% of its 12km bulk by 2100.

Biafo – Pakistan

This monstrous 67km hunk of ice is the longest glacial system anywhere outside of the poles. To see it, you have to trek high into the Karakoram Mountains, boulder hopping around the edge of Snow Lake, a massive glacial basin fed by Biafo and its tributary glacier – Sim Gang.

Several campsites are dotted across the edges and surface of the glacier, many of them providing bridges between it and the beautiful surrounding scenery. In particular, the last village before you reach Biafo is Askole, which also acts as a base for climbers setting out to climb Broad Peak, Snow Dome, the Gasherbrum Peaks or even K2. The wildlife surrounding Biafo is abundant, including ibexes, markhor, brown bears and the occasional snow leopard.

Athabasca – Canada

The Columbia Icefields in the Canadian Rockies have six key terminuses, or ‘toes’. Athabasca is one of these, tumbling over the continental divide, just between Banff and Jasper. That puts it within easy reach of the Icefields Parkway, the road which links Jasper with Lake Louise. For this reason, it’s probably the most accessible glacier in all of North America.

It’s around 6km long and ranges between 90 and 300 metres in thickness. Sadly, it’s also receding by about 5 metres every year, and it’s estimated that it’s depleted in volume by more than 50% in the past 125 years alone. Despite being such a popular spot, it’s notoriously dangerous, and some areas have been cordoned off due to dangerous hidden crevasses. Once tourists reach the glacier, they board a snow bus which will actually take them onto the surface.

Eqi – Greenland

Greenland is almost the glacier capital of the world; it is at the very least the best place to see them in the Northern Hemisphere. Eqi is one of the most popular, largely because it’s one of the few which is still advancing. The most direct way to reach it is by boat, following the Ataa Strait, and once there visitors tend to stay at the Eqi Lodge, which sits right in the shadow of the glacier.

Boat trips go right up to the edge of it, and observe with amazement as huge chunks of ice break off and smash into the water below, but its’ also possible to hike along the surface. Eqi isn’t large; around 4km long, but the rate of advance, combined with the ease of access makes it one of the most popular glacier trips in the world.

Hubbard – Alaska

Another glacier on the move, Hubbard is the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska, stretching an astonishing 122km from the east coast into the Yukon. It has been advancing for the better part of 100 years, and during a particularly big forward march in 1986, it blocked off a fjord and turned it into a lake.

Once again, it can be reached either by boat or on foot, and in either case you’ll be able to witness the ‘white thunder’ – the booming sound of ice blocks breaking away as the glacier calves, as named by the native Tlingit people. Some of the icebergs can be as large as a ten story building, making for one of the most spectacular natural spectacles in the world.

Vatnajokull – Iceland

Otherwise known as the Vatna Glacier, this is by far and away the largest glacier in all of Iceland, covering a whopping 8% of the country. For this reason, there are numerous different starting points you can take if you want to explore it. The surrounding landscape is peppered with hot springs and ice caves. The main hiking route to the foot of the glacier goes through the neighbouring national park, and you can vary the total distance depending on your experience level.

Vatna has the longest sight line of any solid object on the planet; you can sometimes see it from the Faroe Islands, some 550km away in Denmark. It’s much more impressive up close though, especially via any of the volcanic lakes which line the perimeter. Once again, it’s receding, a common theme you might have noticed on this list. Almost every glacier on the planet is being blighted by global warming; many of them will be gone in a matter of decades, sometimes with catastrophic knock-on effects. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.