“This track has limited formation and steep grades. It is suitable for fit, experienced and properly equipped people. Snow and white out conditions can occur at any time.” This is the sign that will greet you at the start of the Mount Fox Track. You may think that it’s just the Department of Conservation (DOC) being overly cautious with their signage but that’s not the case, as we found out first hand when we hiked this challenging but very rewarding route.
While the popular, and significantly easier, Fox Glacier Valley track will get to you to within a few hundred metres of the glacier’s terminal face, you really won’t get the full scale and impact of Fox Glacier until you see it from above. Fortunately, there are a number of local helicopter operators offering a range of scenic flights, from short hops to longer flights with snow landings. Alternatively you can opt for a fly-in, fly-out heli-hike experience with Fox Glacier Guiding, something we highly recommend by the way.
But if, for whatever reason, a flight is not for you, or if you’re simply up for a challenge, the next best option is to climb Mount Fox. Just be prepared for a muddy, sweaty climb that will at times require the human equivalent of 4 wheel drive as you haul yourself upwards with the help of branches and vines. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Still reading? Well then, since you’re obviously up for adventure, here’s what you need to know. The start of the track is approximately 3 km south of Fox Glacier township. It’s quite easy to miss the DOC signboard if you’re not looking out for it, but heading south along Haast Highway you’ll first cross the Fox River bridge before continuing on for another kilometre until you’ll reach a small gravel carpark on your righthand side. The track starts just across the road from there and to begin with follows the southern bank of Thirsty Creek, winding its way gently through the thick podocarp forest. But don’t let that fool you. Whoever cut the modern-day track clearly wasn’t thinking ‘how can I make this easy?’. You soon start to climb and from that point it’s pretty relentless for the next 3 and a half kilometres. ‘What, less than 4 km to the summit?’ we hear you say. Yes, 3.6 km to be more precise (according to our GPS), but in that distance you’ll climb just over 1170 metres. That’s a whole lot of up.
Don’t Get Lost in the Forest
The forest is dense and since this is not a popular route, the track is a little hard to follow in places. There are of course the usual orange DOC markers along the way but some of them can be difficult to spot. In fact, as we were heading up, a young, enthusiastic hiker raced past us, only to pass us again later on, still heading upwards. It turns out it he got lost and said that it was only thanks to his GPS that he managed to backtrack and find the route again. You definitely want to keep your wits about you as you tackle this first section. And you know how previously we said there’s some clambering involved. The photo below will you some idea of what we’re talking about, as well as what you can look forward to on the way back down.
Trig with a View
At around 1,000m, the forest finally gives way to smaller trees and alpine scrub and for the first time you’ll get a sense of how high you’ve climbed. Continuing on a little way you’ll reach the trig beacon which technically, according the official topographic maps, marks the summit of Mount Fox at 1,020m. Your reward at this point will be an expansive view of the coastal plain and the Fox and Cook rivers as they merge and make their way to the sea. But what about that Fox Glacier view we promised? Yes, well, about that… for those panoramic views of the glacier and the southern alps you’ll have to continue along the ridge to the summit above you. But having come this far, what’s another kilometre or so? Not to mention another 325m elevation gain.
Having said that, for us, from the trig beacon onwards really was the best part of the walk. While not as tough as the forest, it’s still a fairly steep climb as you head along the ridge, following the orange and blue DOC marker poles. Along the way you’ll pass pretty alpine tarns (small ponds) and on your left, the glacier eventually comes into full view with the southern alps as its beautiful backdrop.
Mountain Hide & Seek
Speaking of southern alps, we were really hoping to get a good view of Mount Cook but the mountain was having none of it, hiding behind a continually shifting blanket of cloud. Despite this, the view was no less spectacular with Mount Tasman standing proud and tall, doing it’s best stand-in for Mount Cook as the peaks of the Cook Range extended southwards like a row of jagged teeth.
Making good use of the extra layers we’d brought along, we waited optimistically on the summit above Mount Fox in the hope that the clouds would pass. But it was not to be and what blue sky we did have gave way to even more cloud which moved in surprisingly quickly from the west. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d seen all we were going to see and reluctantly started to make our way back down.
We started our descent with renewed energy having rested and snacked on the summit but whatever energy we had left was soon sapped from our weary legs. In many ways, the descent is just as brutal as the climb, especially in the forest where it’s a battle of both body and mind to stay focussed and not lose your footing on the slippery branches and rocks. So while the descent was somewhat quicker, we finally reached the bottom with legs aching and hearts pounding from both the effort and the exhilaration of completing what, up until that point, had been one of our toughest New Zealand hikes. Fortunately we didn’t have far to travel after our hike as we spent the night in a comfy room at Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park before heading to Queenstown the following day.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the West Coast region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in West Coast.