On one of our recent visits to the area we decided to turn south instead of taking the passes home and swing by all the stuff we'd never seen. To beat the feedlot hordes of tourists that spew from enormous coaches at around 8.30 each morning, we hauled out at six in the morning and pretty much had the place to ourselves. Where the Fox glacier sulks at the end of the burrow-like vale it has carved for itself, cloaked by visibly-encroaching forest, to my eye the Franz seemed far more present, still snarling like something at bay as you climb the last of the shingle berms toward it.
To the south a slice of perfectly vertical strata forms an enormous cliff face at stark odds with the ground beneath your feet, either sheared cleanly by the ice in former times or thrust upward by some forgotten cataclysm. It presents its dew-soaked features to the rising sun, remaining dark and glassy in the hour of light beforehand. That hour is cold and heavy and silent, held in limpid suspension and coloured with the raw stone's breath; the air is damp and laden with the smell of thunder, lichen and powdered river dust before the stink of sunscreen and Calvin Klein are washed toward you as the tour coaches dock. Eastwards at surprisingly modest elevation lies the cupped, secluded icefield that sustains the glacier, so close to the sea that you can sometimes taste the salt blown on the wind. It is this strange adjacency that lends the West Coast its almost calculated geographical histrionics, its beauties squeezed into a narrow lane of forested meanders and gawping pitstops.
There are gravely-phrased signs posted here and there cautioning against approaching the restive ice as though it longed to dismember the unwary; not long after these pictures were taken a party of tourists was crushed to death as they posed for snapshots at the base of the floe. There are worse ways to die, I suppose.
Having travelled extensively at the pleasure of my parents I was awakened early to the fact that alpine scenes and mountains in general tend to look alike, no matter where you are. I strain my eyes and heart in seeking out those subtle differentials, and while they do exist, buried deeply within angle and detail, more than any other landscape the montane place is a thing of infinite repeat, of giant scale achieved with a modest cache of fundamentals. A mountain is a mountain, except perhaps, when it is a volcano, and I do love this calm ubiquity. At any point upon the planet the very substance of the earth emerges at these high vantages, contending with the sky and acquainting itself with its own forgotten surface. We can see it as it comes up for air.
i n t e r g l a c i a l
Rolling cold and cloud is cleansed of ice
it lies down in the dark cirque's lap
and fractures and divides
all brightly glistening, entombed inside, conveyed
embittered powder blue and lactic grey
a mountain's milk and flesh and blood
is given up in spate,
in flood rolled over stone
and taken home
flushed in to
as the whole becomes the smallest coin
to lie amid the trees in state
the rata's stare turned east
in crimson praise,
then cast away again.