Alden Boon

Nathan Russell Carves Out His Own Niche as a Glacier Guide


Raindrops are pounding on skin like bullets on armour. The vagaries of Franz Josef’s weather are at work again, and the onset of rain sours hopeful glacier hikers yearning to see the town’s blue ice up close. Nestled at the base of the Southern Alps, Franz Josef gets five metres of precipitation every year. The inclement weather means twenty-three-year-old glacier guide Nathan Russell has to trade his ice axe for a spiffy quad bike. Before long he is zipping through a rainforest teeming with kamahi and southern rātā trees, his clients trailing him and also operating the all-terrain vehicle.

Through zigzagging and very bumpy paths the drivers ride. The vehicles plunge suddenly into deep pools of rainwater married with mud, sending adrenaline pumping as a breakneck rollercoaster slide would. When the drivers emerge from the rainforest, the glorious Waiho River, whose stream is fed by the meltwater of the Franz Josef Glacier, comes into view. The riverbed is filled with trentepohlia-mottled rocks. The algae stipple the grey rocks with a red-brown colour, and breathe life into an otherwise drab-hued place. In a short span of a thousand years, a rainforest will, by nature’s meddling, grow here. But for now, it is Nathan’s playground to roam freely.

Franz Josef Glacier: Stillness and quietude one will find here.

The magic of nature

When the sun is out, Franz Josef Glacier, renowned for its many kilometres of sheer beauty, beckons. “It is a place where dreams come true and legends are born,” says Nathan of the landscape. “The creation of a glacier begins with a process called orographic lifting. Warm air masses absorb moisture from the Tasman Sea, and when they collide into a mountain, they rise. At high altitudes, such as the two-thousand-five-hundred-metre elevation where Franz Josef Glacier starts, the moisture falls as snow and accumulates in the nevè. The snow melts, refreezes and compresses, engendering the formation of hard glacial ice.”

Over time and buckling under the immense pressure of its weight, the Franz Josef Glacier moves downwards and flows outwards towards the Waiho River, Nathan adds. “The meltwater eventually returns to the Tasman Sea. Just imagine: That same water molecule will be absorbed by a warm air mass — and so the circle of life starts again!”

Not a cushy job

Such nuggets of glacial knowledge — acquired during his five-week training — Nathan gladly regales his clients with. Beyond theoretical knowledge, he also had to pick up practical skills, such as using ropes and pulleys to rescue and extricate fallen hikers. “I really enjoyed learning about step cutting, where you use a huge axe to carve steps and fill crevasses. This technique has been in use since 1903, when the Graham brothers — two West Coast mountaineering legends who paved the way for us — first began glacier guiding.”

Wielding and swinging ice axes sure make Nathan look the part of a Marvel superhero, but injuries such as tendonitis and lower back pain are the price he pays for being a glacier guide. He also discovered the rigours of the job the hard way when he was still a trainee. He recalls a painful incident involving the V-thread anchor, which requires drilling two holes in the ice and threading a rope through. “My instructor asked if I thought my anchor was strong enough. To test my creation — and protect my pride — I pulled and pulled so hard until I felt a strange sensation in my derriere. Later that night, I found out that I had burst a blood vessel and developed haemorrhoids! But hey, my anchor withstood the pressure and did its job (laughs)!”

"Nathan Slays Ice" is the twenty-three-year-old's self-picked moniker, and a fitting one at that.
Inverted Comma

After becoming a glacier guide, I no longer look at the world the same way as I did before. The sheer size of the Franz Josef Glacier humbles me, especially the main icefall that boasts seracs rising to ten storeys high. The glacier is where I get to escape from the real world, and all of its problems and troubling news stories.

Inverted Comma Bottom

Born to do this

That Nathan should become a glacier guide is perhaps written in the stars; his adventurous moxie innate and apparent even at a young age. “I used to love climbing trees, and I was like a little monkey with a huge smile etched on my face.” Growing up, the Coromandel Peninsula was home for the New Zealander. The nearby Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach were his meccas, and between the ages of six to ten Nathan was already practising surf lifesaving, pretending he was a lifeguard in training. “It’s such a great feeling to dive into the ocean, feeling so small, carried only by the power of the water.”

Before he got his start as a glacier guide, Nathan worked as a barista and chef. While he learnt the art of cooking and met cool personalities during his stint, the idea of being cooped up was unappealing. “Most of the time, the customers were grumpy and they had a lot of complaints. Whereas up there on the glacier, my guests are too busy having their minds blown.” Nathan himself is mesmerised by the gift of Mother Nature. The Franz Josef Glacier can move up to an incredible seven metres a day: Different parts fracture at different speeds, thus creating crevasses. The always-changing terrains are new surprises for Nathan to explore, which is why two years into his job he still experiences it with the same innocence of a wide-eyed toddler discovering the world.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown, for you are the light that creates your own path."

When hiking with guests, Nathan has his work cut out for him. The onus of ensuring his guests’ safety falls squarely on his shoulders, and the glacier while beautiful can be terrifying. Holes abound. A hundred tonne of ice can calve off the icefall without warning. He is also a cheerleader, urging on nervous first-timers and unfit hikers — his favourite group of guests to coach and lead — to challenge themselves and go further. “They are so stoked and happy when they make it to a blue ice cave.” The glacier can have quite a spellbinding effect on people, he quips. “I have had guests who felt the need to undress, get butt naked, and be one with nature. Oh, the amount of flesh the glacier has seen!”

What gives meaning to Nathan’s job is the chance to raise awareness about global warming. The topic of climate change has been discussed ad nauseum, to the point where people tune out. But seeing the ice melt in real life, Nathan says, evokes a sense of urgency. “The Franz Josef Glacier used to span twelve kilometres long; today it has dwindled to measure only ten. In about eighty years from now, it may recede to just three kilometres long. When my guests hike the glacier, they experience first-hand the effects of climate change. They feel the importance of taking action.”

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.