NH native finds joy guiding tourists over New Zealand ice

Special to the Sunday News
September 01. 2017 7:35PM
Kelsey Porter explores a newly-discovered ice cave on Fox Glacier in New Zealand. (Courtesy)

Kelsey Porter will never forget her second day on the job as a glacier guide in New Zealand. It was a training session for new guides, and she and the other recruits were up on the glacier with six clients and some senior management from the company. 

While they hadn't expected a storm that day, "The weather came on quickly," Porter said, and the decision was made to shelter on the glacier overnight. "We set up tents, cooked some back-country meals, gave them chocolate and sleeping bags," Porter said. Everyone settled in.

"But the second it got dark, the skies (cleared)," she recalled. "There was a full starry sky. The ice was glowing, the snow was glowing."

It was, Porter said, "The best second day of work ever."

Porter, originally from Chester, graduated from Pinkerton Academy in 2011. She's been a glacier guide for two years, first in Alaska and now in New Zealand. On her third day of work and ever after, she's focused on showing and explaining a threatened natural wonder to as many people as possible.

On a brief vacation in the States, Porter said that her career goal had always been to own some kind of adventure business. She prepped herself at the University of Vermont, majoring in business with a concentration in International Business Management and a minor in psychology.

She came from an active family, and she honed her outdoors skills at UVM, which is an "outdoors school," she said. She became proficient at camping, hiking and "casual rock-climbing," Porter said.

After graduation she heard about an opening for a glacier guide in Alaska, and headed north. She worked there for a year, guiding people across the glaciers and gaining glacier skills, and connected with people who worked on the Fox Glacier, the third largest in New Zealand.

So then she headed south.

In a day's work

Porter now works full-time for a company called Fox Glacier Guiding. The company formerly specialized in the Fox Glacier, named for Sir William Fox, a 19th-century prime minister. They recently expanded their services to Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier, the biggest glacier in New Zealand, Porter said.

The staff members rotate different jobs, so it won't get repetitive, according to Porter. Currently she's on the crew for heli-hiking. "That's using a helicopter to get yourself on the glacier," she said. "We give the clients the gear, we show them how to use it, and then we load them in the helicopter."

It's the only way to reach the top of the glaciers now that some of them have melted and refrozen, she said.

"The helicopter lands on the ice and we're up there with them for three hours," Porter said. "We teach them about the glaciers, we show them the caves."

Her biggest challenge so far has been learning the "rope work," Porter said, including how to pull someone out of a crevasse. There's a lot of technical work involved, such as knowing the vector forces on an anchor. "That's all new to me," she said. But she's determined to master the skills, in order to receive international certification as a Hard Ice Guide.

She has never seen anyone fall into a crevasse. "Not on our trips," she said, adding, "But we do train for it."

The team uses role-playing, Porter said. "I've been the person lying in the crevasse, (and) I've been the person pulling them out."

The outdoors skills of her clients varies, she said diplomatically. The demographics range from grandparents to preteens to "fit people," she said. She keeps a close eye on the less-than-fit.

There's also a language barrier, and that's usually what leads to the trickier situations, Porter said. "About 70 percent of our clients are from Asian countries, and they don't speak much English, or any at all. The language barrier can be challenging. I'll tell someone, 'You can't do that,' and they do it anyway." But she's picked up some basic Mandarin, and that helps in communicating, Porter added.

At home Down Under

She loves her job and enjoys living in New Zealand, Porter said. "It's absolutely beautiful, stunning. There are all kinds of environments." She lives on the western coast. The area receives 16 feet of rain a year. She's a 20-minute ride from the ocean, she has mountains in her back yard, and there's also a rain forest. "It is very diverse," Porter said.

She had lived in Australia during college and visited New Zealand, so she was prepared for the climate and the culture, she said.

She also enjoys the people of New Zealand. "They are very laid-back, accepting, progressive," she said. "They are so chill."

There were issues in the past as to how the white people treated the native population, or Maori, but "They are making an effort to bring the Maori back into their lives," Porter said. She sees this in a diverse population and things such as signs being in both English and Maori, she said.

A natural treasure

Global warming is a concern for glaciers, according to Porter. "We're very conscious of that when we talk to groups," she said. She can see air bubbles in the ice when she guides tourists around Fox Glacier, and it's a matter for concern, Porter said.

"Glacial ice is compacted snow," she explained. "It turns into ice, and it slides into the valleys."

Her glacier is relatively young and the ice moves fairly quickly, she said. But some of the glaciers in Antarctica are 800,000 years old, and the trapped air inside is as old as the ice.

The big issue is carbon, Porter said, and as carbon's presence goes up, the glaciers will shrink or retreat.

If global warming increases, "Fox will retreat but will still be there," according to Porter. "But we won't be able to guide people around it. It will be too steep."

She and the other members of the team educate their clients on the risks of carbon, often calling their trips "last-chance tourism."

"It's very sad," Porter said.

But she loves her work and will continue as long as there are glaciers to guide people on. When she goes up on the glacier herself or with other staff members, she finds a sense of "awe and peace. It's a place for deep thinking."

Those wanting further information may contact her on instagram @outdoor_okay.

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