New Zealand - The bus accelerates down a winding dirt road, lifting clouds of dust and brushing against the overgrowth of South Westland's temperate rainforest. Inside, we excitedly check our equipment and load our faces with copious amounts of sunblock.
The lush tropical surroundings and lingering smell of sunscreen suggest we're heading for a beach outing rather than a guided walk into the Franz Josef Glacier in the heart of New Zealand's Westland National Park.
When we reach the end of the gravel road, Kate, our Kiwi guide, goes through a safety briefing as each of us straps on a pair of ice crampons.
"Always follow behind me and, whatever you do, never wander away from the group on your own. Don't let the beauty of this place deceive you; this is dangerous and inhospitable terrain. Are we clear?"
With this in mind we begin our hike, climbing an ice staircase that Kate carves and reworks as we move along. Like David challenging Goliath, our guide moves about swiftly, taming the frozen giant with the blows of an ice axe.
A strenuous climb takes us to the first icefall, where the glacier adventure truly begins. Here, we penetrate deeply into the viscera of the monster, a maze of frozen turquoise galleries, crevasses and tangled ice pinnacles called seracs.
For the next two hours we get soaked squeezing through tight blue crevasses and making our way down near-vertical walls of ice.
At times, the passageways are so constricted they seem impossible to pass through. But much as soap and water free a tight ring from a swollen finger, moisture on the ice helps us slide through narrow crevasses.
Hiking in this frozen wonderland, we feel the vibrant earth energy pulsing through the giant: gushing arteries of meltwater cascading down to the valley floor, crunching and crackling ice, the fleshy mixture of rock, gravel and ice that transfigures the landscape.
Nearing the top of the icefall, we come across a system of seven metal ladders suspended horizonally high over deep crevasses.
"One at a time. Hold onto the ropes and don't look down."
"Easier said than done," we shout back to Kate while apprehensively crossing the ladders. Our glacier hike starts to feel like a televised Everest expedition, and everyone is relieved to stop for a well-deserved lunch break at the top of the icefall.
"Watch your sandwiches," warns Kate. "They're extremely fast and very sneaky."
She's referring to the kea, the world's only alpine parrot, which are flying in punctually for their own lunch break. This is our first sighting, and we fend off the green pests while taking in the magnificent view.
Above is the second icefall and the snowfields of the névé, the glacier's accumulation zone, surrounded by the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps. Far below, stretching all the way to the blue waters of the Tasman Sea, lie the lush forests of South Westland.
Kate takes advantage of the dramatic amphitheatre to relate the Maori legend behind the creation of Franz Josef. She tells us about Hine, an adventurous Maori girl who loved mountaineering. Hine often persuaded her lover, Wawe, to accompany her into the mountains. On one expedition, Wawe slipped near the top of what is now the Franz Josef Glacier and plunged to his death.
As a memorial to her grief, Hine's tears were frozen by the gods, forming the Ka Roimata O Hine Hukatere ("tears of the avalanche girl") glacier.
We listen intently, envisioning the tortured contour of ice fields below imprinted with Hine's tears, her pain forever crystallized in the realms of the ice crypt.
We make our way back down by a different route on the glacier. By now, the group has bonded, and everyone is eager to help others through the jumble of ice hurdles. Our bodies are wet and cold, but our spirits feel warm and alive.
The long hike seems to have gone by in flash, as if time froze the moment we started walking on the ice.