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Published: February 7th 2010
The next few days were spent in and around Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and the pearl of Argentine Patagonia, a spectacular region of mountain peaks, lakes and glaciers. We drove from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, staying at the Hostel del Glacier Libertador. El Calafate was originally founded to set up an Argentine presence in a region disputed with Chile but recently has developed as a tourist hub, primarily to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. The next day we went on a day trip to visit the glacier, one of the few in the world that's still expanding. The glaciers here are formed when clouds from the Pacific rise when encountering the Andes, dropping huge quantities of snow which over time compresses to form glaciers that carve valleys down to the lakes and rivers below. Perito Moreno is an amazing site, 5km wide at its front edge and 60-80m high above the water. The glacier has advanced to the peninsula opposite it, cutting off the two sections of water and creating a dam, but the water has carved tunnels in the front of the glacier to flow through. These will eventually collapse spectacularly as they last
did in 2004 during the "Rupture". For now there's still large chucks of ice constantly falling into the water, creating a huge din.
Unfortunately the weather when we visited was poor, raining a lot and very overcast which only just about cleared up during a boat trip to the northern edge of the glacier. The park itself is very well managed with extensive walkways to view the glacier from different angles but leads to huge crowds of tourists, such that it lacks the isolation that makes other glaciers special. Nevertheless it was still an extraordinary site to visit and great to see the power and size of glaciers up close. Back in El Calafate we had a leaving meal for Alan and Paul who were stopping the tour here and a late night at the Librobar, a very cool though expensive bar in town.
After little sleep, we drove the next day to El Chalten in the north of the National Park. Like El Calafate, El Chalten was founded very recently as an Argentine outpost but has now become the centre to explore the nearby Fitzroy mountains as well as the Viedma and Toro glaciers. Built in a
glacial valley overlooked by Fitzroy Massif, El Chalten is a cool, strange place, reminiscent of a old Wild West town. We were due to do a 6hr trek when we arrived but the winds were so strong we had to just stay on the section closest to town. We trekked up to Lago Capri and a viewing point for the Fitzroy peaks (predictably covered in clouds) but it was nice walk and badly needed to overcome the previous nights beers. The high winds had cancelled all the mountain climbing and ice trekking though and it wasn't looking good for our ice climb tomorrow. After a few beers at La Cerveceria, a small microbrewery pub, and pizza we headed back to the hotel (La Aldea) to hear a weather report - tomorrow was going to be sunny with low winds. Finally the weather was working for us.
The next morning we got a boat across Lake Viedma to the glacier. The options here were to do an ice trek or ice climbing - time for another challenge so it was ice climbing for me, Terry and Katherine. We put on crampons, harnesses and helmets and trekked a short distance to
a ~20m high almost vertical wall of ice where the instructors set up three sets of ropes and told us how to climb up. Soon it was time for the first attempt and it went suprisingly well. You use two axes in your arms to haul yourself up and the crampons on your feet to dig footholds in the ice - this was the tricky part and it wasn't always easy to get a good grip. But I got to the top and then sat back in the harness and abseiled down the ice wall.
A little while later I tried a second climb on a different rope but this was much harder. I was finding it very hard to get the feet grips and at one stage lost all attachment to the ice - luckily you're roped up so you can stick the ice axes in and try again. My arms were aching at this stage but I persevered and made it to the top. I needed a rest at this stage though and didn't bother with the third rope. The instructors then announced that we would move to a "more vertical" slope - we didn't think it
could get more vertical until we saw the second slope, pure 90 degrees about 25m high. It looked daunting and several people struggled to complete it. I eventually tried and it was a much better climb than the second attempt - very difficult but made it almost to the top before abseiling down again. Absolutely knackered at this stage but what a brilliant experience!
We then headed off the glacier and into the cave underneath it at the entrance. You can walk and crouch in about 20 metres with the thick transluscent roof of ice over your head and several streams of melting water pouring down into the cave. Amazing to be able to touch the underneath of the glacier and also felt like seeing global warming in action as it melted. When we climbed out, we got our well-deserved Baileys with glacier ice before heading back on the boat to El Chalten for a few more well-deserved drinks. Frontiers of Travel - Inspiration and Information for the Adventure Traveller
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