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Published: November 8th 2011
Glaciers--can I ever get enough of them? I'd fallen in love with these rivers of ice in the Alps and in Alaska and through climbing films, and I longed to walk on one and peer down into a lapis-blue crevasse. Finally, in my beloved El Chalten, I got to sail across a turquoise lake, strap on crampons and walk on the whipped cream peaks of Argentina's largest glacier, Viedma. A long-time dream come true.
Mer de Glace
The dream had been awakened at Chamonix/Mt. Blanc, in France, where I saw my first glacier. I had been awed by how the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) dazzled in the sun and filled a valley as it flowed down between two mountains. Much to my surprise, it wasn't the smooth visage I'd carried as a stereotype, but was tortured with ridges and cracks (seracs and crevasses).
Being from Santa Barbara, a central California beach town, I was clueless about snow and ice. I tried to walk on the edge of the glacier, but after slipping and falling several times, I realized there must be a trick to this.
Then, on an Alaskan cruise with a friend, I
had several, fine close encounters with glaciers. In the wonderfully-named Glacier Bay, I saw and heard the impressive thunder of a glacier calving. In Seward, we hiked to and walked on the edges of the Exit Glacier, shocked at its rapid retreat in the last 30 years. In Juneau, we hiked up to the Mendenhall Glacier marveling at the little icebergs in its lake. A flight-seeing plane took us over the expansive Juneau Ice Field and the fabulously-shaped glaciers that flow off of it.
The pinnacle of my Alaska glacier adventure took place on the highest mountain in the US--Denali/Mt. McKinley. In the little, adventure tourist town of Talkeetna, I joined a pilot in a tiny, two-prop plane and flew up to the climbers' base camp.
The pilot was wonderfully wild since it was just the two of us, and I urged him on. We flew low, grazing the sides of mountains and flying in the saddles between mountains so they towered above us on both sides. I was Luke Skywalker careening through canyons on the best flight of my life (so far).
We landed on a glacier covered deep in snow and thus easy to walk
on. We were there to retrieve climbers who had tried to summit this granite behemoth. It was thrilling to be on this flat expanse of ice and snow with nothing but snow-covered mountains all around--a pure-white landscape I'd never experienced before. But this snow-covered glacier was easy--I still wanted to walk on a real one with crampons and see a crevasse up close.
Viedma Glacier Trek
Finally, in El Chalten, on the autumn equinox, I was able to fulfill this dream, and it was even more beautiful and exciting than I had imagined.
There were two outfits offering glacier walks, but since one required a long, before-sunrise walk up the trail I'd already done to Cerro Torre, I chose the trek leaving at the more civilized time and that included a long boat ride, which for me was an extra bonus.
At 8:30, one unusually sunny morning, I piled on three pairs of pants, several thermal and turtleneck layers and a couple of jackets and joined a group in a big Patagonian Adventure bus. We traveled out of town, past the scrubby, desert-like high steppe and snowy, jagged Andean peaks to Lago Viedma, all part of the huge,
wonderful Parque Nacionale los Glaciares,.
There, we boarded a trimaran to cross the huge, glacier-fed lake, one of the largest lakes coming off a glacier in Patagonia. The lake was a surreal turquoise/mint green, the result of "glacier flour," minerals from the glacier that remained suspended in the water.
While there was a tour leader inside, I missed the talk because I was acting as a human bowsprit, feeling the wind and watching the clouds whip around as I stood at the bow of the boat. There are few things I love more than being outside in the elements as a boat flies over the water.
From a distance, we could see this largest, longest of Argentine glaciers flowing down from the high, cloud-shrouded mountains. The sides of the glacier lapped over orange/gold rocks that had been under the glacier only twenty years before.
These volcanic rhyolite rocks had been gouged with grooves and scoured sinuously smooth by the retreating glacier and were covered with red, turquoise, gold, violet and indigo minerals that contrasting stunningly with the turquoise waters. A visual treat, and we'd only just begun.
The boat sailed up to the glacier, keeping
a respectable distance in case it calved, sending an iceberg into the lake and potentially swamping us. Everyone rushed out of the cabin and crowded around on deck as we slowly motored along the glacier's 2 km-long snout (front-edge) as it towered 50 meters above us.
We lingered allowing awe and photos, and savoring the spectacle of the glacier's jagged lines and colors ranging from deep indigo to lapis to cobalt to baby blue and every shade between, as you can see in the panorama at the top of this page. The glacier was also streaked with dark lines from ash from old eruptions of nearby volcanoes. Since half of the group had come only for the glacier viewing, we spent lots of time enjoying this impressive perspective from the boat.
Walking on Whipped Cream Peaks
Finally, we sailed back across the length of the snout, and half of us disembarked for the ultimate adventure of trekking on the ice. Separated into language groups, the Spanish speakers composed a huge group while we English speakers were lucky to have a small group of seven which could go faster and thus further out on the glacier.
Getting off on
the gorgeous, rounded, rhyolite rocks, I was surprised at how slick-smooth they were. Climbing them was a bit tricky in my well-worn, smooth-soled boots, but after about 30 minutes of scrambling, we all reached the glacier.
We strapped on crampons and were instructed on how to ascend, descend and walk around ridges. Walking with crampons was more challenging than I had thought, and we awkwardly clomped up to the glacier's surface.
Waves of frozen ice stretched forever in fanciful shapes resembling whipped cream peaks and the sensuous shapes of an Arthur Dove painting. Seracs, crevasses and caves were sculpted by the wind and the uneven movement of the glacier's flow, creating a bizarre, churned-up, desert of ice with very few flat surfaces.
Most of our time was spent climbing up, down and around these soft-looking peaks. However, looks were deceptive, and I sliced up my hands when I once grabbed one to steady myself. I remembered, "This is sharp ice, not soft snow."
To mount the ridges, we'd kick the toe of our sharp crampons into the ice, which was so hard, it would support our whole weight as we climbed up. Then, with our feet
splayed duck-style (to avoid nicking ourselves with the crampons), we walked along the ridges single-file (just as my climbing heroes did on their ascents of Everest).
From the crest of the ridges, we carefully peered down into seemingly bottomless crevasses. Since the wild Patagonian wind was gusting as usual, we had to work to keep our balance and not fall off ridges or worse yet, into a crevasse. It made the trekking more difficult but more fun, too.
The ice deep in the crevasses was an intense, pure blue I'd never before seen. Indeed, this blue exists only in the depths of glaciers where the longer, blue light waves are the only ones that can penetrate so deeply. The colors change through an infinite palette of blues up the walls of the crevasse to the surface.
These crevasses were easy enough to avoid if you kept your balance in the wind. However, glacier walks are cancelled after a light dusting of snow when the crevasses can be covered, and one can fall through the thin crust of snow and down into the depths. Yikes!
We continued walking up and down ridges for a couple of hours,
encountering ice caves, little turquoise lakes, erratic boulders and endless, fantastic ice sculptures. Finally, our guide took out her ice pick and chunked shards of glacier ice into cups over which she poured some tasty Bailey's Irish Cream. We toasted the glacier and each other--a perfect ending to our adventure!
We clumped sideways down the glacier (to keep from sliding down), removed our crampons, then scurried down the rocks for a fine boat ride back across Lake Viedma. This time, I was happy to sit inside, warm with my new friends and basking in the satisfaction of having a dream come true.
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