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Published: December 19th 2008
Patagonia. The land that time forgot. This is the land of glaciers, jagged mountains, free roaming horses, ice cold waterfalls, turquoise lakes, butterflies, and bright flowers. Tents adorn the landscape like mushrooms after a rain shower. If you're a geologist, photographer, mountain climber, or general outdoor enthusiast this is your Shangrila. Patagonia is one of the least densely populated areas on earth, which has it's pros and cons. On the one hand you can walk for hours without coming across another fellow biped, but because there's not as much infrastructure, the bus tickets are ridiculously expensive. It's fun to say you're at the bottom of the world but it was a nice surprise to see such scenery and feel that you have gotten more than your money's worth.
El Calafate looks like Aspen, but feels like the mountain version of Moab. It's the main jumping off point for the Pedrito Moreno glacier, considered one of the last few “stable” glaciers in the world because it advances 2 meters a day. We bought a couple tickets for the 11 am bus to the glacier and the next available return trip wasn't until 5 pm. What were we going
to do for 6 hours? We could play rock in a cup again if we got too bored--we really are easy to amuse, aren't we? The bus ride to the glacier was incredibly scenic. Red flowered trees dotted the landscape next to multi-colored lakes with huge floating chunks of ice and purple mountains. As far as the eye could see, there were blues of every description, the clear, crisp blue of the sky, the rich, royal blue of the distant mountains and the milky teal of the water of the lake below. All of these frosted with white, the clouds, the snow and the chunks of ice bobbing rhythmically in the water. I felt like a smug NASA scientist--absolutely sure what the surface of a distant planet would look like--until the first pictures from the rover come back and obliterate all formally held preconceptions. I felt this scenery couldn't exist. Impossible! Even as I'm looking at it my brain refuses to believe such diverse beauty could exist side by side simultaneously. And then the bus turned a corner and there is was. Settled between two mountain spires at the foot of the lake was the glacier. A 60 meter wall,
it reminded me of a light blue version of the gates to Mordor from “Lord of the Rings.”
We hopped on a cheap boat that would go close enough to the glacier to take pictures but far enough away to stay out of the “splash zone.” We climbed to the top of the boat and immediately put on every piece of warm clothing we owned. The captain took us straight towards the glacier, somehow avoiding the jagged icebergs that threatened to open the hull of our boat like a giant can opener. I stopped taking pictures of the glacier for a second and looked up, where we saw another “that's impossible!” scene. Water melting from snow-capped mountains joined to form at least 20 simultaneous, 100-foot, rainbow-inducing waterfalls. It looked like the end of an ice age. If we saw cavemen chasing wholly mammoths we wouldn't have been the least surprised. It definitely was the land that time forgot.
Suddenly we heard a loud thunderclap that echoed off the mountain sides. The sky was clear. What was that? Reading Ammi's thoughts I chimed in, trying to remember what I remembered from geology class and the guide book. “Do you
Unfortunately always surrounded by clouds
know how glaciers form? See those clouds at the top of the mountain? The snow that fell there long ago compacted and moved down the side of the mountain at the rate of two meters a day.”
“Why do they move?” Ammi asked.
“It's like a kid going down a McDonald's slide and stopping himself halfway down. He can stay there as long as he wants until the next kid comes down. What happens when another kid goes down, and another, and another? That first kid can't stop the force behind him and eventually will get shot out the bottom. When the glacier moves it has to conform itself to the contours of the rock underneath, causing a lot of settling and loud splitting, such as we just heard. When the ice reaches the lake it will cleave, dropping huge, mansion-sized icebergs into the drink. That snow that is falling up there right now will form ice, move down the side of the mountain, and cleave into the lake in the year 2308. The reason the ice is such a dark blue color is because it's so compacted that the oxygen is squished out. Did you know some
water-bottling companies just harpoon a huge iceberg, tow it back to port, melt the water and bottle it? The reason apparently is the water was made before any pollution existed.”
“I want to see the huge chunks fall off.” Ammi said. The rest of the boat ride was scenic, but we didn't see any cleaving. We hopped off and walked to the “safe viewing area” which was a series of long catwalks that came up close to the glacier. A crowd had already formed. They were just watching, waiting, for the glacier to do something, anything. From the boat we thought the glacier looked imposing and massive but from the vantage point it is even more majestic. From the extensive network of platforms you could view Moreno from any angle. The view was incredible but the sounds were astounding. The glacier made sounds unlike anything we had ever heard before. Mostly groaning and creaking like the rigging of a great ship. Yet occasionally, you could hear a great CRACK! sounding as if the world itself was breaking in half. Sometimes a crack would signify some internal and unseen rupture within the glacier itself but sometimes it would accompany a
spectacular sight. Preceding it, an extraordinary quiet would come over the valley, as if the whole world was suddenly struck dumb. Because the distance was so great, it would actually start to happen before the sound would reach you. A small shift, like a predator inching closer to its prey—barely perceptible, almost imaginary. Next the sound, like a warning shot would tear through the air like thunder. A great mass of ice would give way from the glacier's face and go plunging into the icy liquid below. When the piece would finally fall it appeared to be in slow motion as if an unseen demolition crew were at work bringing down huge skyscrapers of ice.
It became a game of staring patiently at the glacier with eyes wide open hoping to see movement out of the corner of our eyes. We were fortunate enough to witness this awesome event a few times. Most of the time only a few small chunks would fall off the wall, or we'd hear snow falling into some impossibly deep crevasse, but every half an hour or so a humongous chunk would cleave accompanied by tsunami sized waves. It was an oddly addictive experience
that rewarded the patient few and was existential at the same time because it made us feel insignificant next to the power of nature.
Ammi had become particularly attached to a piece she was just sure was ready to fall at any moment. Though we witnessed many cleavings Ammi's pet piece never did fall during the hours we attentively observed the glacier. Finally I had to nudge her.
“Come on Ammi. We've been staring at this glacier for 3 hours. The bus leaves in 10 minutes. It's time to go.”
“No! Just five more minutes. My chunk is about to fall off. I can feel it!”
I guess being in awe for that length of time is tiring work because by the time we reached the bus we were suddenly and completely exhausted. After we ate dinner we set out toward the internet cafe to call Ammi's parents. What we had been expecting since the day we left had finally happened, her dad got sick again and had to go back to the hospital. We reached her mom on the way back from visiting him and had a chance to talk to her for a while.
We worried about her being alone in an empty house. After the amazing day we had it broke Ammi's heart to think about her mom all alone on Thanksgiving.
Sitting under the base of Fitz Roy, El Chalten was built only twenty years ago as a base camp for outdoor junkies. If you're a mountain climber, Fitz Roy is required climbing for the Seven Summits path to glory. I'd like to learn mountain climbing some day, and not being über physically fit, however, we decided to do a few day hikes instead. We were able to walk to a nice 100 foot waterfall, but what Ammi really wanted to do was to take a glacier trek.
“It's the one thing I wanted to do in South America.”
“I thought the one thing you wanted to do was to see penguins. REAL penguins.”
“Yeah, well...that too.” I was concerned that it was just an expensive way to walk on snow, but she wore me down and we decided to book a tour. We rented some boots and gloves and Ammi patiently waited for the morning to come. The next morning Ammi decided to take
a shower, and when she came out she had a nice 3 inch gash on her foot. “There was a plastic chair that I sat on, and when I leaned back to wash my hair the legs folded out from under me. I don't know what my foot hit though, but it was better than hitting my head.”
“Is it OK enough to do this hike?”
“Yeah, it's fine. I'll just slap some Band Aids on.”
We hopped on a thirty minute bus to another boat that took us to the glacier. “How many boats have we taken on this trip so far?”
“I think this is 7.” On the boat our shoes were measured and we were given crampons. The boat “docked” next to a huge rock with a rubber tire nailed into it, and we disembarked. We hiked for about half an hour over multi-hued rocks with giant scratches that had obviously once been bedrock for another glacier. Finally we reached the ice. The sounds of melting water was overpowering. I was surprised that the glacier looked so dirty, as if rocks and dirt had been thrown purposefully on top. Out guide later explained
Random hikers on the glacier
Hope they don't get lost and revert to canibalism
that sometimes the ice rotates from the bottom to the top and brings debris with it. The guides strapped our crampons on and we walked on the rock to the ice making sounds like nails on chalkboard. It took a few minutes to get used to walking with crampons, but once we did it wasn't too hard. The worst part was the spikes sink into the ice but not the random pebbles, so it's easy to twist our ankle. We've never walked on such an alien environment, with deep crevasses on one side and wind-sculpted monoliths on the other, colored with every conceivable shade of white and blue. This was not like hiking up a ski-run as I had envisioned, but was actually an incredible experience. After numerous picture posing opportunities (where the guides would hang onto our belts as we leaned over a crevasse) we stopped and watched the guides quickly chisel a makeshift bar into the glacier using their ice picks. They chipped some 200 year old glacier ice into plastic cups and added some Bailey's. We laughed because when we worked in bars it was usually fresh ice and 200 year old Bailey's (everyone uses knock-off brands
these days) that was served.
After our trek we returned to our hostel and took off our rental boots. “Oh my god! What's wrong with your toes?” At the base of three of Ammi's toes the skin was a dark purple.
“I guess I must have broken them in the shower. But you know I break them so often I hardly notice.”
“How did you do a glacier hike and not notice broken toes?” Ammi will usually not tell me if she's hurt because she doesn't want to be a party pooper, and it makes it hard for me to do my job as a husband and protect her. Sometimes I have to assume she's more hurt than she lets on. “I'm carrying your bags from now on,” I said.
She grimaced. I know that look. She hates it when someone tells her she can't do something, even if it's me doing it for her own good.
"No, I can do it," she huffed.
She can think whatever she wants but I'm still going to carry the bags.
Next stop: Chile
-El Chalten Bus Company overcharges and stops at
-Viedma is cheaper to climb than El Mareno.
-The Sierra Torre trek is about 30 km and not enjoyable according to many people who have taken it.
-If you can stand to carry a tent on your travels then you will not regret bringing one here.
-Of all the tours/activities in South America we've done, hiking the glacier ranks in the top 2, along with the sailboat out of Columbia
, in our opinion.
Tot: 3.906s; Tpl: 0.062s; cc: 18; qc: 84; dbt: 0.081s; 3; m:saturn w:www (126.96.36.199); sld: 3;
; mem: 1.5mb