Watching, falling and drinking on glaciers... a week in Southern Patagonia

Published: July 1st 2009
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OK so watching glaciers might not sound like the most thrilling thing ever and when we first checked out the bus times I'll admit that I was slightly concerned that 5 hours out at the Perito Mereno glacier might drive me mad. But actually it was great fun. Located in the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina this is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that are not retreating. And its huge - the terminus is 5 kilometres wide, it has an average height of 74 m above the water and a total ice depth of 170 metres. With colours from white, baby blue to deep indigo its soft peaks at the front looked like Mr Whippy ice cream, and from the viewing platform was absolutely stunning.

We'd been sitting there for a few hours waiting for the 'big one', just watching and listening to the creaking, cracking and huge crashing sounds that accompanied even the tiniest piece of ice breaking off and hitting the still, dark blue water below. Sometimes ice fell from the front of the glacier so you could see the splash it made, other times it all happened deep inside the glacier so all that you knew of it was the most almighty crashing sound. But it was lunch time and we were getting hungry - Gordo kindly offered to stay on glacier watching duty whilst we went on a food run to the cafeteria to bring him back a sandwich, but we weren't having that! Just as well we stayed because a few minutes later the piece of ice we'd been watching for a while finally gave way and everything above it went crashing down. It was massive, the collapse creating a mini avalanche and tidal wave of falling ice, small snowy fragments billowing up in front of it. After that we were happy and all headed off to lunch together!

The next day found us in El Chalten - Ann, Gordo and Eamo had been here before briefly on the way down to Ushuaia but they'd not had time to make it out to the FitzRoy national park. We'd met hikers in the Torres Del Paine National park who'd claimed that the views here were actually better than those at Torres and so here we were. The others only had one day here so we chose a route that would give us a view of both Mount FitzRoy itself and the other nearby peaks. And all started off well enough, the sky was blue and sunny, the views good and the path easy enough. Then of course we reached the first viewpoint and it all went a bit pear shaped - half the peaks were obscured by low cloud and the rain started, first a light drizzle and then a torrential down pour that saw us first pull out the waterproofs and then seek shelter under a tree, where we were still sat 10 mins later when a lama train went past! The rain stopped but the view down the valley didn't look good - it seemed that it we kept going forward we'd just end up getting wetter, and wetter and wetter and wetter and..... So being the fair weather walkers that we are we headed back to the hostel, got chatting to the other guests and broke open a bottle of wine or two.... well, this was my last night with the others, not that we ever normally needed an excuse! Travelling in Argentina and Chile had been amazing just for the vino!

The next morning we were all up early, Ann, Eamo and Gordo to get the bus to Puerto Madryn, and me to go on my ice hiking trip. I'd had the opportunity to do this years ago in New Zealand, but the day Sam and I had planned to go it had been raining solidly for 12 hours, looked set to rain for the rest of the day and well, we wimped out. This time though the sky was blue, it was bright and sunny and stayed that way all day - we even finally got our view of Mount FitzRoy on the way out! Ice hiking was fantastic, although not has hard as I though it'd be. The trip started with a boat trip across the stunning Lake Viedma, the lake onto which the glacier fronts. Approaching the glacier we passed a number of whipped cream like icebergs, which with a blue hue looked stunning against the back drop. Unlike the Perito Merino glacier this glacier is retreating and as a result the reddish-brown rocky landscape around it is both smooth and gouged, the result of ice scouring, and devoid of any vegetation - it really was quite stunning to look at. From a distance the glacier seemed white, just like the others we'd seen. But up close it was completely different - still white yes, but the surface was covered in small rocks and stones that had been scoured from the rocky surface below. It made the whole thing look quite dirty rather than pristine white. With our crampons on we stepped onto the ice itself, having been told by our guides to walk like a duck (i.e. your feet turned out) and like John Wayne (i.e. with your legs wide apart) apparently that stopped you falling over, although it also gave the guides a good laugh I'm sure. We spent the next few hours walking over the glacier, up, down, peering into indigo coloured crevices and waiting whilst the guides hacked stairs into the icy slopes with their pick axes. We ended the trip stood on the glacier, looking at the lake views and being served Baileys over glacier ice. Perfect!

I'd hoped to stay a few more days and actually do the Mount FitzRoy hike, but the weather forecast was for more rain and high winds and so being on a bit of a tight time scale I headed off again. I was also going north the way of Puerto Madryn and the coast, not least partly due to the fact that the others having already done it had advised against taking Routa 40. Described as a long, straight, flat, monotonous road on an uncomfortable bus (by South American standards) they hadn't sold it to me and instead I poshed it up and went Cama class (wide comfy seats with only 3 to a row, DVDs, aircon, toilet, food and drinks served.... none of the 5 or 6 to a row with someone in your lap and the window open type of aircon I'd been used to in Africa and India!). I still didn't manage to sleep though... the upside of that being I was awake to see the most amazing sunrise! Sky's in Patagonia are huge - I've taken so many sky pictures its ridiculous, clear blue with pipped cream, swirly, defined clouds. But the sunrises were something else again. I'd seen pictures in guide books that I was convinced had been Photo Shopped..... but now I was thinking maybe not....

Next up, Orcas, Elephants Seals and Swiss chocolate.....

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1st July 2009

Patagonian skies
I love the skies! I'm going to the glaciers in January and can't wait! I'm enjoying your blogs. Happy travels, Dawn

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