Day 102: That’ll Do Icely

Fri. 23rd November 2012

Glacier, lake, mountains - what more can you ask for?It was raining as we walked back from the restaurant last night and so we were a little worried about the weather for our glacier trip today. As we opened the shutter on our bedroom window we can see that we have been lucky again – blue sky with just some patchy white clouds. We are to be collected from our hotel for our trip and the 10am pick up means that we have a chance to catch up on some chores – with only 2 nights in each location, there is always accommodation, transport and activities to sort out.

Back with the AndesWe are collected by a minibus but then transfer on to a coach for the 70km drive out to the glacier. Initially we head out along the shore of Lago Argentino which, after some discussion, we decide is Cambridge Blue in colour. We later find out that this is from the fine dust caused by the glacier grinding away on the rocks staying in suspension in the water. All down the side of the lake are snow-capped mountains – a reminder that we have caught up with the Andes again. Then we cut across the headland to the national park. The viewing area, which is our first stop, is at the end of the headland facing the glacier, and as we get closer, we get our first glimpses of the wall of ice with cloud and mist hanging over it.

Glacier runs up to the headlandAs we get out of the coach in the park, there are a few flakes of snow in the air. We keep our fingers crossed that the weather holds and listen impatiently as the guide explains the basic layout of the park and tells us to be back in 2.5 hours for the next piece. The viewing area comprises a set of raised walkways along the side of the cliff facing the glacier  – the headland forms a natural barrier for the glacier which then in turn splits the lake in two. When it dams the lake, the water melts its way underneath the ice and then, over time and helped by the wind, forms an arch over the water. Eventually the arch will collapse in a spectacular manner.

Waiting for some ice to fall!The walkways remind us of Iguassu, but are much less busy (and much less warm!). They do, however, provide magnificent views of the glacier – it is a huge wall of ice (60m high above the water and a further 120m to the lake bed below). The top of the glacier is all jagged (are we really going to be walking on that?) and in the face of the glacier you can see cracks and spurs. The glacier advances at 2m per day (we later find out that this is one of the distinctive features of temperate glaciers) and so every few minutes there is a tremendous boom as a chunk of ice ‘calves’ off the glacier followed by a splash and ‘ooohs’ from the crowd. Seeing the splash is relatively easy (providing you are able to see the right side of the glacier), seeing the ice fall is harder (as the sound follows the fall) and catching falling ice on a photo is nigh on impossible.

Looking right down the glacier[The other tricky part with the photos is getting the correct exposure and white balance – particularly as some of the shots have hills and lake as well as glacier in them. Once again, thank goodness for digital photography and well done to the cameras for coping!]

Spoiling a good view!After our, expensive-ish, packed lunch provided by the hostel, it was time to get on back on the coach to go to the boat that would take us across the lake, in front of the south face for our trek on the ice. We are dropped off on the shore, close to the ice and then have a short walk through a forest. We are split into two groups, one English speaking and the other Spanish each with a guide. Alex, our guide, takes a few minutes to explain a little about the glacier – it is fed from the Patagonian ice-field in the Andes, which in turn is fed by snow falls from the southern ocean onto the Andes; the glacier is in balance and is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not retreating; we are currently only 45km away from the Pacific (closer than to El Calafate, but still on the wrong side of the Andes).

Having crampons fittedBefore we can head out onto the glacier, we are fitted with crampons under our boots. It is odd walking with crampons – you need to keep your feet further apart than normal (don’t want to catch crampon on trouser leg or foot) and walking downhill, it is feet pointing straight downhill, knees bent, lean back and don’t look at your feet! We have about an hour and a half walking in a little loop on one side of the glacier. With 15 or so in the group, in single file and half a dozen other groups out on the ice, it is quite slow going and at times you do feel like a sheep (or a penguin). It is, however, a great experience.

Pool in the middle of the glacierYes, we did walk amongst the jagged peaks of the glacier. We got to see cracks big and small in the ice (caused by speed differences in the ice flow) as well as pools of water that were vivid blue in colour and sink holes where you could hear the water flowing underground. Alex explained that because there is no snowfall to cover over cracks in the ice, there is little danger of falling into a crevasse. We are not entirely convinced and stay in the tracks laid down by Alex. After climbing to one of the ice summits (which apparently mirrors a summit in the ground under the ice) we are rewarded with a scotch on the rocks, made with ice fresh from the glacier. Alex points out that the ice is much older than the whisky!

Cheers - plenty of ice to go with the scotch!The other surprise that we had, was finding that in our group was Andy Iles, a former colleague from RM, and his partner Sarah. They are currently a couple of months into a sabbatical travelling through South America that is much like the reverse of ours. A real surprise and further evidence that it is a small world. We wish Andy and Sarah well in their travels – we may even see them in a couple of days in Puerto Natales.

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