Walking on the Viedma Glacier

21 01 2012

Last night we partied! It was Patricia’s birthday and the hostel was festooned with festive decorations. We had cake and champagne. Then everybody hung out and either played board games or watched videos. Meanwhile the wind outside howled, and occasionally whistled through any cracks in the insulation.

The Patagonian Ice Cap (left) feeds the Viedma Glacier

The Viedma Glacier is our destination today. We all get those box lunches, and this time I just toss my ham and cheese in the waste basket. But it’s got empanadas too, and I like those! We’re up and out the door by 9:30. We head down to a marina on Lago Viedma.

Lago Viedma is another huge glacier-fed lake that sits right out in the high desert. It’s 50 miles long, and is dotted with blue icebergs borne from the Viedma Glacier.

We are to board a boat which will take us around a point and into the lake, and then to the snout of the glacier.

Then, we’ll disembark for a few hours walking on the glacier itself!

The Viedma Glacier is the largest in Argentina. It doesn’t look as large at its snout as Perito Moreno, but above, it’s a bigger sheet of ice.

While it’s sunny back in El Chalten, here out near the Patagonian Ice Sheet, the weather’s so different. It gets even windier, and stormier. The lake is punctuated by beautiful indigo ice bergs. It still seems weird to me to see ice bergs in a lake! But here they are.

As we round a point and the boat swings west, we’re no longer protected by the land, and we face directly into the wind racing down the Andes. The sea state instantly changes into a storm, and the captain races the engine to push through the waves. Many of us had been up above on deck enjoying the weather, but we’re ordered to stay inside now!

As we near the glacier, many more icebergs come into view and of course the glacier’s snout. I am told that boats do not get close to this glacier for views, because instead of calving from the visible end, this glacier has an underwater shelf where it calves, and massive ice sheets suddenly shoot up from below. No boat wants to be on top of one of those!

A berg near the glacier's terminusThis should be really interesting – walking on the ice. Others here have done this before, but for me, this is my first time. I’ve used crampons climbing mountains in the Cascades but nothing like this river of ice.

So I’m pretty excited to give it a try.

We disembark and walk up the rocks near the end of the ice. This glacier has retreated, unlike Perito Moreno.

We are told the ice was moving over these very rocks 20 years ago. The rocks are all smooth. They have streaks across them and deposits ground in. These streaks are scours called glacial striations. They are where rocks embedded in the glacier cut down on the bedrock.

Our guides meet up with us and we get lots of information on the glacier, the ice cap that feeds the glacier, climate change, and about the upcoming hike and equipment we’ll be using today.

The main piece is crampons.

You wear crampons over your other shoes, and it’s best to put crampons on over hiking boots.

The ice today is a bit slushy/wet. It’s full of grit from its journey scraping along, plus winds carrying dust that has settled on the ice. The ice has cracked into thousands of vertical spires of ice. It looks un-hikeable, but we’re about to find out it can be done.

Our guide! Super cute.Crampons securely tied on, we head out onto the ice. These shoes bite into the ice, giving a firm grip. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the rivers of water gushing everywhere and the deep cracks. One slip and it looks like you’d be lost forever!

We climb all over and we’re not the only ones up here.

There are others learning how to use ropes to climb the ice walls. It’s interesting to watch them. We climb up and down “trails” the guides know.

We walk all over, and after a time I realize how easily one could become lost out here.

You lose track of your trail, and everything looks the same.

The ice flows up and down, and you feel like you are walled in. I’m super thankful we have the guides here. They are really professional; they guard any spot where you could slip and fall into a cravasse.

The guides take us into a dead end, and I kind of wonder what’s up.

They start digging holes into the ice. Then, their true plan is revealed…they have a little celebration in store for us.

They pull out some Bailey’s Irish Whiskey from their packs. We are treated to a toast of Bailey’s on glacier ice! Very nice.

Glacier ice and Bailey’s!

This was a fine hike.

Some said they wanted it to last much longer, but I found it a good introduction.

After all, I’d never done this before.

I felt satisfied with my first time on a g00d sized glacier! Up close these are really fascinating natural phenomena. After all, the ice we’re walking on is hundreds of thousands of years old.

Certainly something to celebrate!

With the Bailey’s finished we lumbered back to our starting point, to lunch on those ham and cheese sandwiches (except myself, of course). Then it was back to the wind tunnel (El Chalten).

Tomorrow is the big hike to Cerro Fitz Roy! I’m stoked to tackle it! I’m really enjoying being in the moment, taking each amazing day as it comes! Bring it on!

To El Chalten and The Fitz Roy Range

15 01 2012

Cerro Torre

We depart El Calafate on a public bus. It is several hours on the road to El Chalten. The route takes us along Lago Argentino and then Lago Viedma. I am overwhelmed with the sight of the steppe, these enormous lakes, the emptiness, and the mountains visible north to south for hundreds of miles. It’s not something we’re used to in North America. As before, it looks like the American West, so desolate and dry. Except for no vehicles on the road.

El Chalten is a frontier town. It was established in the 1980s by Argentina to resolve a border dispute. It sits underneath two of the world’s coveted climbing prizes, 10,262 ft Cerro Torre and 11,070 Cerro Fitz Roy. These vertical fangs are renowned for vertical difficulty combined with abominable weather. They’ve claimed a lot of lives. The town is renowned as one of the windiest in the world, and we are about to experience it for ourselves. It’s not cold right now. But the wind is supposed to be epic. It sits at the gateway to the north entrance to Los Glaciers National Park. El Calafate was at the southern end. It contains world class hiking and opportunities to climb on the Viedma glacier, largest in Argentina. We will do it all!

All during the drive I keep an eye peeled for the Fitz Roys. Something catches my eye, and I cannot believe it! I am seeing a river of ice which ends in the desert. It is the Viedma Glacier! I never imagined anything was possible. It makes its own lake, but everything around it is desert! Click on the image to see all of it.

And to the right of the glacier, this sight also made my jaw drop! It is the Fitz Roy Range! We will hike it!

For the umpteenth time in as many days my eyes tear up with what I am seeing. I just cannot imagine. We get closer. The road stays empty. This afternoon, we will be hiking in these incredible mountains!

El Chalten (Cerro Fitz Roy) front and center!

We reach town, where it’s windy beyond belief! The entire town seems to be under construction. It’s a magnet for adventure travelers. Wind blown backpackers can be seen walking the streets. We stay at the Ailen Aike hostel, six to a room. It’s got a small common area with flat screen TV, a bar, and tables. The whole time we’re there, the wind is moaning, trying to lift the roof off!

It’s mid day. We hit the trail for Laguna Torre.

This trail is perfect for an afternoon. It climbs steeply out of town, but after the first mile, begins a more rolling climb, much more tolerable. The wind up on the trail isn’t so bad.

In fact the sun is out, and things are pretty nice! But up above, Cerro Fitz Roy is in the thick of a maelstrom. Its other name is Cerro Chalten, meaning smoking mountain. The wind runs vertically on all sides of the peak, creating a constant cloud which blows off of it. It looks like it’s smoking!

I’m sore from the climb at Torres del Paine. We have a big hike in two days, and I don’t want to overdo it. So my plan today is to get to the first viewpoint, lunch, watch the mountains, and head back to town. The others are going to go all the way to Laguna Torre, to the lake where a glacier ends. This way it’s like a workout.

This is a truly lovely park. And not as busy as Torres del Paine.

Yours truly, on the trail

There are glaciers cascading down from the mountains. And of course pretty azul colored rivers flowing from them. There’s also a small plain below everything, which looks great for walking.

We reach the viewpoint and have lunch.

The others depart and I stay put watching the scenery.

What is apparent is the violence of the winds aloft. There is a stationary cloud behind the peaks – It’s formed by the permanent ice sheet above. The unpredictable, violent weather here is driven be four factors: 1) Latitude – we’re not far from Antarctica; 2) the bottom of South America is not all that wide – we’re simply a giant finger in between two oceans, so the trade wind blows across; 3) factors 1 and 2 combine to create the ice sheet, which makes the air so cold above; 4) the desert is lower and drier…so the cold air rushes downward off the mountains to the desert all the time.

As I sat watching, an upside down atomic bomb mushroom cloud explodes downward over Cerro Torre! Holy cow. I wouldn’t want to be on ropes climbing! Here is a video I took as I was watching Cerro Chalten. In it, you can see the cloud moving downward over Cerro Torre, if you look carefully!

After an hour, the wind begins to pick up so I decide it’s time to head back. I think I’m walking a good pace. But then, I hear some footsteps behind, and it’s a woman jogging down the trail! Down she runs, at a good pace, dodging the rocks, and passes me by. My goodness! She made me look like a slug!

After two hours I reach the top of the beginning of the trail. From here, there is a good view of El Chalten.

I think that part of the reason it’s so windy in town, is that it’s in a valley. The wind must get funneled through there!