Patagonia’s Dazzling Blue Ice
Alaska may have half of the world’s glaciers, but there are many in Patagonia—and the boast is that they are easier to get close to. There is a lot to be said for getting safely close to these flashy mounds of densely packed six-sided crystals, hearing them groan under their own weight, then thunderously calve.
My first day in Torres del Paine was a memorable wind-blown hike to the Three Towers. On my second day, I headed for the ice, starting with Grey’s Glacier. The Southern Patagonian ice Field feeds Grey, which creeps along the banks of the same-named lake. Grey measures six kilometers and more than thirty feet height.
It may be accessible by foot, but it was a hell of a long day to get there from my refugio and not possible to go and return in a day. Had I gotten the right information, I could have taken a cruise down Lago Grey to the glacier then hiked back. Re-calculating the day, I took a 9a.m. shuttle to Laguna Amarga
(Bitter Gap) where there was a small ranger station-cum-visitor center. After about 15 minutes a bus took me to Lago Pehoé, where I had a scenic wait for a 12p.m. catamaran.The purser was about to de-boat me as my cash stash did not include dollars or Chilean pesos to pay. But a kind Israeli man came to my aid, exchanging my Argentine pesos. It took 30 minutes to sail the length of Lake Pehoé. By 1:15pm I was hiking a trail on the far shore. I saw expensive hostelry and a camp edging a broad valley, green with low stands of lenga and calafate.
I appreciatd the mild day and absence of wind. I let the droves of backpackers go ahead of me, so I’d have that rare silence in the wilderness you cannot bottle. I stopped every now and then to let it fill me and to look at the peaks off to my northeast, the cuernos or horns. There is a remarkably deep cleft, or couloir, between two. And they have names, too, Espade (sword), Hoja (leaf), Mascara (mask), Este (east) and Principal, the highest at 2,600 meters.
Up valley on the far side of the crest was a big, beautiful view of the expansive Lake Grey. I began weaving with backpackers again who were doing the Circuit or the W. The trail hugs the ridge high above the lake through dense vegetation. I didn’t make it all the way to Grey’s face, but what I saw let me more than fill in the blanks.
I got far enough to see a dramatic seam in the lake waters, where it goes from clear to cloudy, suddenly thick with glacial flour ground off mountains. And I began to see the “babies.” At least a couple of dozen fancifully shaped icebergs, some blue as sapphire, had calved and floated away from the big mama. It was awe-filling even with the glacier a couple of hours’ hike away. I had to turn back to catch the catamaran by 6:30p.m.
Back at Pehoé, late sun was turning the bunch grasses grass blond against the navy blue lake and shape-changing the Andes peaks, which were very close in view. On the catamaran’s return trip, I met a couple from Manchester England. They looked suburban, which is to say not terribly outdoorsy. But they had a serene look on their faces and they had a secret that they shared with me. They had come here 35 years ago. There was nothing, almost no one, not a shred of development. They hitched around, bivouacked against the elements, and experienced the fabled land that Bruce Chatwin, Patagonia’s John McPhee, wrote about in In Patagonia.
Now they were lodging in high-end comfort, while their son did the Circuit. They didn’t resent the development at all but thought it was great — now more people could come here. It didn’t detract from the emptiness they recalled. After all, the park is 242,242 hectares — California and Texas put together — so, if one were determined one could with some effort still find that isolation today.
The morning I was for El Calafate I spent with Laurie from England at at Laguna Amarga, where he set up his camera and tripod waiting for sun to hit snowy peaks just right. In those four hours, everything came to us, including, at last, el condor. Charcoal black with a snowy white ring around its neck, it has a majestically wide wingspan of three meters. First we saw sone, then two, then more than a dozen, flying and hunting on the nearby hillside. I changed Laguna Amarga’s name to Condor Roost. Laurie and I supposed they could carry off a baby guanaco, some of whom have came down to munch near us. A little pond was filled with ducks including, striking upland geese, or caiquen, with barred bodies that remind me of herringbone suits. There were also some colorful songbirds nearby — a few long-tailed meadowlark, one singing on the ranger station’s antenna, with orange-red necks, and several rufous-collared sparrows. All we needed was the puma that roams here and we’d have a good length of the food chain in one spot.
Most visitors to Torre del Paine arrive by way of Port Natales, a scenic fishing town in Chile, a two-hour bus ride away. But, as I am based in Buenos Aires, I have come by way of El Calafate, a town that grew up around tourism. Still, it is attractive, situated on the huge Lago Argentino, and seems to have as many travel agencies as restaurants. They offer excursions to most Patagonia attractions, including Ushaia (the world’s most southerly town and departure point for Antarctica cruises), Fitzroy or Chalten (a lofty peak that you can view from a long hike) and to Perito Moreno, one of a very few glaciers that, despite global warming, is not retreating, but is in equilibrium. It’s one of Argentina’s stellar tourist attractions. You can’t go home without seeing it.
I met up with California friends Dan and Diane, who were traveling around Chile and Argentina, to go see the Perito, which is located in Los Glaciares national park — along with 339 other glaciers. The whole excursion was packed with spectacularly memorable scenery, starting with the hour-long van ride to the park along Lake Argentina, which spreads, like an ocean, to the horizon with more Andes peak. There was a line of black silhouetted ones in the foreground against a background of pure snow-white covered ones in the distance. Absolutely stunning and unparalleled.
The park crawled with tourists but it was quite organized. There are two ways to look upon the face of Perito, from a boat launch and from several tiers of footbridges. My friends and I did both, starting with the launch.
We sailed up very close to the face of this glacier, the likes of which I have never seen. It’s huge — 30 kilometers long, being fed generously by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. Perito’s terminus, which is what we were looking at, is five kilometers wide, and 60 meters above the lake surface — about a 20-story building. We tried to guess how much Bombay Gin and Aqua-Velva it took to turn the ice that gorgeous color.
From our perspective, the terminus-face appeared so cleanly hewn, as if a giant spatula smoothed out icing on a cake. But the tall compacted ice towers were calving — casting off “rooms” or stories of ice — about every 20 to 30 minutes. Everyone waited with bated breath and a chain of exclamations arose when a hunk broke away and crashed explosively into the lake. It was better than fireworks.
From the footbridges we heard and saw more calving and read a sign that said a few dozen people had died in the past few years from flying ice — hence, do not poach out of bounds. We also saw, perched on a branch of a lenga tree hanging over the footbridge, the cutest little pygmy owl. He blinked and let us get really close, up to three feet — and became the most photographed pygmy owl in these parts. We thought he might have been so still because he was going into “torpor” to conserve energy.
Back in Calafate we shared a good meal at La Tablita — delicious lake trout and grilled lamb. We strolled the wooden sidewalks past storefronts packed with rhodochrocite, or Inca rose stone, the national gem of Argentina.
My friends left for Bariloche and I discovered the Laguna Nimez, a 15-minute walk from town, a bird-lover’s haven right by lake’s edge. About 100 species of birds, mostly waterfowl, use the protected wetlands around two lagoons to feed, breed, and stopover during migration (how strange to hear that birds fly north for the winter). I followed the trail around the bigger lagoon and saw numerous species, including black-necked ibis, coscoroba swan, Andean ruddy duck, and a few harrier hawks. Also to be seenwere shovelers, wigeons, pintails, falcons, plovers, gulls, and geese. But my favorite was the big flock of Chilean Flamingos, their vivid pink feathers so dazzling against the sparkling waters.
It was one more wild image to take back with me, along with a bottle of opaque purple liqueur distilled from the calafate bush berries. All would be savored for a long time coming.
Next stop El Chalten and a long hike to Mount Fitz-Roy.