We fly from Ushuaia to El Calafate, returning from the end of the world back to the Patagonian Steppe. We are going to visit the Southern Patagonian Icefield, the third largest body of ice on the planet and totally different from any icefield that we witnessed in the cold Antarctic. The Icefield is 378 km long and around 8 km wide. It formed as a low gap in the Andes, allowing moisture laden Pacific storms to drop their load east of the divide, where they accumulated as snow. Over millennia and under tremendous weight, this snow has recrystallised into ice and flows slowly eastward.
We are staying in the National Park Los Glaciares at a hotel called Los Notros, a semi-luxurious place that sits high on a slope and looks straight out at the Perito Moreno Glacier across Largo Argentino. The Perito Moreno is a finger off the main icefield and few of natural wonders of South America are as spectacular or as easily accessible as this. Unlike the hundreds of glaciers that drain off the main icefield, it is one of the few that is not receding. Despite losing an estimated 378 cubic kilometers of ice each year, it is in balance; pretty amazing as it takes 10 years for snow to compress to ice to replace the lost volume. And do not get the impression that it is small because it is possible to fit the entire city of Buenos Aires on this glacier.
The wall of ice is 60 metres high, rising above the water in a solid white wall that finishes in jagged peaks and oddly angled frozen structures. All the time there are cracks like gunfire and muffled explosions as the ice splits and crevasses as it reaches the warmer temperatures of the lake – it’s like being in Brixton on a Saturday night. Without warning great chunks of ice the size of buildings, slip or crash into the waters but by the time we hear them it is too late to catch on film. In some ways, watching the glacier is a very sedentary experience but, nonetheless, it manages to be thrilling.
We went for a walk on top of the glacier that involved strapping on crampons and crunching our way up and down the uneven surface of the ice. We had wanted to do an 8 hour trek across the ice but were forbidden from this activity because we are too old! For some reason, there is an age limit of 45 for a longer walk and not even Debbie’s indignant persuasion can make authority relent. We could have lied about our age and easily (!) snuck in without a problem covering our giveaway laughter lines in theatrical make-up. But we were busted as the hotel had our passports and, using a calculator together with all their fingers and toes, managed to determine that we were the wrong side of the age limit.
Nonetheless, we had a very enjoyable experience. At first, getting used to the heavy, inflexible crampons was a challenge in itself, then walking downhill without falling flat on our face was not easy but, after a while, we mastered the technique of taking small steps and keeping our feet flat at all times. We looked just like penguins! The surprise was how much water was running everywhere. Little streams all over the surface, cutting into the ice and disappearing down deep sink-holes were most common. The noise of cracking ice was somewhat disconcerting as the leading edge of the icefield splits into deep ravines before toppling into the lake with a roar. But walking on top of the glacier certainly gave us a perspective of how large it is and how uneven its surface and our excursion were topped off a whiskey on 1,000 year-old ‘rocks’.
There is also a constructed walkway on the peninsula opposite the glacier that took us along the width of its face and through natural beech forest. The numerous viewpoints are cleverly positioned to allow us to see along the top as well as right up against the different sides of the ice. A lovely walk in the rain that took nearly three hours to complete and which, had we had time, we would have gone back and done it all over again.
The whole experience was truly unforgettable and spellbinding. What a wonderful place and what a relief that it was not a disappointment after our trip to the Antarctic.