Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sugar coated iceberg

Walking boots are a serious piece of equipment. Made of sturdy leather with a sole thicker than a steak sandwich, the damage they could potentially inflict makes it worth ex-boyfriends not accompanying me on hikes. Add to this a set of inch-long spikes and you had nothing but solid, vengeful, win.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The ice field is a 350 km long band of snow and ice in the Patagonian Andes and is the third biggest ice mass in the world, with Antarctica and Greenland taking the top two positions. Despite this, the glaciers stemming from it are all smaller than any of those found on Antarctica. The Perito Moreno glacier is the only one of the glaciers that is not receding. Humid air rises over the mountains from Chile and falls as snow on the peaks, creating a renewable stream of ice that pushes the glacier forward by roughly the same amount that it melts each year. On average, the glacier advances at a sizable speed of 2m a day.

Unlike European glaciers, many of the glaciers in Patagonia stretch down close to sea level, with Perito Moreno ending in Lake Argentino, the largest fresh water lake in the country. This naturally makes these sites major tourist attractions which we shamelessly supported by signing up for a 90 minute ice walk across the rough frozen surface.

The ice walk takes place at the glacier's far end, closest to the lake. Here, the ice is only moving a few inches a day, allowing the sharp peaks and troughs to be worn by weathering into a series of smoother (if granular) paths than can be more easily navigated. Nevertheless, this was not the surface to sprint along and going downhill, it was worth slamming your crampon-encased boot down with sufficient force to ensure a good grip.

I found that satisfying.

The surface of the glacier was like walking on thousands of ice cubes. Not everyone found this a comfortable experience. Some, precariously balanced on their spikes, found the deep drops that periodically appeared to our sides unnerving. These holes plummeted down into the heart of the glacier, encased in sparkling blue dripping crystal. Others were clearly ashamed of their footwear. Well, I had no evidence for this, but if I'd strapped a pair of crampons onto the light plimsolls one member of our group was wearing, I would feel daft. It was like attaching a bullet proof vest to a butterfly.

One lady (not plimsoll wearing) decided that the final uphill was more than she could manage and took advantage of our path's close passing to the bare hillside to step off the glacier and head back to the camp. This proved to be an error since the 'last great view' we were promised on this ascent turned out to be a large chest of whisky.

Why yes, I would like some 400 year old glacier ice with my drink.

400 years was our guide's estimate of how long it takes for the glacier ice to work its way down from its pressurised formation on the mountain top to the lake's edge.

The end of the glacier is a vertical 40m drop into the lake. As it melts, huge vertical pillars can break away and tumble in a crashing pile of ice dust into the water. We saw several chunks meet their doom this way, becoming icebergs that sail down stream, looking for Titanic vessels to sabotage. Even when the end sections were not falling, creaks and cracks could be heard throughout the glacier as it inched along its path.

A few days later we would see the Grey Glacier on the Chile side of the ice field, taking a boat that would weave through an entire lake of icebergs. Even though ice is lighter than water, only 5-10 % of the iceberg is visible above the surface of the lake.

As we approached some of the larger bodies, I felt someone somewhere should be rather more concerned about this.


  1. You might find this BBC video clip interesting. It's about girls and cats.

    Single woman Jane loves her cat, but she can't find Mr Right.

  2. That is very funny! (And ... quite disgusting at the end).