Tuesday, March 12, 2013


PatagoniaLand of Glaciers and Rugged Mountains

Patagonia and the southern tip of the South American Continent has become an ‘exotic’ travel destination.  Just about 10 years ago, it was mainly a destination for trekkers and climbers that flocked to places like El Chalten near the FitzRoy massive or Torre del Paine with its rugged mountain peaks.  Now it has opened up and seems to be on the list of places offered by many tour groups.  Little towns like El Chalten sport several new hotels – or hosterias – which made more comfortable accommodations rather than tent camps available for the mainstream tourist.

Western Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) presents ragged mountains of the Andes topped by enormous glaciers,  and an ever-blowing wind even in the summer months.  The eastern regions, the arid ‘steppe’ (grasslands) is populated by ranches – estancias – with cattle and sheep.  As one travels south towards Chile the precipitation is more ubiquitous and the density of sheep increases.  It is said there are more sheep than one can count in a lifetime of sleepless nights. 

As I left Buenos Aires after a short visit I flew to El Calafate and traveled overland north to El Chalten.  It was sunset as we approached to our evening destination.  On route, the sun was setting and the FitzRoy massive with its high peaks of 11,000 ft glowed in warm colors.  These very steep mountains peaks are a paradise for climbers and not for the faint of heart. I rather marveled in sunsets and sunrises with beautiful colors (More of the FitzRoy Massive in a later Travel TidBits).

While I would see numerous glaciers during my time in Patagonia, the first 2 are memorable since I walked on ice and among the crevices of the Viedma Glacier near El Chalten and for the enormity of the Icefield of Perito Moreno Glacier part of the larger Upsala Glacier near El Calafate, both belonging to the Glaciers of the Los Glaciares National Park which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1981. 

The Viedma Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field (SPI) and is one of the 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Icefield shared across the Andes by Argentina and Chile.  This icefield is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water!

From the air one can see its terminal phase flowing into the western end of Lake Viedma which was created by the receding glacier and melting ice and its end moraine.  Its glacier terminus spans 2 kilometers wide as it enters Lake Viedma.  Moving slowly downwards chunk of ice fall into the lake and float as icebergs before eventually melting.  With the melting ice, debris of soil and rocks ground up by the moving ice are swept into the lake giving it its typical glacial green color as typical seen in glacial lakes.

The dark streaks in the middle of the glacier terminus are formed when rock debris gets intermingled with the flowing ice mass.  Due to the pressure from the above icefield and depth of the ice, the middle ice moves faster than the sides of the glacier forming the appearance of a river of ice moving towards the lake where it ends in a cliff like structure.

To reach the glacier terminus, we drove from El Chalten to Lake Viedma, where a boat awaited to take us over the lake to the ice.  

It was a gorgeous day for a boat ride and hike.

Little did I know that walking on the ice means donning crampons, climbing up and over crevices, looking down into small glacier ‘lakes’ that form in the crevices.  After landing on a barren rock we first had to hike up and thankfully, the guides had left the crampons near where the ice met the rock. 

 The boat fit snugly into a little rock cove and we disembarked over the front end onto the rock.

The view from the top onto the glacier’s end shows the mass of ice ‘gliding’ into the lake calving ice into the lake periodically accompanied by loud noise.

After being properly fitted the crampons – I had never in my life walked with crampons! - a big step brought us face-to-face with a rather unfamiliar environment.

We initially hiked up following a valley leading up to the Crevice field.

It looks like a labyrinth but thank God we had a guide who knew where the next path would be.  

The different colors of the glacier ice were amazing.  Depending on the density of the ice it can shimmer in shades of blue with grey added by the moraine debris.  The enormity of the ice field is overwhelming and we are just a speck on the ever expanding ice.

The slopes of the hills and valleys were made walking slow and our guides carved steps when the grade was too steep.

This was a new experience for me and I was at awe at nature.  The cracking noises – much louder than I ever had imagined – reminded us that we were standing on a ‘living and moving’ mountain.  The occasional loud noises sounded like canon balls exploding as the glacier face calved enormous chunks of ice into the water.  Nature was certainly at action here.

Hiking down from the crevices, unloading the crampons, climbing over the rock face and back into the boat, the day had passed by fast with so many new impressions.

[Courtesy of Dan Cox]

Thinking that one day this may no longer be available to experience made me sad.  The below image of another glacier shows how globally glaciers are receding as our climate changes.  

From USGS Archives

The USGS images span a century and this seems a long time in our life yet it is a tiny spec in Earth time.  Of the 48 glaciers of the Southern Patagonia Icefield, only the enormous Perito Moreno Glacier is fed by enough precipitation to counter balance it relentless flow to its terminus in Lake Argentina

I will show images of the Perito Moreno Glacier and Lake Argentina - another great glacier experience - in my next Travel TidBits as my journey continues.

Til then,

Comments?  I love to hear from you.  Please use my email mraeder33@gmail.com to reach me.


Interesting reading:  
A study titled  “Ice Loss from the Southern Patagonian Icefield, South America, between 2000 and 2012” by the authors:  Michael J Willis, Andrew K Melkonian, and Matthew E Pritchard, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA [http://www.agu.org/news/press/pr_archives/2012/2012-41.shtml, 5 September 2012] observe: “The Southern Patagonian Icefield together with its smaller northern neighbor, the Northern Patagonian Icefield, are the largest icefields in the southern hemisphere — excluding Antarctica. The new study shows that the icefields are losing ice faster since the turn of the century and contributing more to sea level rise than ever before.”  Even on the highest elevations rain is more prevalent than snow which softens the ice and contributes to a more rapid downward movement.  ‘Warming air temperatures contribute to the thinning at the highest and coldest regions of the ice field, Willis said. Moreover warmer temperatures mean greater chances that rain, as opposed to snow, will fall on and around the glaciers. This double threat of warming and more rain may, in turn, change the amount of water beneath the glaciers. More water means less friction, so the glaciers start to move faster as they thin, moving even more ice in to the oceans. Rising lakes at the front of the glaciers may also play a part as they eat away at the icy edges faster, causing the glaciers to retreat even further.’