We explore the Northern Patagonian Ice Field

Last time we talked about our adventures in Patagonia, it involved almost in every article some ice-related thingy. Mostly glaciers. We saw the Grey Glaciar from afar in our first hike in Chile, then we went close to the Perito Moreno Glaciar in Argentina and listened to it as we witnessed some blocks separate from the main structure, and while we were hiking around the Fitz Roy, we saw different glaciers every day. All of them where part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
Well since then, we did a bit of road with bus. We crossed once again the border between Argentina and Chile. This time on foot because it was closed for buses. So, as the sun rise in the morning, we were carrying our backpacks across the two customs stations, walking the 6 kilometres of no-mans land between the two frontiers. Weird feeling! But the moment we set foot on the Chilean side, a clever minibus driver was there waiting for us. For us and also several other tourists that came right after. He proposed to take the whole lot of us 5 hours further away into Chile, to reach the little village of Puerto Tranquilo, where as you can imagine, not much is happening!
But Puerto Tranquilo is actually a super famous stop to visit by boat some caves, carved by the nearby lake, where dramatic marble rock formations are now visible. None of us had ever heard of this place before, it was barely mentioned in our books, but nonetheless we’re heading for Puerto Tranquilo. The road to get there is very winding, very scenic as it goes up and down in the mountains on a gravel road, following a big beautiful lake, and providing fantastic views, and vertiginous cliffs. Terrific! But in the small minibus, it is also a shaky road, so after 5 hours of bumps we are happy to reach Puerto Tranquilo. We go for a very short walk into down-village Rio Tranquilo to see what there actually is to do here. We could do what everybody comes here for, after 5 hours of bus, go and take a small boat tour to see the Marble Cathedral and Marbles caves. But this being us, and this being Let’s Go to Quito we realise another thing: by coming that far away from everything in Chilean Patagonia, we actually came quite close to a second thing: The Northern Patagonian Ice Field! Same as the Southern one, but a bit smaller (still a gigantic source of fresh water on Earth though). And here, because it is very remote, it is actually much more affordable to do something that was in our mind for the past weeks: go closer to a glacier, so close that we would actually walk on it for several hours!
So we did just that. We walked on the Glaciar de los Exploradores. And that was cool.
Departure early morning, us two, three other guys, and our guide/driver in a shaky minibus. To make sure everybody stays up, we could enjoy the driver’s playlist. Wise mix of Chilean reggae music, of Bob Marley and other feel good groovy stuff! And then there is the road. This one too goes up and down deep into a lost valley where there is nothing but a few lost cows and chickens, one gaucho on his horse and his two dogs to watch them. And then, the small valley gets even narrower, coined between very high cliffs on both sides, and the vegetation that turns into something straight out of The Lost World or Jurassic Park. It was one of the most scenic and beautiful drive any of us had ever been!
Once we reach the starting point, we get straight into the jungle, going upwards to reach the limit of the glacier. The way goes up, and it is quite demanding, both physically and mentally, as for most of it, it is more about jumping from one unstable rock to another, instead of just walking on a path. After a good sweat, we are out of the jungle part, getting closer to the glacier, and before you know it, you realise that this huge amount of rock that you’ve been climbing is actually sitting on the ice. You’re already on the glacier! But it is not very pretty, and ice is only seen from afar. This very rocky part is the top of the iceberg, or more exactly the tip of the glacier. It’s where all the rocks that have been removed from the mountains have rolled down, or are pushed away when the ice melts. It is still pretty unstable surface to walk on, and as we go on, it’s often that we hear rambling noises, of the stones disappearing into crevasses, crashing way deeper under the surface level.

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After one hour of climb, we can see and feel that we are getting closer, and that under the thin surface of rock and sand we can already see the ice. Soon our guide calls a pause, and shouts: -“It’s time for the crampons!” So, off with the backpacks, and he helps us add this goblin-style feet under our shoes.

IMG_9369Once the group is equipped, he takes us to a steep slope and demonstrates to us the different, (and very silly and hilarious!!) ways to go up and downhill safely.
Once everybody got the moves, we can move on, and advance closer to the very icy parts. We’re glad to have the crampons with us, as now it is only ice hills surrounding us. The weather is also very Patagonian: It alternates between high winds, rain showers, and the occasional sun ray. But over our heads it is mostly very clouded and we are unfortunately unable to see the high peaks above us in the valley. It is a shame because it should have been a very dramatic sight, as we are right at the feet of the highest mountain in the whole Patagonia, that goes up to 4058m above sea level.

Despite the weather not being at the best we still enjoy the walk on the glacier very much. We put the crampons at the limit between the ice and sandy part, in the lower part of the glacier, and we are now walking towards the middle part of it. Our guide leads the way, and the groups follows with more or less order.

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IMG_9441The crevasses here are not big, so the chances of falling into one are limited, even though under our feet the layer of ice is already 150 meters high! On the way, the guide brings us into an ice cave carved by the little water rivers that are present everywhere and under the ice surface. The cave is not huge, but enough for three persons to stand in it, and the icy river continues deep down into a waterfall that we can hear smashing on the ground deep below us. The cave also help us realise how different is the ice from the surface to the one beneath it. If on the surface, there are still a lot of stones, under it it is only ice. Deep blue and dense ice that only river waters can carve through.

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Let it go! Let it goooo!

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The Exploradores glacier is as every other glacier “alive”. It moves forward and backwards into the valley, and also grows or reduces in height. The very high mountains catch the incoming clouds, and the snow coming from them accumulates at the top. This is the higher part of the glacier. Due to the huge quantity and weight of it and to gravitation, this snow pushes downwards the ice already present, and at the same time rips off stones from the mountains. In a chain reaction, the whole glacier moves forward into the valley creating the middle and lower part of the glacier. Both these parts are in the valley, only their height differs. Above 300 m high of ice for the middle part, and 150 m high for the lower part. Currently the Exploradores glacier slowly moves forward into the valley, but it also melts quite fast, as it is losing about 13 cm in height every day! According to our guide, in less than fifty years the whole lower part of the glacier will have turned into a lake. And this very glacier will look like all the other ones we have seen so far: a glacier part, hanged up to the rocks, high up close to the summit, and then the falling ice ends will finish into a big glacier lake, with bits coming off from the ice into the water to form icebergs. Precisely as we witnessed it in Perito Moreno Glacier.

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We continue walking up and down the icy hills until we reach one higher ice bump. At the top of it we can realise the real size of this sea of ice. We are still very far from the middle part of the glacier. From where we stand it just look like a bigger, and taller wall of ice, on the top of the lower part where we stand. And up high, closer to the summit that we cannot see today, we know that the higher glacier is there too. We do feel very small here even though the Exploradores glacier is relatively small in size compared to others, and yet the changes are happening so fast. It is hard not to have in mind how ephemeris is this place that we feel lucky to witness, and that unfortunately seems doomed somehow.

We have also been lucky to be the first group arriving on the glacier this morning, as we were a small and fit group, going over the unstable rocky part as mountain goats. When it is time for us to head back, we can see other bigger groups arriving on the ice as well. Being up there, in such small number made the experience even more fantastic, and helped in creating unforgettable memories and people-empty pictures 🙂

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At the end of the day we have spent more than two hours and half up there, with the crampons. Fighting the wind and the cold, but mostly enjoying it. It was a first time for Merima, a second one for Fred. Both of us were very glad with our day, and had a little boost of energy left to cook ourselves some kind of fajitas, once back in the hostel:D

And for the next part of our adventures, you guess it, we continue towards the North!

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