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Ice Trekking

June 13, 2012 | 4 minute read | By Kevin Read

One of the highlights of Argentina is a 30km long river of ice which flows from high in the Southern Andes into Lake Argentina in Patagonia. Glacier Perito Moreno ends dramatically with a 70-metre high wall of ice (plus another 100 metres under the surface), spread across a 3-mile long stretch of the lake. It advances by up to 2 metres every day and a result of that is that, every hour or two, a huge chunk of it will crack away from the wall and crash into the lake with a giant splash and a noise like a distant explosion. The lake is littered with icebergs of all sizes from this calving of the wall.

Further down in the depths of the glacier the pressure causes a change in the ice and it flows down the mountains as if it was a liquid; this also causes the top layer, which is solid, to fracture as it moves over the changes in terrain. From the hill above, this look like small cracks in the surface, but the distance and lack of scale is deceptive. Some of these ravines are 50 meters deep – steep icy canyons that drop sharply out of sight. There are also ponds of near-freezing water formed all over the glacier and deadly sink holes reaching almost right through it. On the morning we visited, a heavy storm was blowing fierce winds over the surface and snow was stinging our faces. It seemed like a good place to go for a hike.

The most misleading thing about a glacier is that it doesn’t look smooth. The surface is mottled and not shiny, and the crampons tied to the bottom of our shoes (basically a set of metal teeth with a strap) give our feet deceptively good grip. But it is very slippery and, when I ran my fingers along the side of a hill, I felt almost no resistance at all. This means that the only safe way for the ice to support you is through the crampons, which you stamp into the ground as you step. You can’t sit down to assist with a steep descent and mustn’t use your hands to scramble up a hill.

If you fall (and the most common way of doing this is for one crampon to get stuck on the other leg of your trousers as you take a step), then you will probably slide, and, if you slide, you’ll keep sliding downhill until the terrain drops you off in a freezing pond, sink hole or the lake. If you’re lucky, you’ll reach a hill going up the other way, in which case you’ll get to slide up and down between the pair of hills until you gradually come to rest. It’s quite simple physics, with friction virtually removed, and there’s nothing to stop you once your feet no longer point to the ground.

(Later in this trip, we met people who’d done a different ice trek and had been given an ice pick each as a precaution, but no training on its use. Much as sliding around uncontrollably on a 70 meter high glacier is dangerous, taking a sharp pair of metal spikes on the ride is much much worse)

From close up, the ice forms a hilly landscape that stretches as far as you can see. Only certain routes are possible and, even for those, there are points where our guides must go ahead and hack a set of steps into the slope for us to ascend. There are about 15 of us hiking in a line (including Taps and I) and points where we are arranged on a hill like a set of dominoes waiting to be knocked over. Some of the people with us are dressed like they’ve heard of the outdoors before but never been there, and I’m not sure I trust them above me.

The surface glows an incredible blue which is a deeper colour in the cracks and ravines. There’s a complicated reason for this, and it’s something to do with certain red wavelengths of light being absorbed by water molecules, leaving more blue light at the other end of the spectrum (lakes and oceans appear blue for the same reason).

It’s not, as our guide explained to us, due to refraction (a similar effect as when you put a pencil in a glass of water and it appears disconnected at the surface), but, as you can tell, my internet-assembled knowledge on the subject is patchy at best. Maybe someone who understands physics better will find this and explain (since that’s the second time I’ve mentioned physics in this entry, it’s possible).

The walk lasted for about 2 hours and finished with a whisky (including ice hacked straight from the hill), which was arranged on a drinks cart, on the ice, as we rounded the last corner. We left speculating about how dangerous the hike really was: the drinks cart made it seem kitschy and the attitude of the guides throughout was calm and casual. On the other hand, I had already seen guides in South America swinging from trees one handed holding snakes, so it’s very hard to judge how worried you should be. At one point, someone did try to sit down to descend a freshly carved staircase and both guides instantly shouted for her not to contact the ice except for with the crampons. Not for the first time, I thought about the people who first explored this landscape with much less equipment than we had. They probably also brought whisky.

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4 responses to “Ice Trekking”

  1. Richard says:

    Really cool photos (again)! The central one (of the group) looks like a painting. Interesting effect or was most of it done as post-processing? Either way it looks cool. Did you do the glacier hike in NZ? We did Frnaz Jozef which was pretty fun, but doesn’t look like it’s on the same scale as this one.

  2. Kevin Read says:

    The painting effect is a product of how I build the photos from 3 separate source images (called HDR in photo jargon). It doesn’t always have to look like a painting but some people like that and in certain situations it works well. In this case, it’s hard to control it on the very slow netbook I’m using, so some of them are coming out a little overdone.

    I did not do the NZ glaciers. I was struggling to fit enough in there anyway, it’s incredibly expensive, and most people agreed that it was not (or did not look) as impressive as Perito Moreno. You’ve got to take your glaciers where you find them though: Patagonia is quite a trek to get to.

  3. Mike Adams says:

    That’s pretty cool that they named a place after the outdoor clothing company.

    • Kevin Read says:

      It’s funny you should say that; I was complaining about exactly that. There are a lot of outdoor stores and we needed to buy a hat and gloves (I had no hat, Taps had no gloves). Everywhere we went, we kept trying to figure out if the stuff we were finding was quality Patagonia clothing, or just cheap clothing with Patagonia written on it.

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