Crossing the continental ice at the end of April is more of a travesty in winter than in summer, although this could be transformed into an odyssey if the unpredictable climate of Patagonia so chooses.
But summer lingered slightly and when Christian called from Sweden saying that he was up to the challenge of some of the trips that I’d been considering after mulling over maps of the area south of the Andes, the decision was quick and we both agreed: “Let’s go to the ice!”
The continental ice covers more than 20 000 square km between Argentina and Chile. In its major part, going west from the Cordillera of the Andes , the average height is 1300m above sea level.
The ice that accumulates there forms gigantic glaciers that reach the sea on the Chilean side and stretch across to Argentina to serve as the gateway to a great white field.
We chose a well-known but interesting route surrounding Mount Fitz Roy and Mount Torre, going 80km in a closed circuit that would take us back to the town of Chaltén some 7 or 8 days later.
Choosing equipment is no easy task. You’ve got to calculate daily rations with great precision, while allowing extra for emergencies. Fuel is also important, not just for cooking, but for melting snow for drinking water, and walking with a 30 kg backpack, you’ll need plenty. The most important decision is whether or not to take skis. Sometimes, cracks in the ice are hidden by snow, and so you are generally safer with them.
After contacts in Chaltï¿½n confirmed that snows had been light, we decided to use special footwear that allows for walking and climbing in snow and ice, but are quite light. The rest of the gear included tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and photographic equipment.
Park ranger Susana Quiroz’s smile and the sun warming the granite walls of Fitz Roy and Torre formed the best possible welcome for us at the northern section of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Timing is important in Patagonia, and in less than two hours, we were already in the woods heading for our objective, the Glacier Marconi, which we chose as our means of accessing the continental ice.
From there, rocks and ice were our only companions during a trip in which not a single human sound was heard, apart from those we made ourselves. And we made few: when passing through such beautiful places, one tends to lower one’s voice, to become more a part of the landscape, I believe.
Our first camp was still far from the ice, on the shores of the Eletrico Lake, where the northern side of Fitz Roy shows its imposing face in its afternoon splendor. The next chilly morning we were obliged to hurry the trip a bit which, on the second day, would have only one direction: up.
We had to arrive to Paso Marconi, where the glacier of the same name originates, and the immensity of the ice field becomes more apparent. Arriving was a challenge, but we kept a good pace. The only things that detained us were our photographic attempts to capture such natural perfection.
The first night in the ice, in el Paso, the protection against the wind was null. Due to time restrictions, we decided not to construct a wall from ice and snow as a barrier, but rather used what little time we had to enjoy a meal with a unique companion, Mount Fitz Roy, our special guest. In autumn, the nights are long, and at 7pm, we were already seeking out the warmth of our sleeping bags.
In this terrain, nothing appears to be the same twice, and when the sunrise began to emerge, we fought with a frozen tent zipper so that we could witness the spectacle in the cloudless sky. It was then that we began to understand how very privileged we were. With the presence of the sun, everything seems slower, and feeling a bit lazy, we had to push ourselves to start walking to cover the day’s quota.
A cord united our bodies and served to counteract a fall, by allowing one person to pull the other up if need be. Our minds, however, were not so tightly joined. Carrying all that I needed to survive on my back, my mind dwelled on the unnecessary items of our material society and the senselessness of the culture that we live in, constanly seeking something that we have always had but are now intent on destroying: the peace and tranquility that nature gives us. Looking back at the tracks made by Christian and I, it drove me crazy to imagine them being covered by walls and buildings.
I first dreamed of seeing Mount Torre “from the other side” when Chalten was still a small town. It seems that we always want to turn things over, as if their other side holds the meaning of their existence. Very low clouds shrouded this long-awaited show from our sight. We didn’t have much time left, but we lingered over lunch as long as possible, anticipating a salute from the star of the last act of our glacial drama. When a great mushroom of ice finally appeared from the peak, there was no doubt that the grand finale had arrived. We were left speechless.
The following few days, we went back to “civilization” by retracing our steps backward. The Valley del Rio Tï¿½nel is a canal that seems to liberate the pressure of air from the west on the mountains. Far down below, a silvery river previewed the protection we would soon have from the evergreen forest.
One camp more and we were in the solitary town of Chalten where the noise of summer tourists overpowered our winter tranquility. Our plan was to scale some mountains in the next few days, but the bad timing reminded us that we should have just been grateful for all that we had seen and enjoyed.
In reality, it will be difficult to spiritually leave this experience. The mountain has the power of trapping people and making them return time and time again, and I know that I’ll soon be back.