Saturday, November 19, 2011

2011, October 26th - November 1st: El Chalten, Argentina: Expedition to The Southern Patagonian Ice Field

2011, October 26th - November 1st
El Chalten, Argentina

Expedition to The Southern Patagonian Ice Field

For a full complement of photos, follow this link to Flickr:


Before arriving in Patagonia, I was not aware that two large expanses of ice straddle Argentina and Chile - the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields. I ´touched the edge´ of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field while in Chile (by walking on Glaciar Exploradores), but it was in El Chalten, Argentina, that I really got to experience these incredible places.

Prior to arriving in El Chalten, I did not know that people other than the hardcore explorers could access such environments. As soon as I saw the photos of the views of the ice field and the peaks that border it, I knew this was something I had to do - find the money, just make it happen. A great weather window opened and my ´invitation to the ice field´ was complete.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field (Campo de Hielo Sur) is the second largest ice field outside of the polar regions. It lies in the Andes mountains and straddles the border between Argentina and Chile. It is 350 km (220 km) long and El Chalten is located close to the central section. It´s average width is 40 km (25 miles) and it has an ice thickness in places in excess of 1000 metres (3280 ft). The elevation of the ice field (in the area that I treked) is in the region of 1500 metres (4600 ft) to 1100 metres (3600 ft). Numerous glaciers emerge from the ice field and track down the mountain passes.

Satellite Image of Southern Patagonian Ice Field
(Points of note for my trek indicated)

Map of Central Section of Southern Patagonian Ice Field
(Points of note for my trek indicated)

Why Worry About the Weather So Much?

The ice field is a potentially dangerous area with wind speeds a particular concern. Once you ´commit´ and climb the pass and enter the ice field you are potentially a long way from an escape route or rescue. For example, the central point in the trek (Circo de Los Altares) is 1.5 days treking to a point below the mountain passes (where the winds will be less) and potentially three days from the nearest town (El Chalten) - although you could always back-track one day to the Garcia Soto refuge, but the refuge is effectively only an unmanned strong shed.

As well as such safety concerns, it is also nice to have some visibility - though this is a luxury (that I was lucky enough to have on my trek).

My Ice Field Experience

As the ice field experience is such a unique one, in this section of this blog release I have attempted to convey this truly memorable personal event.

The ice field is best likened to a ´sea of ice´, a vast flat expanse of white bordered by mountains reaching down into the ´sea´. A place where one´s sense of distance is distorted - far away mountains seem a short walk away, and where the mesmorising beauty of the environment is a velvet cloak that hides a knife (the winds and cold that could arrive a slay you).

It was an environment where the placing of the horizon was a subjective choice, where the sea of ice, the mist, the clouds and ice covered mountains merge into a dizzy continuum. Where time changes from a linear progression with a sense of before and after into a greater sense of permanence - the time of ages, the layering and layering of ice and snow and the incomprehensibly slow progression of a glacier all watched over by mountain spires - the watchman of the sea of ice, the only objects that reside there with confidence - defying the smothering advances of the elements.

Throughout my time on the ice I felt as if I was there with the permission of mother nature, that it was her choice as to whether the weather would allow me to enter and escape unscathed. This humbled me, and I felt like a very small being in the midst of a vast place in which I did not truly belong, but was only visiting with her permission. In this respect, while I have felt ´the power of nature´ during other mountain walks, this was perhaps the first place on earth where I felt really subservient to the environment around me. In the ice field I had the duality of feeling awe at the beauty of the place, but at the same time feeling intimidated by the vastness and the sense of not belonging in such an other-wordly place, where one communes with the gods and graciously asks to enter and be in another world.

The (metaphorical) depth of the ice field and the mystifying effect of the endless white drew me towards those far horizons, like the sensation of looking over a precipice and experiencing the sensation of a part of you seemingly being drawn down into the abyss, except that in the ice field the sensation was of peace rather than a destructive descent - a dissolution of self into the whiteness, a stripping back of the years and a letting go to find oneself in a the calm white of a slow peaceful breath - unified in the vast majesty, calm and power of a place sufficiently simple and timeless to accommodate such a state of being. I can still fundamentally feel the effects of the place in my mind and spirit, maybe that is the reason why my intuition that I should make the expedition was so strong and resolute.

It was an experience that I shall never forget, it has made a permanent place in my memory and my heart, leaving me with a greater calm, humility and sense of wonder of this life.

Daily Diary

I completed the expedition with two guides (Javier and Gaston).

Day 1

A relatively easy day walking from Punta Rio Electrico to La Playita, though with a 37 kg (81 lb) pack on, any walk is a tougher than usual. Much of the weight we had to carry came from having to take enough food for three hungry men for ten days. The absoluate minimum time for the ice trek is 6 days of actual walking, but one has to allow 2-3 days for ´the eventualities of bad weather´, plus we also intended to climb Gorra Blanca mountain in the ice field.
Gaston & Javier Approaching Lago Electrico with Glaciar Marconi in the Background

The camp at La Playita, near to Lago Electrico, served as the final point of rest before ´committing´ to the ice. The guide Javier said that with one group he took they were stuck at the La Playita camp for five days because the weather was too bad to enter the ice field - fortunately I was much more lucky.
Day 2

Day 2 was the toughest of all as we had to make a 1022 m (3350 ft) height gain with full backpacks. This day served as our entry to the icefield had 10 hours of pretty much constant ascending. After crossing the moraine of Glaciar Marconi we donned crampons and started the climb of the glacier itself - initially on ice and then on snow during the later steeper sections rising to Paso Marconi (Marconi Pass). As we advanced up the glacier we were flanked by the edge by the Cordon Marconi (Marconi Massive) on the left. These slopes were covered in hanging glaciers and countless jagged ice forms. One section of hanging glacier coming off Cerro Marconi Norte was regularly ´letting rip´ with ice fall/ small avalanches which sent a roar across the main glacier on which we stood.
Tim Climbing Glaciar Marconi

The weather was not the greatest (sleeting then snowing a little higher up), but compared to the fierce winds which can roar down the pass it was pretty good. Before reaching the more gradual slope of the ice field there was a tough steep climb through snow. Once onto the ice field it was another 1 to 2 hours slog with snow shoes across to the refuge at Garcia Soto. By this time we had actually crossed the border into Chile (so had to have our passports stamped before leaving El Chalten).
During the last hour of trekking across the ice field I was truly shattered with my back and shoulders ´rejecting´ that darn heavy pack. That last hour was one of the most physically demanding I have experienced. The sight of the refuge was a welcome relief.
Day 3

The strong winds that blew through the night continued until lunchtime. That meant that an ascent of Gorra Blanca was not possible as a full 10 hours are required and a lunchtime start would have been far too late. So a chance to recuperate from the tough previous day. In the afternoon and evening conditions were absolutely perfect with no wind, bright sun and wonderful visibility. This gave me the chance for Javier to take me out onto the ice field for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Suffice to say that this first proper sight of the ice field and standing in its midst just blew my mind. The vast expanses of ice and snow framed by mountains at its edges gave me ´visual overload´ at times - it was just so much to take in, as if I had arrived on another planet and was trying to comprehend where I was.
The ´Sea of Ice´

To use the analogy of ´another planet´ is not an exaggeration as the ice field is like nothing I have seen before, not just visually but in terms of the senses stimulated and feelings evoked - at times it felt as if my ties to reality had been cut and I was afloat in a vast dreamscape where what was up/down left/right was atomised into a nebulas white and blue expanse. The solidity of the mountains at the edges of the ice field were at times the only normal/known entities in the sea of ice that one could readily identify with and ground ones mind for a moment - though the grip on reality afforded was somewhat tenuous as the mountains often seemed to be of this other reality for, after all, where did the ice end and the mountain begin, were they near or far, was that mist, snow or an ice-covered mountain I saw?
Unclear Horizons - Where The Ice, Mountains, Mist & Sky Merge

Back at the refuge, in the evening the clear skies continued and the low sun refelected off the ice field below really invoking the sense that it was a ´sea of ice´ and adding to the magic. Later, a glorious sunset set reds admist all the white and cast a serene orange and red calm across Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and accompanying peaks in the distance. I felt truly blessed to have been given such an incredible visual experience.
Evening Sun Amplifying the Sense that the Ice Field is a ´Sea of Ice´

Evening View from Garcia Soto Refuge with Nunatak Witte Mountains in the Distance

Evening View from Garcia Soto Refuge with Fitz Roy (left) & Cerro Torre (right)in the Distance

Day 4

More strong winds blew through the night and into the morning meaning that an ascent of Gorra Blanca was once again ruled out. As visibility was forecast to be good later, I elected for us to make the start on the main ice field trek towards Circo de los Altares as this images of this place were probably my main motivation for embarking on this expedition and I did not want to lose the chance to see it (another day and the clouds could have come in and the image of such a magical place would have gone).
In the morning, the winds were relatively mild for the ice field at (I estimate) 50 mph (80 kmph). This drove the snow and ice at ground level into a rather chilly mist. I was thankful for snow shoes, gaiters and waterproofs as these soon became caked in ice. Despite the driven snow and ice, because of the bright sun, I still had great views of the mountains that flanked our route south.

On the Ice Field Looking Towards Paso Marconi: Wind-Driven Snow, Mist & Low Sun Make an Intoxicating Visual Mix
By early afternoon, the winds had stopped and conditions for our arrival at Circo de los Altares were perfect - how lucky I was! Circo de los Altares (Circus of the Altares) is (I presume) so called because the the peaks of Cero Torre and many other peaks are arranged in an arc and their spire like forms rise up from the ice field with a heavenly beauty.

Tim Arrives at Circo de los Altares!

What a truly incredible and magical place, from a foreground of a perfect flat expanse of pure white ice and snow rise spire-like peaks towards the sky, with the rock adorned with jewel-like ice structures.
As we were in the midst of the ice field and were exposed to any nasty winds it might decide to unleash, we protected the tent by building a wall of ice blocks dug out from the ice (there was much to choose from). The clear skies continued into the evening and I was presented with the yellowy / orange light of the sinking sun cast across the spires of Circo de los Altares.

Evening View from Our Camp at Circo de los Altares
Day 5

Another clear day (what a blessing)! As we continued south along the ice field, the departing images of Circo de los Altares were enhanced by the swirling mists of a scattering of early morning low clouds.

Morning View from Our Camp at Circo de los Altares

During the trek south I had more amazing views of near and distant mountains set in the sea of ice. On the nearest, I could clearly see small glaciers and ´sculptures of ice´ adorning the slopes and ridges. Some peaks and mountain ridges were entirely encassed in jagged blue and white ice.

Blue & White Ice Encrusted Peaks Above the Vast Flat Expanse of the Ice Field
We treked across the ice field towards Glaciar Viedma, a large glacier that feeds Lago (Lake) Viedma. By mid afteroon we were able to step off the ice and onto rock for the first time in three days, and trek to set up camp near to Laguna de los Esquies and Laguna Ferrari, where we had views across Glaciar Viedma towards the peaks of Nunatak Viedma.
Day 6

This was another tough day as heavy packs were once again on our backs (during Days 4 and 5 while treking across the ice field we could put heavy items on a sled (kindly toed by Gaston)). We treked along the rocky edge of Glaciar Viedma and climbed Paso del Viento (Windy Pass), which thanks to the great weather was not windy at all.

We then descended through various sections of rock and snow past Glaciar de Quervain and Glaciar Rio Tunel, we which crossed a section of before having walk through its moraine (moraines are not the greatest of places as they are a expanse of rock, gravel and boulders - difficult walking especially with a heavy pack).

Twisted Ice Forms & Crevasses on Glaciar de Quervain

Just before reaching our camp point at Laguna Toro we had to wade through the (icy cold glacier melt) water of Rio Tunel which drains of Glaciar de Quervain and Glaciar Rio Tunel.
Day 7

After treking in the ´wilderness´ of the ice field, glaciers and moraines for the last five days, this was a day where one felt like one was back walking on planet earth - with normal things like valleys, rivers, trees, grass and lakes. After walking in the valley of Rio Tunel we climbed a pass near to Pliegue Tumbado before descending through, often marshy, terrain to El Chalten for the first chance to wash in a week and a celebratory meal and drinks with Javier and Gaston.
The ice trek, a truly memorable and extremely rich life experience.

1 comment:

  1. Your pictures are amazing !
    Still 37 kg bagpack is crazy !
    CAM and MAC

    by the way my name is spelled CAMILLE ;)