“THE GLACIER STRETCHED infinitely up into the Andes . . .” Perito Moreno, an advancing glacier along Lago Argentino, in South America.
Editor’s note: Leo Dorich, HRVHS Class of 2010, spent the fall of his University of Oregon year aboard the MV Explorer and the Semester at Sea program which took him on a four-month study adventure beginning in Russia, through the Baltics and Ireland, to west Africa and then Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba. Here, Dorich writes of an exhausting, exciting day on an Argentine glacier.
The closest I had ever been to the Patagonia region in Argentina was the logo on my down jacket.
Ever since embarking on the MV Explorer I was determined to wear the Patagonia jacket in the area from which the name originated.
I flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate (rhymes with latte). After the 10 countries I had seen so far I noticed local cultures color each town and city uniquely. However, a ski town is a commonality between all cultures. Squat cottage restaurants and adventure stores lined the gray roads. The wooden ski lodge style emanated from every corner. Beer bars divvied up every block. It was snow cold paradise.
When I arrived I sat down outside with a beer and studied the town. A man with a grizzly beard asked in Spanish where I was from. I struggled as I spoke to him about my plans to hike the glacier. He wished me luck and raised his glass, “Salud.”
I fit right in with the locals. I wore boots, Columbia snow pants and my neon green down jacket. Everyone in town wore variations of the same. White, grey, and black snow pants. Brown snow boots. Bright shells or down jackets. Beanies and baseball caps. Though it was near spring, the town was still frosty in the high elevation. Lago Argentino glimmered bright blue on the town’s edge, spotted with bright pink flamingos.
After drooling over high-quality snow parkas I meandered to the Hielo y Adventura office to confirm my Glacier hike the next day. Due to a longstanding financial crisis in Argentina, currency fluctuates like ocean tides. A $2 coin is worth more than a $2 paper bill because of the rarity of solid coins. Two $5 bills are more valuable than a single $10 bill because the likelihood of breaking a $10 is much less than breaking a $5. Therefore even though the actual exchange rate is 5.6 Argentine pesos to $1 USD, many shops and stores will exchange at 10 pesos to a single dollar. I purchased my trip with glee.
This particular program began with an hour bus ride to Perito Moreno, one of the only three advancing glaciers in the Patagonia. We stopped at a viewpoint to wander wooden footpaths etched into the forest-lined hillside. Perito Moreno is so expansive that the façade faces both North and South. Morning clouds burned away just in time to ignite the glacier in bright light. It glowed rich blue from its frozen core.
We boarded a small boat and motored towards the glacial wall. It loomed 240 feet above our vessel as we approached. A low roar of thunder shocked the water as a large column of ice burst free of the glacier. Small shards of ice fractured from the edges as it slid down the face and into the lake. The boat rocked as the waves curved under us before we docked. I envisioned myself breaking through the ice into the lake below, arms flailing.
It was a 90-minute hike along the hillside at the base of snowy peaks. A waterfall sprayed in a fine mist from the ripping gales. The glacier stretched infinitely up into the Andes. We grabbed crampons and harnesses before reaching the glacial edge. We leapt across the gap before strapping on the gear. A guide demonstrated proper technique, but we were too eager to begin to pay much attention.
The trek began along spines of ice toward the center of the glacier. Streams of candy-blue water flowed from scattered lagoons. The glacier is constantly shifting, though it was impossible for us to feel each massive tremor. The center of the glacier moves about 5 meters a day, but the edges move slower due to friction with mountain sides. This is what causes the center to appear smooth and the edges to ripple.
We approached the smooth center after only a few falls. The guide spoke too quickly for me to confirm, but I assume he was laughing at me. It was the Sahara desert frozen over. The sun still shone brilliantly straight above us. The guide warned us to don our sunglasses to prevent snow blindness. We walked single-file behind him and followed as he leapt over crevasses and creeks.
He led us to a large blue lagoon for lunch and I filled my water bottle with the sweet glacier water. A ridge of ice sheltered us from the wind as we ate. The air was brisk and clean, which always makes food taste better, in my opinion. Which was perfect, because I only had leftover pizza and Tang to tide me over.
I spoke in broken Spanish with the guide as he described the rest of the trek and his job. He had worked the job for several years, and loved the changes in the glacier he sees every month and year. I tried to describe the Semester at Sea program to him: a boat/classroom that traverses the Atlantic and stops at 15 different countries. His perplexed face either reflected the unique concept or my disastrous speech.
After four hours on the ice we returned our equipment and hiked back down to the boat. My crampons were caked in mud and rock, and I asked if I should rinse it off.
“Eh. Don’t worry about it,” the guide shrugged. I was suddenly grateful my crampons hadn’t rusted to dust during the hike. It was a quick ride back to the bus, and behind us the Argentine flag fluttered in the breeze. The glacier sat massively in the lake. It seemed erected permanently, yet it moved steadily all the same. My eye just couldn’t perceive it.
I spent three days in El Calafate visiting various glaciers, but it acts as a hub to many more snow adventures in the area. There are ice and rock climbs, four-wheel expeditions and kayaking. Nearby is the city Bariloche, which offers superb Patagonia skiing in Argentina’s winter (May through September). I think most of the trips have a similar ending to my hike. The guide will pull out a bottle of whiskey and fill plastic cups with glacier ice. He’ll add two or three fingers of whiskey and briefly remove his sunglasses to make eye contact. Despite my poor Spanish, my guide’s meaning translated just fine.
“Let’s raise our drinks to ice, and to adventure. Salud.”