Glacier trekking: Big Ice in Patagonia

by tracyjohnson

Patagonia, in Argentina's remote south, has desolate spaces and wicked mountain spires - and, topping the bill, the chance to take an enthralling trek across the top of Glacier Perito Moreno

First the stats: 70 metres tall, 1 kilometre wide and 5 kilometres long, Perito Moreno is one mother of a glacier - but no figures, no coffee-table books packed with Adolf Sessa photographs, prepare you for the sight of her. She is huge and immutable and very, very far away. Even having reached Patagonia (at the end of the world) and then El Calafate (small airport, no direct bus from Buenos Aires), the closest town to the Parque Nacional los Glaciares, there is still an 80-kilometre drive down mythical Ruta 40 (Argentina’s kicking Route 66) before she reveals herself.

Awe is not a word much bandied about these days but the glacier silences the busloads of visitors for a while. In the early morning light, she is incandescent. The arriviste sun refracts from her flaming blue-white pinnacles. Her early morning bones creak a little and the crowd holds its breath. Maybe a massive spire is going to calve into the water below, sending a tiny tidal wave across Lago Argentino.

There are bus tours and boat tours aplenty from El Calafate, and every view is worthwhile, even from behind a couple of hundred new friends. However, we splashed out with the Hielo y Aventura tour company, who have the exclusive rights to trek on top of the glacier. Any doubts about the quality of the investment are dispelled on first sight of Perito Moreno from the viewing platforms across the lake with the realisation that, after a short boat ride to the other side, we are going to be the lucky ones, an exclusive band of 20, standing on top of her, glowing like Hillary and Tensing.

There are two tours – the two-hour ‘mini-trekking’ and the seven-hour Big Ice. Naturally, we went Big. The muy guapo (very handsome) mountain leaders fit crampons and harnesses at intervals designed to break up the fairly rigorous hike up the moraine beside the glacier, the glacier flirting with us through the trees all the way.

Finally we take our first Bambi steps on the ice, being careful not to catch the points of the crampons and face-plant, and before long we are confidently crunching along behind our guides, scaling the heights of ice pinnacles like a perfect storm frozen in time and bridging crevasses, hoping they won’t open and swallow us into the void. Perito Moreno moves forward two kilometres a year, the only one to do so in this area of ecological recession. We chatted with locals who remembered the days when there were many more glaciers, which have totally disappeared from Patagonia in the last few decades. What was an ice cave yesterday could now be a compacting crush of rubble. The guides seek out caves and lagoons bluer than any Brooke Shields movie. The water is the purest we will ever see on this planet and we fill up our bottles from the trickling streams while sitting on the ice eating our sandwiches.

Everyone is tired but invigorated from the long trek and on the boat back to reality, the guides serve neat whisky with glacier ice to warm us. No one regrets the outlay. Back in El Calafate, we find we have exhausted our supply of reviving chocolate during the trek, even though the guides plyed us with alfajores (chocolate biscuits filled with super-sweet dulce de leche, Argentina’s national dessert) along the trail to keep the energy up. We head straight to Oveijas, the best chocolateria on the strip, for some hand-made whisky mousse dark chocolate sandwiches.

The town is pretty much dedicated to servicing glacier visitors, so there is no shortage of hotels at all price levels, although they get booked up in advance, especially in peak season (December to March). We stayed in a private room at the America del Sur hostel, not wanting to trail our Patagonian dust-caked boots through the reception at luxurious Eolo.  America del Sur’s receptionists trustingly bought our tickets for tours and buses in advance of our arrival.

We spent evenings after dinner playing pool in the Los Alamos Hotel and booked into their spa for massages to relieve our weeks of trekking Patagonia. When the rain slammed through our waterproofs (no guarantees are watertight against the Patagonian downpours that break through the barricade of taping within moments), we snuggled in the Librobar, feet up with some English beer and their wall of travel books.

Although far from cheap, we didn’t eat a bad meal in El Calafate. Patagonian lamb cooked on the spit or parilla at La Tablita is pungent and revitalizing when washed down with a smoky malbec. On our last night we discovered Pura Vida, on the strip but 10 minutes' walk from the centre. The two-level atmospheric restaurant has the finest empanadas stuffed with hand-cut steak and a delicious pastry-topped steak pie big enough for two.

The following day we would take the jolting bus down the, as yet unpaved, desolate Ruta 40 for three or four hours until we came to tiny El Chalten, trekking capital of Argentina. Just time in the morning to stock up on some whisky mousse sandwiches.