Jan 11, 2003
David Rich 1900 Words
C O L O S S A L S
I'd never realized what "colossal" meant until confronted with Parque Nacional Glaciares (Glaciers National Park) in the far south of Argentina on the remote bottom of Patagonia, a few hundred miles before the uttermost ends of the earth in Tierra del Fuego. Now "colossal" recalls electric memories of neon-bright icebergs the size of twenty-story skyscrapers, huge slabs dropping off the end of Perito Moreno Glacier every five minutes like clockwork, a hundred meters from the end of my nose. And "colossal" recalls more, sheer incredible slabs of granite rising abruptly over two vertical miles at the north end of Parque Nacional Glaciares, this preposterous array starring Mount FitzRoy. Together, Perito Moreno Glacier and Mount FitzRoy expand "colossal" into an entirely new meaning, and constitute one of the top attractions in South America, a vast continent of wonders. More phenomenal is the fact that Torres del Paine, possibly the most diverse and outrageous national park anywhere, lies fifty miles south in Chile, as the crow flies and not as the labyrinthine roads run. The hundred-mile stretch encompassing Torres del Paine and Parque Nacional Glaciares probably contains more striking mountains and glacial wonders than any hundred-mile segment on the planet.
The first time ever I saw the face of Perito Moreno Glacier, sweeping off the hundred-mile-long Heilo Sur, the great south Patagonian ice cap, I literally gaped. Imagine a billion trillion icy blue skyscrapers in a sheet three miles wide stretching into infinity, about as far as you can see, ending a scant hop, skip, and a jump from you, constantly calving two-hundred-foot slabs, dropping bergs larger than cruise boats into the channel of a thousand more icebergs at your feet. Whoa! You couldn't get closer to a glacier without walking on one. Boats can't come as close to the glacier as the hillside scaffolding sitting opposite the face of Perito Moreno Glacier, because calving icebergs create mini-tidal waves too dangerous for boats to venture closer than several hundred meters. Perito Moreno Glacier has grounded beneath the scaffolding, dropping mega-monoliths off both ends as far as your telephoto lens will record and what a record it makes, an avalanche of blue ice—brrrrr.
Oh, sure, another glacier you say, just like hundreds all over the far north and far south, sprinkled liberally all over the world. Not exactly. I've seen glaciers close up, trekked glaciers from Norway to Alaska and New Zealand, but Perito Moreno Glacier is the glacier in my book, the most impressive I've laid eyes on (though next time you're in Juneau, Alaska, don't miss the day trip to Tracy Arm Glacier). Most glaciers are filthy little buggers, slathered with mud and debris. Not this glacier. Perito Moreno is pristine, photogenic blue ice crystallizing into timelessness. Most glaciers are receding. Not Perito Moreno Glacier. It's one of the few advancing glaciers anywhere. The Andes gap behind Perito Moreno Glacier allows Antarctic storms to dump blizzards on the great Patagonian Ice Cap 370 days a year resulting in this gala of a glacier. You can't get close to most of the world's impressive glaciers without backpacking for days. Not Perito Moreno. Though it may lessen the appeal for a few, you can drive to the parking lot next to the scaffolding and spend three days checking out the changing light and the infinite moods of this mass of ice, as I did.
That's barely the tip of the iceberg for the south of Parque Nacional Glacieres, because a cluster of glaciers sits within a twenty-mile radius of Perito Moreno Glacier, accessible by boat tours. Upsala Glacier, Mayo Glacier, and half a dozen others, together with their aggregate glacier melt, create the largest lake in Argentina, Lago Argentino. This enormous lake is eighty miles long, aquamarine blue, bergies congregating along the westernmost shores and marching down the middle like bright blue ships on an azure sea. On a tour to Upsala Glacier from Punta Banderas (booked only in the touristy village of El Calafate), you can do the photographer's tour around Laguna Onelli, filled with eerily sculpted bergie bits fresh off the end of Onelli Glacier.
A few words about El Calafate, a small town of 5000 people, which compared to the far tinier town at the north entrance to the Park (El Chalten with 200 people), is a paragon of civilization with Internet, banks, two gas stations boasting pumps that always work, and an international airport. El Calafate's main street is littered with fancy souvenir shops, a wide array of restaurants, and everything a tourist could desire from three supermarkets to disco bars. Transportation to anywhere and all tours must be booked in El Calafate. Off the main street, named Liberator, El Calafate remains the real rural and enduring Argentina, the occasional horse-pulled cart and an efficient mechanic, where I had my alternator rewired in a single hour.
Back to a celebration of Perito Moreno Glacier, which is particularly impressive when the ice jam created by the glacier's blockage of the southern arm of Lago Argentino explodes, detonating a deluge of brilliant blue ice the size of a city skyrocketing into Lago Argentino Norte. This hasn't occurred since 1988, but looks mighty likely in my estimation to blow up again in 2004 or 2005.
Messing about Parque Nacional Glaciares in the vicinity of Perito Moreno Glacier offers further rewards, from pirouetting Andean condors to brilliantly colored honking ibises and wild horses galloping along the brilliant aquamarine lagos. For an awesome view of seemingly unending Lago Argentino, Andean condors, and a half dozen other lagunas and glaciers plus Torres del Paine fifty miles south, climb Cerro Cristal across Lago Roca from Perito Moreno Glacier. The roundtrip hike, though practically vertical, which is to say of medium difficulty, is through fields of gorgeous wildflowers in all colors of the rainbow, also emitting a confounding cacophony of scents to "achoo" the allergic. Then you reach the tree line and a slog up slag for half another almost vertical mile. But the views at the top of Cerro Crystal are 360 degrees and awesome, including the crystal blue persuasion of Perito Moreno Glacier immediately across the lago below your feet.
The character for which Perito Moreno Glacier was named was even more colorful than his namesake glacier. Perito Moreno was not only the father of Argentina's extensive national park system, but also a major national hero rivaling the ever popular Perons who calved Argentina's still dominant Peronist Party. Every Argentinean town has at least one major street named after crusty Perito Moreno. At the site of an entire town named for him, crafty old Perito reversed the flow of the Rio Fenix, causing it to flow eastward into Argentina instead of westward into what is now Lago Buenos Aires, thereby annexing 5000 square kilometers of land from Chile to Argentina, both countries previously agreeing and operating on the supposition that watersheds to the east of the Andes belong to Argentina and those flowing west belong to Chile. Similar to many neighboring countries, there is no love lost between Chile and Argentina.
The primary peak and misnomer for the majestic north end of Parque Nacional Glaciares, colossal slabs of granite jutting an abrupt two miles vertical, is also named after an eminent character. Mount FitzRoy is the namesake of the captain of one of the most famous expeditions of all time, that of the good ship Beagle which hosted its resident naturalist, Charles Darwin. Captain FitzRoy sailed the HMS Beagle up the huge Santa Cruz River, largest in southern Argentinean Patagonia, to within a few dozen kilometers of his regal namesake, now one of the more famous trekking and climbing areas in existence.
The little town at the base of Mount FitzRoy, El Chalten, boasts an almost nonexistent winter population, but in summer hosts 20,000 hikers and climbers from likely every country on earth all season long, encompassing the entire months of January and February. El Chalten is still a frontier town, established in 1985 to counteract Chile's potential claim to the area, still sans Internet, ATM or any bank whatsoever, and no cell phones either. The gas station occasionally has gas to pump and there are nineteen restaurants, a dozen hotels and hostels, three bakeries, and a microbrewery, pretty much covering the necessities of life. But at FitzRoy one is compelled to hike.
The first hike I ventured was to Lago Torre, adjacent to Mount Fitzroy on the west, and it was incredible. I'd never before seen grown men blown over, completely off their feet. But as I approached the lip of the lago, after an almost three-hour scenic meander, the wind achieved hurricane force and knocked two of the three guys ahead of me akimbo, and these weren't little guys. I immediately stopped and put on my windbreaker, a few feet from the lip. Then I tiptoed forward and was immediately blown, along with sand and diverse gravel whizzing like buckshot, into a shelter of rocks erected for the very purpose of saving lives such as mine and the two recently up-ended guys who huddled miserably in the shelter before me. FitzRoy, I believe, is the windiest place on earth. I was there five days and one day was so windy that all hikes were cancelled (by me), and I was less than reluctantly relegated to a long afternoon at El Chalten's excellent microbrewery.
The weather can ameliorate, and on the best day it was superb, wind down to twenty knots and at my back as I walked for eight and a half spectacular hours along the Rio Electrico (the name alone graphically describes the visions created by this glacier-melt river). My first destination was Glacier Piedra Blancos, the last part over boulders as big as houses until stopped short by a weirdly sculpted bergie sitting on the shore of the lago. Above my head, the extensive glacier that emanates directly from the base of Mount Fitzroy glowered and calved further bergies.
After an hour along another glacier-melt river, I arrived at the climber's campground of Rio Blanco and headed straight up, or so it seemed, to the most spectacular sight in the Park, Laguna de Los Tres, named after the three Frenchmen who first climbed Mount FitzRoy a few years back. This part may be steep, but it's liberally switch-backed, takes less than an hour, and the fruits of the effort are stunning. As you top the last rise, you're right below the sheer granite spikes you've been hoping to see close up for the last several days, under glaciers about to drop on your noggin, where you collapse flabbergasted by the unbelievable color of the deep blue lagoon under soaring Mount FitzRoy and its sibling mountains above Laguna de Los Tres. And to the left, below another glacier, sits turquoise Lago Sucia. The word "incredible" was invented for this scene.
Satiated with scenery, I wandered back down and across glacier-melt rivers, along a ridge providing spectacular views of wonders recently visited, back to the Rio Electrico. With the wind only up to thirty intermittent knots and still on my back, seemingly no matter which way I turned, it had been a grand day of "colossals."