events

Patagonia: Perito Moreno Glacier, Santa Cruz, Argentina

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Perito Moreno Glacier in the hot summer sun

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This picture gives a sense of how big this glacier is

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Tourists on the glacier

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On the glacier

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More lenticular clouds

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Perito Moreno Glacier early in the morning before sunrise

4 January 2011 Leaving El Chalten this morning on the paved Ruta 40 down south past Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino, leaving behind Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. I’d say that I have been lucky to be in El Chalten and having a few days of clear skies. Today as we leave El Chalten, the peaks are already obscured by low clouds. It would have been depressing to come all the way to not see any of the amazing peaks at all, so I’m thankful to the weather gods.

Highway 11 brings us to El Calafate in time for lunch. El Calafate, named after a local berry (which makes a very nice breakfast jam, very close to blueberries, raspberries but a little more tangy sour) is more like a large camping ground. With a casino. Its a brainless way for bureaucrats to stimulate a boring local economy with a casino. For lunch, a local pizza place served up a large portion of food, do people here eat a lot... Even North Americans think the portions are too big. I ordered a special sandwich with bacon, egg and I think a small slab of steak, and it was filling enough I had no more space left for desserts.

For the short drive along highway 11 to Perito Moreno, the bus went along the banks of Lago Argentino. There are a few glaciers that feed into this massive lake, and every once in a while (more like every few hours) a large chunk of ice breaks off the glacier and floats on the lake. Imagine seeing ice bergs in a lake in summer. This, I was told, was mostly coming from Glacier Upsala which is melting the fastest of the lot. I don’t remember but this could be one of the glacier highlighted in “An Inconvenient Truth” as being a fast disappearing glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the largest in the region. Supposedly larger than the space occupied by Buenos Aires, 35km across and at the point where it meets with the lake and the part that is easily visible, 5km wide and it is supposed to be stable and in equilibrium.

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Entrance to Perito Moreno Glacier National Park

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At the entrance, checking up on cars

Nothing much in term of view on the way, until the bus got to the entrance to the glacier park where there was a little problem with the Hosteria forgetting to tell the entrance guards that a bus load of photographers were going to stay that night and not to charge entrance fee. The road ends at a look out broad-walk, and every car that goes in is required to pay an entrance fee. There is a hotel inside, not cheap, but with one of the best views of the glacier from every single room. This is the one that we are headed to.

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First view of the glacier from the road

Glacial ice, made up of compacted ice, is deep blue in color when light illuminates. Behind the mountains here in southern Patagonia, is the southern Patagonian ice field a large expanse of ice third in size after the two poles. When looking at the mountain ranges, it is sometimes possible to see part of the ice field and what looks like ice overflowing over mountains and pouring into big lakes in the form of a glacier. In terms of the mechanism of how it all works, air coming from the pacific ocean contains plenty of moisture and when forced over the mountains it causes precipitation (or snow), which in turn feeds the ice field. Glacial ice breaks and melts into the lake, but is replenished by the ice field. By the time the air reaches the Argentinian side of the Patagonian range, it is mostly dry, which explains the desert terrain on the Argentinian side of the mountain range. After a few days in this place, that’s my understanding of how things work around here.

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View of the glacier from the hotel living room

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Hotel room view

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Los Notros Hosteria rooms

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Hauling luggages up to the rooms

For Perito Moreno glacier, I will spend two nights at Los Notros Hosteria. My room is on the ground floor with a view of the glacier. The window is big enough to be able to climb out through it and I already had some idea to set up a tripod and camera outside for star trails and for the morning shoot of the glacier tomorrow. The lazy landscape photographer.

After a short rest at the hotel, we take a hotel shuttle to the broad walk to get close to the glacier. This is an elaborate set of pathways overlooking the front face of the glacier. There are some steps here and I did notice lift for the handicap. Its an easy stroll mainly and one could spend hours here. The shuttle bus comes back to pick up tourists from the broad-walk after 1 hour. This leaves no time for all the paths but there is no necessity to do it all. There are different color coded paths there, some of them will take a few hours.

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The full face of the glacier from the broadwalk

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Nice infrastructure here

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This picture gives an idea of how close the glacier face is to the broadwalk

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Bridge connecting glacier and land where the broadwalk is located

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As usual...

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Dinner at Los Notros

First thing that hits you the first time you get out to the broad-walk is the size of this glacier. It's so wide you need a 12mm full frame lens to take the face in one shot. The broad-walk is directly facing the glacier face. Its close enough you feel like you’re touching it. From what I have heard, every 4 years the glacier blocks off a small portion of the lake from Lago Argentino where the level of the lake rises to a point where the pressure is so high it bursts the temporary ice dam. Today, I could see that the glacier has creeped close enough to the side where the broad-walk is and there is an arch with ice touching this side and water flowing under the the arch. I was told that the breach happened recently and everyone is waiting for the ice bridge to collapse and for the next cycle to happen again. There is also a constant roar of cracking ice and fissures forming deep inside the ice. Everyone on the broad-walk would look around every time a loud crack was heard. Again, sound travels slower than light, so we look around a lot for falling ice and making sure that the camera is set so that we can just put it to eye level and snap without doing too much complicated setting. After a while I learnt to see the telltale sign of when a break will be coming... listen to cracks (not splashes) an little bits of ice will usually be seen seconds before a clean break. The path were constructed on an elevated ground on this side to make sure that waves from crashing ice will not wash away visitors, which is a possibility seeing how close the ice is to the broad-walk.

5 January 2011 I spent most of the last evening trying to perfect my star trail shots, but as I am not that well versed with predicting how the stars here move in the southern hemisphere, I almost always shoot in the wrong direction. The morning shoot was centered on a nice lenticular cloud during the magic hour. One second it looked like a space ship, next second it starts to look like a interstellar giant creature. Minutes later it starts uninteresting. Shape shifter.

Back to this morning, the hotel prepared some packed lunch (sandwiches, juice, water and an apple). It comes in a paper bag and a backpack provided by the hotel. A hotel shuttle moves the guests to a pier just downhill, and onto boats that seats at least 50. The view of the glacier is to the right of the boat.

Yesterday was an appetizer. Today, I will get to walk on the glacier with crampons.

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Tourist boat pier

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View of the glacier from the boat

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Boat captain

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Destination: A patch of land next to ice that is flatter than the rest of the glacier

We alight at a small pier on the business end of the lake, before the boat starts picking up passengers for the return trip. The trip to the glacier is pretty straight forward, almost in a straight line and on the way back the boat usually goes in front of the wall of ice but still far away not to be dangerous when a big slab of ice breaks off crashing into the lake. First thing to do is to trek up to a locker room to leave the lunch backpack behind, and then a short trek in the woods to an area where land meets the glacier. All these procedures are quite well organized. There’s a professional tour company that manages the whole glacier walk, pretty much a monopoly. As long as they do a good job.

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Short trek to the glacier

Back yesterday, the ice on the glacier is made up of large chunks of pointed ice, not something where one could walk on, but this section where the ice walk happens, the ice is a lot flatter, more like rolling hills. No mountaineering skills required. Just put on crampons and walk. While walking around the rocky ground before going to the area where guides put on crampons for the tourists, I loiter around the area hoping to see a large chunk of ice falling into the lake. Every loud crack made me look around for falling pieces of ice, telltale sign of the upcoming break. Since there is a long queue of people waiting to put their crampons on, I think I have about 15 minutes at least to spot breaking ice. I set my camera on continuous shot mode and high shutter speed just in case, and I focus my concentration on one are of the glacier that looked promising. Here, small ice chunks are breaking off quite regularly.

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Another piece sliding off. I have about 40 frames of this event.

And sure enough, soon, some movement in the ice face and short seconds later, a chunk the size of a house starts to slide off the glacier. A big splash later, it was bobbing in the water along with a large wake of a wave radiating outwards. Nearby, a tour boat started to turn around so that it faces directly at the wave coming at it and once the first wave has passed, it decided to get out of the little bay and back into calmer waters. I did shoot about about 20 frames, capturing the event on my DSLR. Felt happy my patience was paid off.

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Crampons

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And putting them on...

Spent enough time on the 20 frame, and time to rush to the crampon zone to put on the metal spikes. Excited. First time on crampons. Guides here tie on world-war two era crampons on tourists’ shoes. These are bare steel crampons without the toe spike so they are only good for walking and not for ice climbing. Its secured by a series of straps tied tight. Not a place to be wearing your office shoes for sure as the crampons will damage the leather. Who would be wearing their best shoe to a glacier anyway.

Walking for the first time with crampons is quite strange. Imagine not being able to flex your forefoot at all, and crampons on rocks is no fun. When walking on ice, it has the feeling of running on a wet grass pitch with studded soccer boots, except again, you can’t flex your forefoot. Our guide demonstrated the Godzilla walk. Its easy enough, and another precaution is to walk cowboy style to ensure one does not impale your other foot while walking with the spikes.

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Tourists waiting for the trek on ice

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Pool of water with a nice blue hue

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Walking on ice

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Crevasse with deep blue water. No idea how deep this one goes.

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Tables set up on ice to serve glacial ice and whiskey

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Ice gaucho giving a climbing demonstration

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A guide in action...

The ice that I’m walking on is like medium-sized ice cubes and it has the same texture. Looks like the kind of place that you don’t really want to slip and fall as the ice looks sharp enough to cause some serious injury. Not the astroturf rash kind for sure. Think lacerations. At a couple of locations, one could look down a bottomless crevasse with dark blue colored water falling into the void. All water on this glacier, including small ice pools are dark blue. The guide’s story here is that snow that falls in on the southern Patagonian ice field takes about 300 years to move to this point and ample time to be compacted almost to the point of looking and feeling like ice cubes. So that’s what you get here, crevasses and rolling hills of ice. Highlight of this trip was a private session getting of official guide to climb one of the house-sized ice stalagmites to demonstrate how big it was. But seriously, walking on ice was never that much fun, and I was already thinking about buying a set of crampons for use during winter when I get back!

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Waiting for the ferry

An hour or two on the ice was all we got. Back at the locker room the group sat down for sandwich lunch while waiting for the next boat to ferry everyone back to the hotel pier. The wait was almost an hour. Most of it was wasted resting on large rocks overlooking the Perito Moreno Glacier. I set up the camera and my sound recorder, hoping to capture picture and sound of the ice breaking off, but didn’t get a single thing at all in that single hour. But I have already captured enough frames earlier on, so was not utterly disappointed, though it would have been a lot nicer to capture some sound too.

The rest of the day was for resting. The walk on the glacier was still hard work and luckily for an extra dab of sunblock lotion just about everywhere on my exposed skin (reflection off the ice could also cause sun burn) my already burnt skin did not get additional stress. The last few hours of the walk on ice saw some cloud cover coming in giving a nice light to shoot in. Much more moody then a clear blue sky. Overall, pretty happy with the shootout today. Nice photos, first time on crampons and first time walking on a glacier. Many firsts today and well worth the effort finding my way all the way here. Don’t miss the glacier walk.

6 January 2011 After the glacier trip, the next destination is a long drive into Chile broken up with a night in El Calafate. This is a little like a rest stop. It was possible to go directly into Chile’s Torres del Paine National park but that would have been a whole day of tiring drive, so a rest buffer day would have been a lot better. This marks the end of Argentinian side of Patagonia. Another day and I will be in Chile, some say for the grand finale.

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*end*

Proceed to El Calafate, Argentina...