‘It’s falling’ someone shouted, as I turned to see a sizeable chunk of the front of the glacier breaking and crumbling into the lake below. Quite a sight to watch as huge lumps of ice fell creating large waves across the lake below. Oh to be quicker with one’s camera but I was not disappointed, it was great to have witnessed this, a memory that won’t be forgotten.
A three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires lies the small town of El Calafate. This southerly point, home to around 20,000 people, is the gateway to view unspoilt scenery at its very best. There are few towns in the world further south and upon arrival you feel a rewarding sense of discovery of a landscape far away.
Facts and appreciation of the scale of the area are key to understanding what a unique place you are in. Remarkably for a lake fed by such massive glaciers, Lake Argentina sits at only 187 metres above sea level. On my visit to the most famous of glaciers, Perito Moreno, the answer is offered as to how at this altitude it is possible for such impressive glaciers to form. It’s the Andes, plain and simple, the geographical wall that straddles virtually the entire Chilean – Argentine border that are fully responsible. As warm air currents flow east across the pacific, the humidity is dramatically absorbed by the mountain range. Only the coldest air is able to filter across, where it meets the arid Patagonian steppe on the Argentine side, is where snow regularly falls. Over a number of years this snowfall has formed some massive glaciers that totally dominate the landscape.
At over 3 miles in width and boasting heights over 70 metres, as well as an impressive 170 metres below the waterline, the Perito Moreno glacier is really quite a spectacle. With a surface area of 96 square miles it is larger than the city of Buenos Aires and holds the third largest mass of fresh water in the world. Photos cannot do this area and the glaciers justice, in such vast mountainous spaces it is not until you get close that you begin to realise just how impressive they are.
The western base of the glacier is where I equipped myself with crampons ready to walk across a tiny section of this vast glacier. From here it looked like a smooth wall of ice, with the edges meeting the water with a completely vertical face. On top of the glacier you can see jagged peaks and bottomless crevices with an astonishing shade of deep sapphire blue.
Walking on the snow the sound of the crampons crunching underfoot was strangely satisfying, whilst the creeks and groans of the slowly advancing glacier were not so. You do have to put your trust in the knowledge of the guides and thickness of the ice. What can only be described as the sound of an army letting off cannons would occasionally echo all around, a stark reminder that this glacier is constantly in motion. As the trek came to an end a well-positioned table, clearly a permanent fixture, came into view towards the edge of the glacier. This incongruous table was where I was rewarded by my guide with whiskey served over chunks of glacial ice thousands of years old. Without a doubt my most memorable place for a whiskey.
As I sailed away from the glacier I looked back and saw people still trekking on the glacier. It was a perfect illustration of the scale of the scenery, so small they looked against the backdrop of one of nature’s superstructures.