Article about Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier stirs up my own memories of a hike down Switerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier (left).
“A Touch of the Arctic in Argentina, ” a front-page feature about an Argentine glacier in today’s Denver Post (originally published in Newsday), set off a torrent of memories. The headline writer’s cavalier use of the word “Arctic” to describe the Magellanic region of Patagonia, a whole lot closer to the Antarctic than the Arctic zone, notwithstanding, I was taken by writer Ann Givens’ tale of being stranded (air traffic control issues with domestic flights) in inland town of El Calafate. It is located near Lago Argentino, an enormous lake at the Argentine-Chilean border fed by Andean snow and ice, and Givens and her husband made the most of the situation by visiting Perito Moreno Glacier.
Givens wrote, “There are glaciers all over the world, of course, ranging from Africa to New Zealand. But there are a few things that make the Moreno glacier unique, as we learned from our English-speaking tour guide. The first is its accessibility: You can get to it by car, without hiking for miles through ice and snow or traveling for days on an ice-breaking boat. Second, the Moreno Glacier is dynamic, meaning that it is constantly forming at one end, while it is breaking off into the water at the other at the same rate.”
Regarding her first point, Perito Moreno is far from unique. Numerous compelling glaciers are easy to reach. Just think about Juneau, Alaska’s drive-to Mendenhall Glacier and fly-to Juneau Icefield, the Columbia Icefield right off the route between Banff and Jasper, and numerous Alpine glaciers that you can reach by cable car from a resort town in the valley below are among those that come to mind. Ice breaking boat? Some but not even most Antarctic trips are by icebreaker, but otherwise, visitors can get close to numerous tidewater glaciers there and elsewhere on everything from a cruise ship to a Zodiac. Mountain glaciers like Perito Moreno are reached in other and often easy ways.
Regarding her second point, at the present time, Perito Moreno not unique either, but it is definitely unusual. It is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is not retreating, which also makes it a worthy pilgrimage site. In any event, Grimes’ description of their two-hour guided hike on the glacier captured her thrill.
“We were each outfitted with crampons, cleats for climbing on ice and
snow,” she wrote. “From the inside, the glacier’s terrain is beautiful: icy
hills and valleys, separated by deep crevasses and tiny streams of bright blue
water formed by newly melted ice. The walking wasn’t easy, and our guides were
there to help us over some frighteningly deep canyons, and down some steep
grades. People who had been smart enough to bring water bottles filled them up
in the glacial streams, and the rest of us sucked on small chunks of
million-year-old ice, a surprisingly delicious treat, which we were assured was
“After a couple of hours, we came over a peak and saw our guides ahead of
us, standing around a table that had been set up on the ice. On the table was a
glass of scotch for each of us, each with a chunk of glacier ice in it, and a
bowl full of chocolate truffles. Standing on a glacier near the southern tip of
Argentina, it seemed to me a delicious indulgence. My husband and I beamed at
each other and clinked our glasses.”
It might seem like quibbling on my part to note that one doesn’t hike “inside” a glacier, but rather “on” a glacier. Only in Alpine resorts where man-made caves are carved into the heads of large glaciers does one actually enter inside one. A glacial maze, if indeed the group was led through one, might feel like being inside the ice. But maybe that’s just envious me writing, because I too would like to see this rare glacier that is not shrinking even when those around it are.
Chilling drinks with glacial ice is a popular feature following a tourist experience to or near various glaciers, it seems especially in South America. I enjoyed a pisco sour on a sightseeing boat called the “Lady Grey II” that motors to the foot of the Grey Glacier in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, close as the condor flies to the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is also an easy-access glacier. You can drive to the Hosteria Grey and board a boat to the foot of the glacier that feeds the lake.
Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier: One Great Hike
Of the several glacier experiences I’ve had — Antarctica, South America, Alaska, the Alps and even on the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa — the most epic glacier by far was a hike down Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier 2004. We rode the train from Kleine Scheidegg through the Eiger to a saddle called the Jungfraujoch, with its mammoth structure holding the train station, numerous restaurants, viewing platforms, a humongous gift shop and an observatory.
From there, we walked through a short tunnel and stepped onto the glacier. With veteran guide Bernhard Stuckey, we roped up and hiked more than 10 miles (of the the glacier’s approximate 14 1/2-mile length) with an overnight at the Konkordia Hut perched high on a cliff above the shrinking glacier. The “hut” is not an Appalachian Mountain Club-style lean-to but a substantial stone structure built to house, shelter and feed hikers, touring skiers and climbers. You can see it poking out above the sloping rock shoulder of the cliff in the bottom photo, which was taken from the surface of the glacier.
We climbed up a series of ladders and zigzagging metal steps bolted into the rock from the glacier to but. The view from the terrace next to the hut was beyond breathtaking. Below was the vast Great Aletsch Glacier, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. We looked right down at the Konkordia Platz, an amazing confluence of the glacier we hiked down and side glaciers that meet right there. It is surrealistic to gaze at his scene of rock-rimmed, ice-filled valleys where human evidences seem very far away — even though we had left the Jungfraujoch just a few hours earlier and though the hutkeepers were just inside, preparing hot meals and pouring wine and beer for hungry, thirsty trekkers.
While the glacier surface at the beginning of our route was covered soft snow that became mushy in the afternoon snow and did not require crampons, as we approached the hut (two bottom images) the snow began to give over to crust. The second day, we were on ice, and we did need crampons. When we left the hut, we descended to the crenelated surface of the glacier, put on our crampons and kept on hiking. The farther down we went, the rougher the glacier surface and the more crevasses we encountered. We left the glacier and climbed up big rocky surface, unbuckled our crampons and followed a long trail through alpine meadows to the village of Bettmeralp.
Whenever I read about hiking on glaciers, standing on glaciers, looking at glaciers or making a drink with glacial ice, I want to be there too. So thanks, Ann Givens, for sharing your experience and resurrecting memories of some of my own.