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SOUTH PATAGONIAN ICE FIELD (October 2007)    photos

The next place I decided to visit was a small town of El Chalten.  Founded in 1985, it is the newest town in Argentina.  The sole purpose of it's existence is to provide a base for thousands of tourists who flock to El Chalten every summer to see the famous Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains.  My plans were a little more ambitious.  I wanted to trek around them.  This route involves at least 2 day walk on the Patagonian Ice Field, the third biggest extension of continental ice, covering 16.800km2.

The key to a safe trek for someone like me, going alone with basic equipment, is good weather.  I waited for 8 days and finally decided enough is enough.  I rented snow shoes, packed food for 8 days and the same day I camped in the Rio Electrico valley.  Rain and strong wind forced me to put up my tent in the only sheltered place I could find in the dark.  Only when I got inside I realized there were big stones underneath.  Too late, I had to put up with this discomfort.

The following day I woke up to a sunny day and blue sky.  Soon my clothes were dry again.  I carried on walking upstream, until reaching the Electrico lake.  Steep rocks around it forced me to climb up and down, not so easy with a big rucksack on my back!  After overcoming some other obstacles, I reached the foot of Electrico glacier.  Crampons were not necessary to climb up to the pass, called Marconi.  The only difficulty were rivers of icy water flowing down the glacier, it takes some careful route planning to cross them at the right place.  From the pass I turned slightly to the north, as I planned to spend the night in a shelter 1 hour walk away, I thought it was worth the effort.  It was getting late and I was worried about getting stuck on this flat icy plateau.  Fortunately I saw pictures of the shelter earlier, because it's white and not easy to spot from distance.  I arrived in time and spent the evening chatting with 3 Americans who planned to ski in the Mariano Moreno mountain range, about 20km west.  My route was south, parallel to the Fitz Roy massif.

Day 3 started early.  There was an expedition doing the same route as me, but with 4 guides and good equipment.  I thought it would be wise to follow them, and I was right.  Soon after I left the shelter, weather changed.  Clouds covered the plateau and the wind made it difficult to navigate.  In such white-out conditions it's extremely easy to get lost.  I followed my compass, but had the comfort of knowing that help is nearby if needed.  I camped in a place called Circo de los Altares.  I thought the group was going there, too, but they disappeared and I was alone.  I put my tent up in a hole between the ice and a huge boulder.  Very quickly I realized my mistake.  The tent changed aerodynamics of the hole, and soon it started to fill up with snow.

When I woke up on day 4, I knew I had a problem.  I just managed to get out of my tent because of the snow that almost covered it.  The whole day was spent clearing snow, cooking or simply waiting.  For what?  For good weather, because I wanted to see the mountains surrounding Circo de los Altares, in the form of spikes and arrows made of bare rock.  The next 2 days were similar, just more and more impatient.  At the end of day 5 the American girls I met in the shelter arrived and camped nearby.

Day 6 promised to be the one.  Beautiful sunrise illuminated the huge walls of snow and ice of Mariano Moreno.  For the first time I had a chance to appreciate the vastness and emptiness of the Ice Field.  It could be mistaken for an enormous frozen and snow-covered lake filling the space between two mountain ranges.  I was running out of food and I had to take this opportunity and get out of the Ice Field.  I walked south again, to the point where crevasses signaled a change of slope.  I found a good place to leave the ice, and followed steep and muddy mountainside instead.  There is no path or an easy way.  But after a few hours, I arrived at the shelter I was looking for.  I was wet and cold, but I had the whole place to myself!  It felt like the best home I've ever had!

After spending a day exploring the area, including Viedma, the second biggest glacier of South America, I was ready for the last challenge.  I had to cross the Windy Pass, the name speaks for itself.  Wind and snow made my life a misery that day, not to mention difficult route finding and the tirolean traverse I had to overcome with no equipment.  I used some spare string and wire to improvise a harness and attach myself and my bag to the steel cable fixed above a canyon.  After that crossing, the rest was easy!  I arrived safely in my cozy hostal exhausted but satisfied, knowing that it was the last time I had to put myself through something like this until the next year at least.    photos