Monday, January 10, 2005

On The Rocks

I have just spent the past day visiting one of Argentina's top attractions that lies 80km to the west of a small town called El Calafate: the Perito Moreno glacier a.k.a. one mother of an ice cube desperately in need of a large enough whisky tumbler. The glacier is one of the few in the world that is not receding due to global warming, and at its base, where it plunges into the vast waters of Lago Argentina, towers up to 60m high. I decided to book myself onto a tour that does a big 5 hour trek right into the heart of the glacier (I was in luck as that particular tour was only just starting up that day and I would be among the first group of people to try it). Our first view of the glacier as we rounded a bend in the road opposite was not too impressive as it was still quite far off and partially obscured by clouds, but by the time we got into a boat and sailed to within 100m of the ice front I fet sufficiently dwarfed by the giant sheet of ice. We landed to one side of it and started trudging up the lateral morraine that flanks the glacier. After about an hour we donned our crampons and headed onto the ice. Walking with crampons is strange at first but soon you get used to the feeling and the techniques required to scale 70 degree slopes.

I'm not sure what preconceptions I had about glaciers before today, but whatever they were I don't think the Moreno fit any of them. First of all the surface of the glacier is highly irregular, with thousands of cracks, crevasses and holes that disappear hundreds of metres down to the bottom of the ice (moulins). The irregularity, coupled with the dynamic nature of the surface, which is continually changing, makes navigation on the ice rather difficult, even for experienced guides, and leads to a certain amount of backtracking when one reaches an impasse. Secondly the surface of the ice is far dirtier than I thought it would be, often being covered in dust and stones of various sizes (although this does lead to the production of many interesting ice formations as well). And finally (and probably most spectacularly) the colour of the ice: deep blue. The ice is actually transparent but absorbs light, with the blue wavelength being absorbed the least, hence the blue colour. Although physically demanding the trek was ultimately very satisfying and allowed me to get a good understanding of these awesome geological beasts (the Moreno glacier is almost 40km long, over 700m deep and advances at about 2m a month) that form our landscape by gouging out entire valleys. Again, the superlatves fail to impress sufficiently the grandeur of the glacier and even the picture below can't capture the sheer scale. If you ever get the chance to trek a glacier, do it.

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