El Calafate – Rivers of Ice and Cloud
North of Ushuaia, El-Calafate, gateway to the mountains and Los Glaciares National park in Patagonia. Set on the shore of Lago Argentina this small town is in the grip of winter rain and sleet when we arrive. We’re here for a glacier….a big one!
The main street is geared for tourism, a little desolate while we’re there but presumably packed in the summer months. There’s even a large Casino downtown.
Not too much to share about El-Calafate itself. We spent a good deal of time indoors avoiding the sleet. But, we did find a great restaurant (Isabel) serving Argentinian classic dishes. A fabulous stew with insane quantities of beef (3 steaks) in a beautiful rich sauce, washed down with a lovely Malbec. Obviously, Alison contented herself with a vegetarian equivalent.
The forecast is pretty grim for our first day in El Calafate, so we decide to wait a day for the glacier tour. This turns out to be a good decision. Early in the morning, before first light arrives we’re picked up and stuck on a bus for the fifty mile drive out to the glacier. The roads is thick with ice and snow but this doesn’t seem to deter our driver. As the sun rises the sky lights up red, bathing the mountains in a beautiful light. Hopefully the sign of a good day to come.
A we get to the park entrance, the snow thickens, weighing down the trees. A blanket of cloud sits in the valley obscuring all but the mountain tops. First stop is an optional ride on a huge catamaran over the lake to the base of the glacier. It’s so cold that nobody even considers staying ashore. There must be at least a hundred people on board. As we near the glacier, we see nothing at all, greyness all around. We leave our seats and head out on deck. Eventually through the gloom the cliffs of ice emerge, at first misty and blurry but slowly becoming a little clearer. The on-board photographers ply their trade, moving every one out of the way to get their family photos and their fee.
We’re starting to feel that this just might have been it, the best view we’ll get. Alison manages to secure us a couple of cups of tea on the way back and we do our best to convince ourselves:
- “at least we saw it, people yesterday would have had a much worse time”.
Loaded back on to the bus, we circle round to higher ground and the main set of viewpoints. We quickly realise that somehow the visual blockage has cleared, the wispy remnant sitting over the glacier itself. Suddenly I am really quite excited, wanting to run around like a kid. The viewpoints are all connected by wooden walkways and stairways and color-coded. we set off against the crowd and for a couple of hours we’re in a magical winter wonderland. Snow-covered trees all around us, small birds fluttering in and out and the glacier in front.
How to describe such a monster. Facts and figures first: 5km long the glacier heads 30km back into the mountains and is part of the Patagonian Ice Field (3rd largest in the world). It is 40-60m high and advances roughly 2m a day. Periodically the ice dams a portion of Lake Argentina. When that happens the lake rises a few metres behind the ice dam and eventually a rupture occurs, releasing all the water suddenly as the ice gives way. We’re not present for such an event, they only happen every few years. But we do see vast chunks of ice calving off from the leading edge into the lake, creating huge waves.
Tall, black, rugged mountains in the distance. Rivers of ice and snow flowing down into the foreground. A slow change in appearance from a smooth river into something akin to the grooves in a record highly magnified or the hooked skin of a shark similarly treated. The crevasses increase in size, eventually meeting the leading edge: a cliff face of dirty whites and crystal clear blues. Huge hooked towers, great cracks and rents across the unstoppable mass. Below, the lake with great chunks of ice slowly floating off into the distance. Did I mention it was quite impressive!
What we missed
Although we managed to get a suitable dose of being completely awe-struck; we did miss the chance to travel further in the area. Quite simply it would be better in summer-time. As a former climber, my mind has a recess crammed full of rock-faces: those climbed and those dreamt of. On the other side of El-Calafate the road leads to Cerro Chalten (or Mount Fitz-Roy) and Cerro Torre some of the most beautiful mountains in the world to climbing people.