Viedma and Perito Moreno Glaciers

Perito Moreno Glacier

On the last morning in El Chalten (December 15), I opted for an all-day ice climbing excursion on the Viedma Glacier. The much less physically demanding ice trekking is also an option, as is a boat ride to the glacier. But having chose to do ice climbing, it was strongly recommended that I wear hard-bottomed boots, which I didn't own and rented from a shop in town for the day (regular hiking boots are not sufficient). We boarded a bus in El Chalten, which took us to a boat on Viedma Lake. We met our guides before getting on the boat, and it turned out that there were only five of us in the ice climbing group for the day.

Mountains along Viedma lake with icebergs in the distance as the boat approaches Viedma Glacier

The boat departed almost immediately after we boarded it, and the ride took about an hour to get to the point where we disembarked. Before we got off the boat, it traveled along the face of the glacier, allowing us and those who had only booked the boat ride trip to get a relatively close-up view of the glacier. There's no dock at this end of the lake, so upon getting off the boat we had to climb around and over rocks just a short distance before reaching a hut where we got our harnesses and helmets. From there it was about a ten minute walk over more rocks before we reached the edge of the glacier where we got crampons and began the trek across the glacier.
Walking to the Viedma Glacier

We spent some time walking across the glacier navigating the moulins and crevasses as our guides searched for the perfect wall for an introduction to ice climbing. As they were setting up everything at the first wall, they made sure to note that while one ice screw is secure and enough to support a person, they used three ice screws just to be safe. The first wall was a far from vertical slope that was less than ten meters high. It was also the only wall that we walked to the bottom of and climbed up; all the others we started at the top, repelled down, and then climbed out. They also set up gear on a second wall next to the first one so that we could have two people climbing at the same time and trying the two different climbing techniques that they taught us.
Walking on the Viedma Glacier

After we all had a couple goes at the practice walls we moved on to another higher and steeper wall. This wall was cool because we had to repel, disconnect from the ropes, crawl through a small tunnel, and then climb up via another rope on the other side of the tunnel. I think we climbed a total of maybe six walls with the second to last being the tallest at nearly 40 meters and the last the second tallest but also the steepest at nearly vertical.

The most difficult walls took me at most eight minutes to climb, and some of the walls I climbed multiple times, but there was a lot of down time between gear being set up and while other people were climbing. There were two ropes at every wall, but it still took time, so we would walk around on the top of the glacier as the others climbed. We also had to bring our own lunch to eat on the glacier, and the weather was decent, although mostly cloudy and at times during long gaps of not climbing a little cold. After we finished the last wall, we again trekked across the glacier to the edge where we took off our crampons. Our guides then led us beneath the glacier into an ice cave that formed near its terminus where they gave us drinks. We then hiked back across the rocks through a small slot canyon-like feature to board the boat for the return trip.

Inside the ice cave

By the time we returned to El Chalten, it was after 6:00 pm and I had to return the boots I rented before boarding a van for the three hour ride to El Calafate. We again stopped partway through the drive in La Leona, but this time it was to have a full dinner. The food was decent, though not as great as most of the restaurants during the trip. However, we were very hungry after the ice climbing and wanted a lot of food more than anything, and this restaurant was satisfying.

It was around 11:00 pm when we arrived at Hosteria Posta Sur, the hotel we would be staying at the following two nights. It was probably the nicest place we stayed at in Patagonia with the exception that the pervasive excessive heating problem in Patagonian hotels was far worse here than in any others. It was so hot in the room that we couldn't stand on the floor in bare feet; that's how hot the floor was. Luckily, with the windows fully opened we were able to get the air temperature down to a reasonable sleeping temperature.

The view west across El Calafate from the hotel

After a decent breakfast (by the low Patagonian breakfast standard) at the hotel, we again boarded a van and took a ride for about an hour and a half to the Perito Moreno Glacier. This is the most popular glacier in Patagonia in part because it is so easy to visit but also because it is so spectacular. The glacier is so large that normally it completely separates the southern arm of Argentino Lake from the rest of the lake. This separation can last for years, with the water level in the southern arm rising and eroding away at the glacier until it breaks through in spectacular fashion.

The southern arm of Argentino Lake with Perito Moreno Glacier in the distance

Los Glaciares National Park has a series of elevated walkways that traverse the land next to the glacier, bringing you up close to its face. We bought sandwiches to go at the cafeteria above the walkways before starting our walk, which took us to the boat dock near the northern face of the glacier. There are boats on both the north and south side of the glacier's face in Argentino Lake, and we chose to go on the boat on the north side for reasons I cannot remember. I'm sure glad we did because we witnessed numerous small calvings as the boat navigated the icebergs, but by near the end of the trip as storms were approaching the area, an enormous calving occurred. The moment it happened, the boat turned and moved quickly away from where the ice fell before stopping to ride out the waves. According to the boat operators, it turned out to be perhaps the largest calving of the season to that point, and the moment the boat returned to the dock storms hit. Both of these events canceled all of the remaining boat tours for the day.

Perito Moreno Glacier from near the top of the walkways

Whereas it is fairly common to get rain near the glacier, in El Calafate rain is uncommon and also quite rare to have thunder, both of which occurred while we were at the glacier. By the time we arrived back in town the weather was great, and we had plenty of time to explore. We walked the relatively short distance from the hotel to town, checked out some shops, had ice cream made with the blueberry-like calafate berry (the city's namesake), and walked down to the marsh along the shores of Argentino Lake where there were many Chilean flamingos and other shorebirds foraging. We then walked back to the hotel before continuing on to Don Pichon, a restaurant with a view over the city and lake. I had an enormous filet, and this was one of my favorite restaurants during the trip. The next morning we boarded a bus for the journey to Puerto Natales, Chile.

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