After an absence of 15 years the Associazione La Venta returned to Patagonia with a team of 18 – including one person from Japan, one from Argentina and one from Mexico – who from February 12 to March 4, 2010 experienced a unique adventure. They were all equipped with footwear by Dolomite, the historical outdoor brand that always accompanies those who love to take on challenges and compete with Nature. The Dolomite models are the ideal solution for those who want to experience the mountains backed by the safety and quality of Italian-made products. The travel journal of one of the expedition members allows us to discover the captivating features and beauty of Patagonia. The main purpose of this adventure was to assess the “health” of the Perito Moreno glacier and its incredible ice caves, precisely fifteen years after the 1995 expedition when the explorers found and explored the world’s longest endoglacial cave. The second part of the expedition was instead dedicated to exploring two other glaciers: the Ameghino, located not far north of the Perito Moreno, and the Viedma, one of the longest glacier tongues of the Hielo Continental.
The day of departure has arrived at last. Like something long-awaited or feared. A moment that always seems very far off and when it arrives you feel you still haven’t prepared all the things you need. You wish you had more time – one more day or even one more hour – to get ready…
We’re in a van that’s leisurely taking us to the Minitrekking embarcadero from where the adventure with Patagonia’s most famous glacier will begin. Time flies during the ride, which affords breathtaking views of never-ending pampas, snow-tipped mountains, and fabulous Lake Argentino with its colour tones ranging from grey to sapphire blue and icebergs of assorted shapes and sizes – that have broken off the “giant” – floating in its waters.
Suddenly, after a bend, the Perito Moreno comes into view with its spectacular, jagged facade stretching out as far as the eye can see. I’d already made its acquaintance on a previous trip but it’s as if I’m seeing it for the first time: its sheer magnitude is awesome. It seems motionless but in actual fact is very dynamic and emits shuddery sounds like thunderous groans or gunshot blasts. Its variety of hues – from pure white to deep blue – leave visitors spellbound, their gaze fixed on its overwhelming beauty. The roaring noise caused by the massive blocks of ice detaching from the glacier echoes though the fairy-like scenery. It’s like the ice is talking to you and you can’t help but listen.
The boat that will take us to across the lake is waiting for us. Once we reach the opposite shore we’ll set off for the site near the Buscaini bivouac where we’ll set up base camp. We load our backpacks and all the equipment and after several brisk minutes of work we’re ready to cross the wind-rippled water of Lake Argentino. The Perito Moreno is waiting for us. Will it allow us to access its innermost secrets?
The boat skims over the whitish green water of Lake Argentino with its cargo of people and equipment, hopes and expectations. As soon as we arrive at the embarcadero we’ll head for the Minitrekking refuge, a hike of only a few minutes. The vista of the Perito Moreno is utterly awe-inspiring. It’s a sunny day but quite windy as is to be expected in wind-swept Patagonia. The majestic glacier gleams in the sunlight with its host of colours and appears like it’s standing vigil over a priceless treasure.
We unload the equipment off the boat and begin organizing how to distribute and carry it. The view of is truly overwhelming. Shortly after we hear a loud creaking sound followed by a deafening crash and see huge slivers of ice tumbling into the water. It’s an awesome sight that makes us feel so small compared with the forces of Nature.
The force of the wave created by the fall is such as to compel a catamaran full of tourists to quickly turn round in order to avoid problems.
A grey cat watches our every move as we load our backpacks and head for the glacier coastal trail. The initial stretch winds through a forest of lush green beeches whose shapes recall those of neatly trimmed Japanese bonsai. The glacier always dominates the scene: at times clearly visible at times partly concealed by the vegetation.
After about an hour’s hike we get on the glacier. The condition of the surface is excellent and it’s easy to proceed even without crampons. The traverse is not very long and shortly after we get to the moraine. There’s obviously no trail and we have to forge ahead as best we can. The following hours are quite fatiguing. The going’s daunting at times with all those ups and down. But in the end our efforts are rewarded and we reach the Buscaini bivouac, which is located in a magnificent spot surrounded by beech trees. Not far from here is where we’ll set up our base camp.
Our adventure on Perito Moreno has truly begun.
A timid ray of sun tries to make its way through the leafy branches of the beech trees. The air is crisp and the hot cup of coffee is very welcome. The camp lazily starts to wake up and soon after we begin making arrangements for the day, which will involve a first reconnaissance tour on the Perito Moreno.
We take the short but steep stretch that leads to the camp, proceeding over the moraine. After a few minutes we get to the glacier where a pleasant surprise awaits us, i.e. a subglacial cave near the most viable entry point. It’s not very large and can be accessed only a few metres but its intense shade of blue is so transparent you can clearly see the rocks from the glacial mass movements encapsulated within.
After briefly inspecting it – which definitely boosts our morale – we get ready to put on the crampons. Different thoughts cross our minds: there are those who are tackling the glacier for the first time and thus have the typically cautious attitude of first timers, those who’ve come back after many years yet seem as if they’ve been away just a few hours, and those whose attitude is practically reverent like they’re afraid of disturbing the ‘giant’
We head off for the centre of the glacier with a very favourable weather forecast. The silence is broken only by the sound of ice crackling under the crampons. At the start our pace is quite regular but after a while things get trickier due to an area full of cracks.
With a bit of effort we overcome the critical moment and find ourselves on a central part that’s quite level where we encounter different types of surface streams, pools of water edged with fantastic patterns of ice, and some lovely bédières (channels of water) flowing into a mill (glacier shaft). We return to camp tired but satisfied because we’d laid the groundwork for the explorations we intend carrying out during the following days.
An exploration of whatever type of environment is carried out in different stages: identification of the focus of interest, planning, fieldwork, elaboration of results, and periods of rest on a rotation basis.
After a few days of non-stop hiking on the ice a bit of fatigue starts to set in, mainly with legs and feet. Even though equipped with comfortable boots your feet still need some respite every now and then so I decide to give them a break and take a day of rest. But only from hiking because whoever stays behind has to take care of logistics for those out exploring. You wake up before the others and get breakfast ready for everyone and when the various groups have set off you see to all the chores including washing the dishes, tidying up and putting the equipment in order, taking inventory of food supplies, and making arrangements for dinner upon return of the groups with whom contact is constantly made via two-way radio.
A day off not only gives your body a needed break from traversing with heavy backpacks for hours on end over tough trails but also the time to order your thoughts and carefully observe the surroundings, like the colour of a flower, the fragrance of the air, the buzzing of insects …
As night falls the ice starts to take on different shades of colour, with variations ranging from pale blues to pinkish hues. It’s like watching a painter mixing colours in order to achieve the right tones to enliven a painting. One after another the exploration groups return to camp where they’re greeted by a lighted fire, a warm dinner and a glass of rum, which is leisurely sipped while swapping data and chatting over the day’s highlights or setbacks. This is the time for exchanging experiences and it reflects the spirit that motivates the expedition.
If someone should ask me what the most thrilling experience of this expedition was I’d not hesitate in saying it was climbing down a glacier shaft (commonly called ‘mill’). The episode was definitely out of this world …
After getting to the edge of the mill we’d chosen to explore for the day we begin with the operations involved in equipping it: the ice screws are fastened to hold perfectly, then the carabiners and rope are fixed and the first person starts descending, continuing to equip the mill while the others get ready.
Entry appears easy enough because the water that formed the mill has changed its course and consequently there’s no fall, which generally accompanies or sometimes even obstructs the exploration of mills.
I approach the edge of the mill secured with a longe (safety rope) and mount the descender, waiting for the green light from the person before me. I soon get the OK sign and begin to descend … .The ice – from apparently powdery and white – starts to change colour and consistency, becoming bluer and bluer and at the same time as clear as crystal. So clear in fact that you can see the whole length of the screw fixed in the wall. It’s like in a dream or magically being balanced between two floating elements.
As you descend the roaring noise made by the water surging at the bottom of the cave gets louder and louder.
This is where the exploration begins…
It’s well before daybreak but everyone’s up and ready for the van that will shortly pick us up and drive us to the embarcadero from where we’ll board the boat that’ll take us to the area in the vicinity of the Ameghino glacier. The Ameghino is not very large but – as the satellite images show – it’s very interesting in terms of carsic formations. We cross Lake Argentino under a very clear sky still tinged with the hues of early dawn. The weather forecast is evidently favourable.
After disembarking on a pebbly beach we check our equipment and backpacks and distribute the loads better. We then identify the route and set off. We go through a small forest of beech trees and get to a magnificent plain surrounded by mountains dotted with snowfields and small hanging glaciers. Some areas of the plain are marshy, with pools populated with aquatic birds intimidated by our presence, and also a great number of mosquitoes that make us quicken our pace… None of us would ever have thought of needing an insect repellent in glacier areas, which goes to show you should never take anything for granted … We continue on until we find ourselves in front of a large moraine ridge that we easily bypass. Then, to our great surprise, we find ourselves facing another lake full of floating icebergs that had broken off the glacier, which is still out of sight. The scenery is spectacular. The icebergs have the most bizarre shapes with colours ranging from the lightest to the most intense shades of blue, depending on how they catch the rays of the sun. By now the path has ended but we have to carry on. The only option is to continue along the left shore of the lake because on the right a wide river that cannot be forded obstructs us. We follow a route that initially seems quite easy but becomes increasingly steeper, with jagged and slippery rocky stretches. We press forward very cautiously and all of a sudden there it is! The Ameghino glacier! It is lodged in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, including the striking Cerro Fantasma with its very smooth southern wall and pointy peak which – according to local information – still has to be conquered. Accompanied by breathtaking vistas we finally reach a level area where we set up camp for the night. While we slumber the Ameghino stands vigil and patiently waits for us to come and discover its secrets.
It’s the morning of a new day with a cloudless sky and we have our breakfast enjoying a wonderful view of the glacier reflected in the gently rippling water of the lake. We decide to break camp and to set it up a bit further on in order to cut the distance that separates us from the Ameghino. We get our backpacks ready and set off to tackle the toughest part of the traverse. It’s not long before we encounter the most difficult stretch of the entire route leading to the glacier: a wall traverse known as “Welcome to Ameghino” practically skimming the water below. It’s a prelude to what lies ahead.
We thought things would be easier, but instead we encounter very steep, detrital slopes and stretches with huge masses of rock and soil caused by landslides. Everything’s unstable and you can’t imagine slowing down even for a second. Then there are grade 4 walls that crumble at a mere glace, climbs over slippery boulders, waterfalls and technical moves. After several merciless hours with the adrenaline rushing madly we finally get to the glacier. If reaching it was tougher than expected, moving over it instead is quite easy. And in fact it doesn’t take us long to arrive to the central moraine, which we climb for about a kilometre and then find ourselves facing an area full of crevices. By now it’s late and we choose to cross the area and reach the heart of the glacier the following day – a feat we do in fact perform with a bit of difficulty due to the strong wind. For now we decide to return to camp. On the way back we locate and take some pictures of a few glacier mills we intend to explore tomorrow. We’re so elated at having achieved our purpose we virtually fly over the trail and tricky stretches that had given us such a tough time on the way up... Then it’s a hot dinner, an exchange of ideas, and off to sleep comforted by the fact that an expedition solely focused on the glacier is bound to offer us a host of other surprises.
Texts by Silvia Arrica, with the cooperation of Giuseppe Giovine