Our next destination is El Calafate, the starting point to see the Perito Moreno glacier. We are leaving Puerto Madryn thinking, that we have to go a very roundabout route to stick to the main roads. Every driver advised us not to take smaller roads across Patagonia, explaining that it will be extremely difficult in the off season. So we plan to take Ruta Nacional 3 to Rio Gallegos and then head north with Ruta Nacional 40. The first day of our way ends in Comodoro Rivadavia, sitting at the gas station. At the moment when we picked our backpacks planned to go to another station, to pitch a tent there and wait out the night, a man accosted us. „Where are you going?” We told him about the plan we had and he offered to give us a ride to the second gas station. When we entered the car, it turned out, that we are much more lucky than we thought. Leonardo and Fabiana are going to El Calafate as well. The ideal ride for over 1000 km has found us itself! That day, we reached the town of Perito Moreno at around midnight, the temperature was about 5 degrees. We stop near the hotel, where Leo and Fab are going to spend the night. It’s a hotel, which significantly exceeds our daily budget. „What’s your plan?” We want to put a tent somewhere near. Michał started talking to the hotel staff, if they know where to stay, but Leonardo must have felt sorry for us, and decided to pay for the room for us. „You have to sleep well, good night.” We were very suprised by his kindness.
The next day, after a long journey we reach El Calafate. On the way, Leonardo confused the route and we drove a few hundred kilometers along a gravel road, which during the downpour turns into a special stage. Fortunately, our car has a 4×4 drive, thanks to which we can finally describe our journey with the words „que aventura!” („What an adventure!”). We say to Fabiana and Leonardo „see you” and we go to meet our host, a boy working as a police security at an airport 15 km from El Calafate. He does not complain about the flood of work, because in April there are 5 flights a day, and from May … 2. The season here really runs from November to March. Traditionally, we prepare beef in onions and we go to sleep squeezed on the floor (at least we have heat!).
To see a glaciar
In the morning, we meet again with our friends and go together to see the Perito Moreno glacier. Its name comes from the Argentine scientist Francisco Pascasio Moreno, who devoted much of his life to working on the Patagonian nature. The glacier has 250 km2 of surface, its wall is up to 70 m high, and the thickness of the ice in depth reaches 170 m. We have been very impressed from the moment we saw it from a car window. Arriving at the parking lot, we meet a Patagonian fox who even poses for photos.
The glacier is amazing. A huge mass of ice flows from the mountains to the blue Lago Argentino. Basically, it is a river, only flowing a a little slower – 2 meters per day. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we are doing a solid repetition of geography. After all, at school we had tests from all this stuff
So how does it all work? First of all, you need a place where snow from winter does not melt completely during the summer. It causes its accumulation each year and under the influence of the prevailing temperature, with high humidity and under the pressure of the overlying snow layers – decreasing its volume, partial crystallization and bit by bit transformation first into firn, then into ice and glacial ice. The amount of snow accumulated also depends on the shape of the surface, eg on sharp peaks and ridges, such as in the Tatra mountains, there are no conditions for the accumulation of large amounts of snow. The formation of glaciers is favored by flat ridges and valley flatnesses. The place where snow accumulates, the formation of firn and glaciar ice, is the place where the glacier is born and is called a firn field. When the thickness of the accumulated ice exceeds a certain critical value (several dozen meters or more), the pressure exerted by it makes it plastic and begins to flow. Layers of glacial ice particles are relatively weakly connected and when the pressure is higher than these binding forces, the upper ice layers begin to flow faster, than the lower layers. The friction between the glacier and the ground and the geothermal heat of the Earth increases the amount of water between the glacier and the ground, which works as a lubricant.
Are the glaciers very cold? Yes and no. There are two types.
Cold glaciers have a temperature lower than the melting point of the ice. They consist of solid ice (without water). Such a glacier is „frozen” to the ground. The strength with which ice is bound to the ground is greater than the ice-binding force, so cold glaciers move by means of relative displacement of ice layers (the grounding layer is stationary). As a result there is almost no erosion in case of cold glaciers – Antarctic glaciers almost do not contain rock debris.
Warm glaciars have a melting point temperature in all their volume (except for the temperature of the surface layer that varies with the change in seasons). These glaciers are soaked with water in their entire volume. The temperature of such a glacier decreases with the depth, because with the depth the pressure increases and thus the melting temperature of the ice is lower. Geothermal heat melts the glacier from the bottom (at the rate of 0.5 cm per year) and the glacier moves, sliding across the water layer. Antarctic ice sheet is (in the dominant part) a cold glacier. Most of the remaining glaciers are warm. That’s all from the repetition 🙂 On geography classes it seemed not very interesting, but we changed our mind when we saw this phenomenon live.
Fabiana and Leo take a boat trip, which includes a walk around and under the glacier, and drinking whiskey with ice from the glacier. So we have a lot of time to admire this miracle of nature. The sun comes out, we open the wine and enjoy the isolated viewpoint. Every moment the glacier makes sounds similar to thunder, there is a new crack, or smaller or larger pieces fall off. With each such sound, we hold our breath for a moment, hoping that a bus or block of flats-sized iceberg breaks off . Unfortunately, during the whole day we see only a few such large breaks, but maybe this is what makes them even more spectacular.
This amazing natural miracle is ruthlessly used by the Argentine authorities. The prices of admission tickets for foreigners are almost 2x higher than for Argentines. On the day of our visit, it was 260 ARS for tourists from Argentina and 500 ARS for foreigners (2 weeks later the price for foreigners increased to 600 ARS, which is 100 PLN). We were very lucky – Fab and Leo bought tickets and told us not to speak, thanks to which we slipped as Argentineans. It worked, because there are many descendants of immigrants in Argentina, among others from Italy, Poland, Ukraine and Germany. Thanks to this, Ola’s blond hair did not destroy our evil plans.
We stay 1 more day in El Calafate to walk around the town and buy a thick sweatshirt and thermos. Unfortunately, we could only take a walk. While the prices in the supermarket are only a little higher, the prices of clothes knock off the legs, and the cheapest vacuum thermos cost 150 PLN (then in Chile we bought a similar for 30 PLN). During our walk we met very nice alsatian. Generally, in Argentine towns, many dogs wander around, only a few of them have escaped from the yard for a walk. Fortunately, those living in a city are usually not dangerous and often accompany us. However, you can not show them too much affection or give food, because then they will stay with you forever. We learned this lesson in Georgia. Not so long ago, however, the herds of wild dogs began to prowl around Patagonia, which can be dangerous and, for example, attack sheep. Fortunately, we did not meet such bands.
We are leaving El Calafate and with Fabiana and Leonardo we share our last route to El Chalten. It is a small town at the end of the world, lying beneath the peaks rising over 3,300 m above sea level. Unfortunately, our Couchsurfing requests remain unanswered, so we need to find the first paid stay for over a month. We live in a very cool, pleasant and of course the cheapest hostel in the city – La Comaca. We can definitely recommend it, however, there may be a problem with finding a place during high season.
Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, which here is supposedly rare, we walk almost every possible trekking. We wanted to make the longest, conventional trekking in the area – Vuelta al Huemul, but unfortunately in the higher parts of the mountains there are already winter conditions, for which we are not well prepared. Lesson learned in Chapada, we let go and do „only” half of the route, located lower. To make it and to survive cold nights in the mountains, we rent a down sleeping bag, harness, rope, karabiners and additional mats. Earlier, we spend one night in a tent in the mountains to see how hard it can be. It turns out that not so much, so after registering our trekking in the office of the national park we set out on a three-day trip.
The first day is 24 kilometers walk to the place, from which the next day we will carry out the „attack on the pass”. The route is very picturesque and pleasant except for the first 8 kilometers, which actually are a shortcut to the official start / end of the trail. The cow path we took leads through very steep slopes covered with prickly bushes and wetlands. Wading in sandals, in the ankle-deep water if a few degrees cold is not the most pleasant experience. On the trail we pass signs warning about the presence of puma in the area and we see herd of cows, that have ventured many kilometers into the mountain valleys. We pass the mountain river hooked on a zip-line and finally, totally exhausted we reach the place that rewards us all the hardships of the journey. We can pitch a tent so that it is sheltered from the wind, and right next to it we have an exit to the view point, from which we can see the Viedma glacier and the icebergs breaking off. The whole idyll is spoiled only by flocks of unstopable mice. The previous night in the mountains they have already bitten a hole in our tent, so now we put all the food in one backpack, which we hang on a rope on a tall tree. Guess what? Did not help. We see how the mouse, not embarassed with the headlight, climbs up the trunk, and then balances on the rope to finish rummaging in the pockets of the backpack. We place containers for food and rubbish away from the tent, and the backpack remains on the rope. We don’t have any idea how to defend against these rodents. Fortunately, the final losses are just a hole in the tent and nibbled plastic containers. Not bad.
The night is full of thunders issued by the glacier, and in the morning our bay looks completely different. Huge icebergs travel pushed by the wind from one end of the lake to the other, finally collapsing in a spectacular way into thousands of small pieces.
On the second day, we climb 800 meters to the pass to see the Viedma glacier from above. After an intense climb, we reach the pass, but the 130 km/h ice wind doesn’t allow us to enjoy the view for a long time. Not only that after a while the face hurts from the cold, it is impossible to maintain balance in such conditions. Because we are surrounded by cliffs, we only take a few quick photos, admire the landscape of the glacier and ice sheet in the distance and quickly descend into a more sheltered place. And here again, the repetition of geography.
What is the ice sheet and where did it come from? Ice is formed in the same way as in the case of glaciers. When the thickness of the ice cover approaches 50 meters, the glacier begins to expand sideways („proceed”). If the cold climate persists, the thickness of the compressed ice layers increases, and the glacier expands radially or laterally outward from the place with the highest pressure. Southern Patagonian ice sheet is a relic of the period of great Pleistocene glaciations. Do you remember that there was also a continental glacier in Poland? An interesting fact is that there is a large area here, in which the border between Argentina and Chile is not defined.
By NASA ISS astronaut photo – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83249&src=eoa-iotd, public domain, Link
During our way down, we see a field of icebergs in our bay. Fortunately, we make a stop on a rock ledge with a great view just at the moment, when 2 huge icebergs are falling apart. It is amazing when you see a block of block-sized ice falling into pieces or turning upside down, showing the turquoise part soaked underwater.
In the evening, with the mice running shamelessly on my knees, using the lack of any light pollution, I record the timelapse of the night sky. Unfortunately, at this temperature, the camera’s battery gets low quite fast, which is why I manage to catch only 47 frames.
The third day is the way back with a well-known route. This time, we don’t lose the trail and the zip-line, with which we already have experience, goes much more faster. Unfortunately, from the end of the official route to the city, we have either a 8 km boggy abbreviation, or 16 km by road. We choose the latter option, because it will take a little longer, we will not get wet nor pricked, and maybe we’ll even manage to catch a ride. After 4 kilometers, salvation is coming! A pickup is passing by with a place for our two and another fellow we met along the way. Now we only have to register our return, go 2 km to the other end of the city to return rented equipment, cook a spaghetti and drink a beer! The next day we don’t go out of the hostel. We don’t even have a way to do it – all our warm things are in the laundry (which is not cheap here to be honest).
After a day of rest we go straight to catch a ride out of the city. Actually, we don’t even have another choice because our hostel will be closed till October, like most hostels and restaurants in this city. We put backpacks on the pavement, happy that we don’t have any competition. We don’t know yet, that in the evening we will get to hitchhikers hell…