During my US road trip I had a quick stopover in Prescott to see my folks and old friends. One of the highlights of the house in Prescott is the incredible yardwork my folks have done which has transformed the back yard from a rock strewn chunk of hillside, into a wonderful oasis full of life, vegetables, and gorgeous blooms. Of the many flowers in the garden, my favorite are always the lilies which, as luck had it, were in the midst of blooming. The mixture of whites, pinks, and yellows combined with the sound of the water and the sight of the fish lazily making their way from lily pad to lily pad always soothes and centers me in a way few other things can. Here are a few photos of the back yard garden and lilies with a brief non-lily cameo. You can see the rest of the photos in the flickr album, including black and white versions not included here.
One of the most exciting stops along our route was a brief pause at a large waterfall in the middle of the glacier. Easily 8 feet across, the waterfall carved a trough along the surface of the glacier before diving deep into a dark blue hole. As the guide turned and motioned for me to ease towards the lip of the hole, I was thrilled. With him securing my safety harness, I eased up as close as I could to the edge, then leaned out and stared straight down, my eyes hungrily following the water’s course as it splashed of rich blue ice walls and carved away at white crystalline walls. The roar of the falls was mesmerizing and the cool, humid air spilling up and off the waterfall crisp and clean.
As we wound further onto the glacier, we passed a number of large crevasses. Some of which we would skirt, others we would walk along, and yet others – those small enough – we would carefully jump across, all the while with a large lump in our throats and a sense of controlled adventure in our hearts.
Eventually we reached the half-way mark and the group settled in for our pick-nick lunches. The spot we chose? A small hollow which blocked the wind and some of the light rain. As most of the group casually sat on the ice, enjoying the protection of their waterproof paints I dug around in my bag and fished out a bag. It held a massive, bright orange carrot that stood out in an explosion of color against the grays and blues of our equipment, the sky and glacier. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as I saw eyebrows raise, and heads tilt. The thoughts racing through their minds were obvious, “who is this kid, why the hell does he have a giant carrot and how’s he going to manage without waterproof pants – is that really all he brought?”.
As I contentedly finished my carrot, I took the plastic bag it had come in, kicked out a flat space in the ice, set it down, and then plopped my body down on top of it. Next up? Lunch meat. As I sat there with numb fingers, I set to trying to open two plastic packages of lunch meat I’d purchased. Largely unsuccessful, an idea eventually struck. Before long I’d leaned forward and impaled the plastic wrapper on one of my crampon spikes and had set upon the small pile of lunch meat with a voracious hunger.
Ever one to be inclusive, the third and final course was a large bag of baguettes. True, I could have taken the effort to combine the meats and bread, but my approach seemed more fun and convenient. Especially in light of the chuckles I was getting from other group members who had purchased pre-packaged lunches from the local supermarket. I quickly gave away a couple of the 6 or so loaves of bread that had come in the bag, and chewed away contentedly. As we prepared to move on, one of the guides poured a tin of sweetened matte which he passed around and a few of us shared and enjoyed. It was the ideal desert and re-heated us as we prepared for the trek home.
As we wound back along the ice we paused briefly for a rush of excitement as one of the group members failed to step far enough, tripped and almost fell into a crevasse. One of the guides as on hand, stabilized him, and helped him the rest of the way across.
The hike back towards the mountain trail was every bit as good as the trip out to the center of the glacier. Where the view before had been of ice, white, and distant mountains, the view on the return was constantly framed by the imposing presence of the mountains.
Each new view dragged my mind further and further into a fairytale. With fresh air in my lungs, spectacular sights bombarding my eyes, and clean rain drops decorating my face I had one of those incredible moments and relished every ounce of the experience. As the thought echoed through my mind I smiled and whispered, “This…this is why I travel”.
Eventually we found our way back to the base camp where we shed our harnesses and crampons, and then wound back along the path. The end of a hike is usually somewhat boring. Not so in this instance. After the lifeless beauty of the glacier, the wealth of blooming flowers and booming thunder of large waterfalls drew my exhausted feet forward.
The view of the glacier where it gave way to rain slicked rocks was also completely different. Given the honeycombed nature of the glacier, the ice formations looked new, fresh and unique as we revisited them from a different angle.
As we wound back down toward the lake, we enjoyed a great view of the glacier’s forward face and another reminder of how small we truly are. Can you spot the ferry, and people out on the glacier in the above photo? They’re both there!
The trip had been expensive by backpacker oriented day-trip standards but if looked at from a purely value oriented perspective, it had been dirt cheap. My only real regret was that there wasn’t more time.
Eager to keep us together and safe, our guides ushered us along as a fairly constant speed. While this allowed us to see more and was good for the non-photographers among the group, it left me as the constant straggler. Pausing here and there for a quick shot, or a bit of video often set to the background of one of the guides impatiently encouraging me to hurry up and stick closer to the group.
Still, it was only a small annoyance and cost to pay for the opportunity to see, experience, and capture the Perito Moreno Glacier in all of its beauty.
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**This post is Part II in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. View Part I or skip to Part III.
As the ferry blasted across the lake’s smooth surface, deftly dodging floating icebergs with the appearance of giant sized ice cubes floating in an oddly colored martini, I had to chuckle. Our dock, if it can be called that, was little more than a rock outcropping with a series of old tired tires chained along its face. I watched our approach, pondered briefly the probability that I’d end up getting shipwrecked again, then shrugged and went back to staring at the glacier.
Our docking procedure was as flawless as one might expect. Closely watched by our guides we transferred onto dry land, formed up for a brief orientation and then split into smaller groups. We bid goodbye to those going on the minitrekking trip, and our smaller and more dedicated band set off towards the glacier.
The glacier was massive. It is a glacier after all. That said, it wasn’t until we paused and watched small groups of people make their way out onto the ice that it really struck me just how massive and awe inspiring the glacier was. From afar the groups of people looked more like small specks of dirt than people.
Our trail led us down and across the coast towards the glacier. The path wound over rock outcroppings and along stone beaches backed by a few skeletal trees with rich forest and vegetation further inland. In the distance incredible snow capped mountain walls faded away into the clouds.
It’s hard to say why, but the clean white and rich blues of glaciers always surprise me. Given the pollution caked onto and often staining the white marble of major Cathedrals and statuary the fact that the glaciers manage to remain such a pure white excites me.
While not always ideal for photography, I love seeing certain types of locations on misty days. A periodic light rain, and the lack of wind is ideal for wetting down rocks and vegetation while leaving things with a richer look and feel. My voyage along and eventually out onto Perito Moreno was one such occasion, though for obvious reasons the rain didn’t do much to bring out the color once actually ON the glacier!
After reaching the base of the glacier we passed a larger base camp where the minitrekking people were suiting up and preparing to head out onto the ice. We paused briefly, then turned and began up along a small path, just wide enough for one person. It traced its way up along the glacier’s edge and alternated between being sandwiched and carved into the cliff face.
As we wound along the path I was taken off guard by the number of waterfalls which were visible. In retrospect it makes sense, with snow melt up on the mountain’s peaks, the water would have to melt and run down. Still, with snow and ice surrounding us I was taken off guard by the large falls each crowed by lush vegetation and blooming flowers which cut across our path. Though not tramping through snow, I could not help but fancy myself climbing into a dangerous mountain pass as part of an intrepid company of stalwart explorers of Tolkienesque fame.
A mile in our trail climbed up and into the moss covered vegetation, but not before a steep and muddy switchback. At the top we found a small base camp built to survive hearty weather. Our guides quickly explained that we’d be donning our safety harnesses and would be issued our crampons before heading back down and out onto the ice.
What is a Crampon? It’s a re-sizable metal shoe, not unlike strap on roller skates. You sandwich your shoe onto the top of the crampon, then carefully strap and clamp it down. The crampon itself is little more than a flat shoe base with large spikes protruding down and out from it. Made for icy conditions, they allow you to dig into the ice and turn otherwise difficult walking conditions into leisurely strolls.
Crampons attached, we struck out and began our trip across the ice. As we prepared to travel up and out onto the glacier we split into smaller groups of 8-10. Though wearing harnesses we did not need to tie ourselves together or ever really approach anything nearly dangerous enough to feel as though it was necessary.
The path our guide took us down wound up along the edge of the glacier for a while and then down through large fields of dirty ice that looked like massive ant colonies.
Our guides explained that what we were seeing was the stone which had been carved off of the mountainside, then gathered together as the top levels of the glacier melted. As other parts of the glacial ice melted away, the areas underneath the accumulated stones and dirt remained protected and cool creating small rock covered ice hills. All in all a pretty fascinating process which left deep blue, rock hard ice underneath the stones.
After getting accustomed to the ice, our crampons, and the rules of the road we struck out along a smoother area on the glacier. With gentle rolling ice hills it still offered access to a plethora of small crevasses and min ice-falls, but lacked the jagged, shark tooth like feel I had expected after seeing the glacier from afar.
Along the path we wound past, over, and along a series of small surface streams which cut their way from tiny pool to tiny pool before eventually diving into a crack and cutting their way down into the glacier’s inner bowels.
As we neared the halfway mark I paused briefly and turned around. As i did so, I stumbled slightly and let out a sharp intake of breath. The view back the way we had come was incredible. It was one of those moments that feel straight out of the movies. Fairytale crafted into reality so powerful, so magnificent it takes you several moments to accept it as real. Was this middle earth? Perhaps not, but it sure was indistinguishable from it. A long expanse of ice, stretching out before me towards charcoal grey mountains, thousands of feet tall stretching in either direction like a massive wall. A wall cut and carved by giant waterfalls tracing their way down from the snow capped peaks and periodically crowned by small mountainside forests of a rich green so dark that it almost blended with the gray-black of the mountainside. Words fail to describe the majesty of the experience.
The falls, cliffs and general feel of the experience reminded me heavily of the Norwegian Fjords. Though in this rare case the falls were larger and the backdrop more impressive than what I’d enjoyed in Norway. Truly, this was the Andes and southern hemisphere in finest form. The fact that I was at a similar latitude to New Zealand’s south island and exploring a similar backdrop was not lost on me. I will say that for those who have a deep desire to explore New Zealand’s natural beauty, adding Patagonia and southern Chile to your list is an unanticipated must.
The ice itself fascinates me. Clean enough to drink straight off the glacier (and believe me it was delicious), it is crystal clear but with a deep blue tint to it. In some places small pools have formed on the surface creating spaces that give the illusion of walking on water. The trick quickly became judging just how shallow (or deep) that water was and where solid ice began.
I mentioned earlier the role rocks play in protecting certain areas and raising small ice mounds. In other areas the opposite would occur. Note the above photo where a large rock is gradually sinking down into the ice. You can see that the pool forming around it is roughly shaped in the same size as the rock itself.
As we neared the center of the glacier, the ice fields were something to behold. Despite the light rain the reflection off the ice and clouds was extremely bright creating an odd type of light that was half middle of the day and half twilight.
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**This post is Part I in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Fast forward to: Part II or Part III.
The adventure began sometime between 7AM and 8AM when a small 16 person van pulled up in front of my hostel. I’d been briefed quickly the day before by one of the hostel staff while investigating various ways of exploring the nearby glaciers. They’d shared the three primary options available from El Calafate: A basic bus trip out to the “balconies” AKA a long boardwalk that stretches along the lake shore opposite the face of the glacier. A more advanced middle of the road option called minitrekking which tours the balconies, then ferries across to the glacier for an an hour and a half hike. Lastly there was the third and final option, the “Big Ice” tour.
At over 7 hours long it included the balconies, ferry ride over, and then another 4 hours spent hiking along and out to the middle of the glacier. As I read over the pricing and descriptions I groaned slightly. The minitrekking tour was about $150 USD, the Big Ice tour right at $200. Both of which are expensive for day tours. Still, as I thought about it, the glacier was one of my main reasons for heading south. Then I saw it – the Big Ice tour, in addition to spending 4 hours on the glacier and covering 6km, had a suggested age range of 18-45 vs minitrekking’s 10-65 age range. Game on. An extra 2.5 hours on the ice and a more rigorous adventure for an extra $50? You bet! Was it worth it? Oh, you better believe it!
Unsure just what I was getting myself into I packed warmly with all of my backup layers stashed away in my day pack along with a picnic lunch (despite the price it was BYOL). Our shuttle took us out of town to a large 50 person bus and then sorted us out into different groups. From there it was an 80km drive through the Patagonian country side and along Lago Argentin0 to the Los Glaciares National Park.
A unique glacial blue the lake is truly gorgeous to behold, especially dotted as it is by small icebergs and set against the backdrop of the Andes on one side and sweeping open flat lands on the other. In many ways it looks like a jagged castle forged by the gods for Titans with the mountains serving as the castle wall and the lake a long, serpentine moat.
Once at the park we headed straight away for the boardwalk where we disembarked as a group and set out towards our first glimpse of the glacier. The walk wrapped around the water’s edge and was a stout wood and steel raised walkway. I paused often during the 30-40 minutes the walk took, and snapped photos greedily.
It was my first glacier. At least up close. I had seen them in the past from above and from afar but never from within a stones throw, despite my trips to Norway, Scotland and above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. In researching the Perito Moreno Glacier while stateside, I had only come across info from people who had done the boardwalk which had led me to believe that was as close as I was going to be able to get. The knowledge that the boardwalk was to serve as little more than a table of contents for the day’s adventure left me with a giant foolish grin on my face.
As I walked the giant circuit, I led the way with the guide. Immersed in conversation she shared exciting pieces of information about the glacier, the region and her job. Eventually, however, I slowly drifted towards the back of the pack as I paused to take photos, video, and watch the clouds gently roll over the snow capped peaks surrounding the glacier.
The sky had traded the morning’s cloudless existence for good visibility and medium cloud cover along the mountains. It suggested rain and mist further up the valley, but left us with a great view of the glacier’s jagged face along with a beautiful view back towards the area I assumed we would be hiking.
As we strolled casually along the path and stretched our legs we would pause often. Heads would whip around, ears perk up, eyes frantically searching and photographers drawing cameras to eye at the booming crack of ice giving way as the glacier shed a layer off its forward face. I got lucky with the above shot which features falling ice in front of the small cave.
As we reached the end of the boardwalk and prepared to head back to the bus I paused and took in one final view of the glacier as it stretched away to the right and out into the lake. The scale and size is incredible. The rich blues and majesty captivating. I felt torn, eager to race towards the ice and to scale it, but at the same time caught in the moment and left wistful that I didn’t have longer to relax and watch the lake’s still waters gently tease away pieces of the glacier.
The bus whisked us down and around the point to a small bay on the lake. There we disembarked and boarded a mid-sized ferry with a warm interior and exposed upper deck. Eager for an unobstructed view I headed to the roof with several other group members who I had befriended: An Israeli backpacker my age and an American couple from the east coast. There we watched as the boat wound past small icebergs and cut in front of the far side of the glacier towards an area which had been invisible from the observation platforms.
The view from the water helped drive home the sheer size of the glacier, but it wasn’t until we started to see people hiking up on it, and decorating it like small specs of dirt that the true size and scale struck home.