During my first week in Southern Patagonia, several factors caused me to fall well behind in my work. Upon returning from Torres del Paine, I had to buckle down and play catch-up. I spent several days more or less stationary in my hostel in Puerto Natales and then progressed across the border to El Calafate where I booked into a hostel that provided a good atmosphere and around the clock coffee.
After a couple more good days of work, I decided to take a day to visit the area’s biggest (and only?) attraction, the Perito Moreno Glacier. People flock from around the world to visit this offshoot of the Great Southern Ice Field because of its high level of activity. It is progresses at a rate of about 2 meters a day, and as a result pieces are constantly calving off of its ice wall and falling into the lake at its base.
There are three main options for visiting the glacier. You can view it while on a boat cruise, you can trek out onto the ice using grampons, or you can take a bus to the viewing platforms directly opposite the tallest section of the ice wall where it reaches a height of over 60 meters (180 ft.). Now the boat cruise doesn’t really get you any closer to the glacier than the platforms (otherwise they risk getting hit by a chuck of falling glacier) and is reputed to be the haunt of old folks and families, so I obviously wasn’t going to waste my money on that. Everyone who went on the ice trek came back raving about it, but it was pretty expensive (150-200 USD) and I’d recently climbed up a mountain glacier in Chile using grampons so after a lot of thought I decided to give that one a miss as well. I mean, you can walk on a glacier anywhere (OK, not anywhere, but in various places around the world) whereas what makes this one so famous is the stuff constantly falling off its ice wall.
A girl I’d met in Puerto Natales was planning to head to the glacier on Thursday and wanted me to come along, so we got the fixing for sandwiches and a bottle of wine and headed out. I can only assume that during the high season the area around the glacier must be an absolute zoo. They had some pictures posted and it looked like a nightmare with walkways so crowed that they could be mistaken for a line at Disneyworld. Thankfully, in mid May we were well into the off-season. There were a lot of tourists around for the first hour and a half, but after 4:00 everyone headed back to town and over the following three and a half hours we only came across five other people. Now if you’re doing the math here, you’ll realize that we spent a solid five hours walking around staring at a glacier. That may sound boring, but it wasn’t. This glacier was alive, I had someone to talk to, and there was a bottle of wine to look forward to ;)
Every five to ten minutes there would be a mighty pop, like the crack of a shotgun. Although we never saw one form, this was evidence of a new fissure in the ice. From time to time a small piece of ice would plummet into the lake, but those moments weren’t exactly photo worthy. About two hours in, we watched a large sheet of ice slide off but it was too far away to capture. Then, three and a half hours in, I got what I came for and the timing was perfect. We had just changed trails and were emerging from the trees when a massive calving occurred directly in front of us. It started small and grew successively larger as four consecutive pieces broke off over the course of about 45 seconds. The final piece was the size of a multistory building. It sent a wall of water about 70 meters into the air and shot ice shrapnel across the narrow stretch of lake and onto the beach below us. I captured the majority of it on a video. In that moment the day became a total success and it was time to break open that wine for a final hour and a half of relaxed glacier watching.