Blown Away in Patagonia

The Ice Field

The following morning we embarked on one of the most popular activities in Torres del Paine, the hike to Grey Glacier. Our guide for the hike, Andre Labarca, was a 24-year-old mountain climber who thought nothing of spending his nights in a cot rigged on the edge of a cliff. Luckily, this journey would be a bit less strenuous.

From the trailhead, we crossed a river on a swaying suspension bridge and walked through a beech forest. There was quite a chill in the air, and the wind blew increasingly harder as we moved further into the forest. Overhead, Andre spotted a red-tailed austral parakeet perched on a branch; it seemed an unlikely species for this frigid habitat.

Soon after crossing the river, the forest canopy ended, dropping us onto a sandy shore abutting a turquoise bay filled with floating, blue-streaked icebergs. The icebergs' blue color comes from oxygen, which has been trapped in the ice for thousands of years. Though they were large, these icebergs were mere teeth chipped off the glacier behind them.

The icy bay was framed by a sheer granite cliff, soaring mountains, and a blue sky dotted with odd UFO-shaped clouds. Andre told us that these cloud formations appear when winds exceed 200 miles per hour. This seemed entirely credible, since milder gusts at ground level left us bent over with sand flying in our faces as we tried to cross the mile-long beach.

We reached a hilly moraine and hiked a sheltered trail to a lookout whipped by gales. We kneeled in a rocky bunker to find captivating views of the jagged expanse of ice rolling out from the mountainous horizon. The scene could have passed for terrain from another planet, but this was a very terrestrial wonder: a tentacle of the South Patagonia Ice Field, the planet's third-largest glacier after Antarctica and Greenland. Although it is receding ten feet (three meters) a month, it still covers 6,560 square miles (13,560 square kilometers).

From this fabulous lookout, we hiked onward in silence, which wasn't unusual. Explora guides are youthful, worldly, informed, and bi-lingual, but they aren't chatterboxes on the trail, by design. "The idea," Explora's lead guide, Anne Patterson, had told us earlier, "is to evoke natural curiosity and allow for plenty of silent contemplation, so you can listen to the wind."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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