There is no better place to cut your teeth and learn ice climbing than on Viedma Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia.
Or so I’ve been told. At this particular moment in time, as I hang from two ice-picks and attempt to jam my sore, spiked feet into a solid wall of diamond white ice, I am having problems remembering why I signed up for this.
The icy fortification I am scaling slowly is starting to crumble in the midday sun. Suddenly, my foot slips and I find myself cheek to cheek with the Glacier. It is not a gentle dance partner. I wonder idly why I am not sitting somewhere warm drinking wine, like a sensible person. I regain my footing and peel myself away from the freezing mass. Despite feeling like I’ve just been hammered with an anvil, I find that I am grinning. Because really, I have never seen anything like this river of ice.
The Glaciers of South America have their own flavour, and ever since our trip to the famous Perito Moreno glacier nearby, my partner and I have been aching to get on top of one of these things and explore. This excursion promised the best of both worlds — learn how to ice-climb, and trek across a tiny, tiny part of the enormous Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Viedma is only one of nearly 50 other glaciers that form this field. It’s a humbling thought. I feel like an ant on the face of the moon.
Our day began at 7am, in the sleepy, quaint traveller town of El Chalten, which nestles underneath the impressive needles of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. El Chalten is the perfect place to find adventure, with mountains and lakes, glaciers and valleys all around. We are picked up from the office of Patagonia Aventura, who organise Pro-treks on Viedma, and are bussed out of town, down to the shores of Lago Viedma. A small boat shuttles us to the foot of the Glacier. Our guide and translator meets us on board, briefing us about our day. It is a beautiful way to start things — the weather is crystal clear, and water glassy and still around us.
Glacier Viedma pours into the lake like a dusty river of lava, and I am reminded that, despite how solid they look, glaciers are in a constant state of movement. Like molten magma pouring down a volcano, they shift and grow and are pushed forward constantly. I strain my eyes to try and see where the glacier begins, but it vanishes into the mountains on the horizon over 30 kilometres away. A huge piece of it suddenly calves off and crashes into the water as we cruise by.
We gear up upon landing. Crampons are dished out. Not the type you get when you trek across glaciers like the Fox Glacier in New Zealand. These are bestial, slash-your-legs-as-you-walk crampons, with wicked toe-spikes.
As we hop onto ice for the first time, lashing our crampons to our feet, we try to remember how to stand: toes out, legs apart, knees bent, one foot pointing up slope for extra grip. Sexy.
Because Glacier Viedma does move so fast, it is quite dirty, covered in rock and sand which it has worn away from the mountains it pushes on by. It moves at different speeds in different places, creating hugely interesting ridges and fells, caves and cliffs. Despite its gravelly top layer it is extremely beautiful. The landscape of a glacier is like a Salvador Dali painting: weird, fluid, improbable.
Which brings us to our first climb. Suddenly, we are presented with a vertical wall of ice, easily over 20 metres high and curved at the top into a small overhang. My beaming smile slips as I gaze at it. Is our guide joking? I glance around me at the rest of our group. They look bemused. Perhaps this is just a demonstration. What sort of sadist would expect us to climb up there on our first go? Look, there’s a little sort of ice-mound over there, wouldn’t that be better?
Our guide sprints to the top of the cliff like some leggy spider, and screws in the anchors for belaying. Looks like this is us, then.
One of the reasons I wanted to try ice-climbing so much is that I adore rock-climbing. To me there is no greater satisfaction than standing at the bottom of something, looking up, and then scaling it. Rock climbing is also very relaxing, as it is intuitive, there is logic to it- feet firm, distribute weight, look for next move, shift balance, go.
Ice climbing is very different. There are various techniques, and while none of them are particularly difficult, they are certainly not intuitive, and do require you to concentrate quite hard. You have two ice axes, each with small hoops you slip your hands through to help support your weight while you are suspended from the ice. That’s the easy part.
The first method we learn goes a little like this: swing your arm back as far as you can, then sharply hammer into the wall of ice with one arm, make sure the axe has held, and repeat with the other arm. It’s important you do not swing down, as if you are digging a hole, but vertically, into the cliff, so that the axe’s point sinks in properly. Once you know your axes can take your weight you kick your feet, again sharply and horizontally, a little higher into the ice wall, and step up. Transferring your weight to your feet, you wrench out your ice-axe and dig it in again at a higher point, reposition the other one, and repeat. You do this until your arms fall off, your toes break, or you reach the top of the cliff.
Like most things, it’s about rhythm. Once you’ve mastered the pattern, getting into a rhythm is, with practice, possible. It’s also about keeping as close to the wall as you can, to make sure your weight is distributed evenly, as with rock-climbing. Easier said than done when you have to swing your arms about so much to get purchase on the ice-axe.
By the time I am halfway up the cliff my knuckles are bloodied, as my fists and fingers smash repeatedly into the ice when swinging the hammer inwards. It takes a great deal of effort to make sure you swing with enough force to embed the axe properly into the ice. Similarly, jamming your toes into a solid and immovable wall isn’t that comfortable, despite the thick boots I am wearing, and I wish I had put more pairs of socks on. I can feel my toes beginning to turn black.
Despite all this, I make slow but steady progress up the wall. The trick seems to be small, rapid steps up rather than big strides. It also gets harder as the ice gets mangled by other users, so I am happy to be one of the first up.
I have been concentrating so hard that, when I finally reach the top of the cliff, I’m taken aback. The views from the top are otherworldly. My breath is taken away by the white ice, blue sky, moulons and pressure ridges and arcs of glistening, melting ice that stretch as far as the eye can see.
I abseil down, wait my turn. I want another go. I’ve got the bug now. I can barely contain myself while I wait for the others in our group.
The second climb seems easy, and I shoot up the wall, eager for my prize — that view once again. Condors circle overhead. One by one, the others join me and we stand around gawping.
Our guide, not content with our mastery of what he calls the ‘baby’ cliff, has found a bigger one while we are all distracted. He scrambles to the top nimbly, screws in the anchors. Then he decides to torture us by teaching us a ‘more technical’ approach. This new technique involves moving arms and legs in diagonal pairs and is excruciatingly difficult to master. Somehow, we all struggle through.
Our reward is a trek across the top of the glacier. Again, I feel as if I am wandering across the surface of a different planet. We find an ice-tunnel, carved by water, polished into weird, smooth ripples. We stick our heads into a blue crevasse, and lie down to get a better look at it. I cannot believe the rich, azure colours hiding beneath the white surface of the ice.
Our guide presents us with plastic tumblers. He then fills these with 400 year old glacier ice and pours a healthy slug of Baileys on top, and it is good. Everything is collected and tidied away. We carry on with our trek, making our way in and out, up and down over the undulating face. Sometimes we have to wait for our guide to cut crude steps in the ice for us. Occasionally we teeter along a tiny bridge of ice that drops off into infinity on either side. We hop over crevasses, trying not to think about falling in and how cold it would be down at the very bottom.
My favourite spot is a heart-shaped tunnel that has formed from warmer melt-water moving under the surface of the glacier. We clamber crab-like through the middle, straddling the tunnel with our cramponed feet, and the ice is so smooth, and so glassy, that I cannot help from stroking it as we make our way through. It feels like being suspended in a great glass globe. I repeat to myself: I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life.
Then, before I want it to be, the day is almost over. We have been on the ice for nine hours, and still I feel like I have so much more to learn and to see.
Reluctantly, we hand over our crampons and harnesses and say our goodbyes. The boat carries us back to our bus and to El Chalten. As the Glacier recedes behind us I feel sad, knowing that where we have been will most likely crumble into the lake in a few months and melt. The more you learn about glaciers, the more you are reminded of the temporary nature of things, how precious they are.
I look at my hands, wince at the scabs forming on my sore knuckles. My toes have indeed turned a healthy shade of purplish-black, and I think I might lose the nail on the right foot’s big toe.
‘Shall we take it easy tomorrow?’ my better half asks me, and I nod silently.
Still, I think to myself as civilisation looms, there are at least another 49 glaciers out here, just waiting to be discovered.
Viedma Pro treks are organised by Patagonia Aventura, El Chalten (prices in Argentinean pesos). Gemma Amor is a writer and Marketing professional who quit her 9 to 5 job and embarked on a 13 month adventure around the world with her fiancé. Amongst other places they visited Mongolia, Antarctica, and the Galapagos, and only returned to their home in England when their money ran out.
These days Gemma’s travels are a little less adventurous thanks to the arrival of her son, but she hopes to instill in him the same passion she has for different cultures, landscapes and ways of life, and most importantly, she hopes to revisit the places she has been with him and experience them all over again, through younger eyes. Follow her on Google+ profile or her Travel Blog.