When I visited New Zealand in January, after reading Jeremy@TravelFreak’s account of hiking the Franz Josef Glacier I was looking forward to a similar experience. Unfortunately, with a tight day-by-day schedule and weather too poor for the glacier company’s helicopter to fly me up to the glacier on the day I intended, I had to leave New Zealand empty handed on the glacier front.
After I got back home to London briefly at the end of that month, I pondered where I could see another glacier on my next travels. Looking at my A Year of Adventures book for travel inspiration, I found that the Perito Moreno Glacier was a prime candidate. It’s one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing and it’s so big, the icefield is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.
The town of El Calafate is the best jump off point for visiting Perito Moreno and so as soon as I arrived, I found that Hielo y Aventura were the stand out people to visit the glacier with. I booked a “Big Ice” hike and packed my bag for the early start needed. Here’s how the experience of hiking the Perito Moreno Glacier was like…
You’ve got three options for experiencing the Perito Moreno Glacier from El Calafate. Firstly, you can get a bus from town to the viewing platform (and back). The other option is one of two hikes on top of the glacier. Both involve transport to and from the base of the glacier by boat, mandatory guides and crampons (whilst on the ice). The Mini Trekking hike, involves 1 hour on the ice and the Big Ice, which involves 3 hours on the ice. The difference, other than time, is with the Big Ice you venture further into the ice and thus experience more. Given the physical exertion on the ice, the Big Ice is recommended for fitter people. In my opinion, if you can handle a 4 hour hike on dry land with a pack, you’ll be fine on the Big Ice.
The day started with an early 7:00 pick up and transportation to the Perito Moreno viewing deck. The benefit of going that early, is that you get to see the glacier from the viewing deck with very few people. This is because most people just visit the viewing deck, some do the Mini Trekking (which leaves after the Big Ice) and the least number of people do the Big Ice.
You’re greeted with an amazing view like this. Even with a cloudy start to the day, the glacier is epic, dominating everything in your view.
You have 30 minutes at the viewing deck, but for me, it felt like it went really quickly. The viewing deck faces the glacier and stretches both sides of it. You get a chance to go so far left, then return to the middle and go so far right before returning to your waiting coach.
Early in the morning, it’s rare to hear or see pieces of ice break off, but sure enough, during the time, we were blessed with it several times. It normally starts with your ears hearing a crashing sound, similar to an aircraft taking off, then scanning the skyline with your eyes to see the remainder of the ice falling into the waters. You’ll see in this zoom, the remains of ice fallen in the past.
If you look closely at the surface of the glacier you can see it’s anything but smooth.
The platforms to the left, give you the best uninterrupted view (less trees) but you have to head there with good pace if you want to make it in time. I’m not sure why I didn’t use the panoramic mode on my camera, but never the less, here are the two halves.
I know I’ve stressed the time factor seeing the glacier from the viewing deck, but at the time, I felt like seeing it like this was the best bit and I wanted to give up more time on the ice for it. Once I was on the ice though, it was another story completely…
From the deck, you get transported by boat to a pier where the Hielo y Adventura shelter is.
From here, if you turn and face the glacier from near sea level, it looks something like this…
From this view, it’s more apparent that it’s 70 odd metres high.
With the clouds clearing, we were in for the perfect day on the ice.
At the shelter, you get a chance to leave any gear you don’t want to be hiking with. You also get a chance to supplement your gear with theirs – they have a small number of spare gloves and hats. From there, you start with a short hike through the forest to take you from the front of the glacier round to the side, where you can enter the ice.
Passing a lovely waterfall on the way…
Next to the entry to the ice, you’re given a harness and measured up with crampons. For those who don’t know what crampons are, they’re metal spikes that attach to boots like slippers held on with straps. The spikes give you the traction you need on the ice not to slip and to be able to walk up/down hills. With the help of an ice axe, professionals use them for climbing up near vertical walls of ice.
The entry of the glacier looks like this…
The stones from the land, the ice of the glacier and some water separating them. Most glaciers are in constant change – growing and shrinking with various proportions. Because of this, you can never guarantee that you’ll enter at the same place or hike over the same path on the glacier. Little more than a few steps onto the ice and it was time to put the crampons on with the help of our guides.
You may have noticed, that once you’re on the glacier, you can see that the ice is a lot dirtier than people originally think. The growing mass of ice absorbs and churns up grit, stones and rocks. The ice itself is so sharp and rugged that the gloves aren’t needed for the cold, but rather to protect your hands.
From this point, we were split into small groups (around 7) and followed a guide in a line like a flock of ducks would. This is because the guides need to pick the path on the fly (with the ever evolving landscape) and deviating off the path can be dangerous.
By splitting up in groups, each group all saw different parts of the ice and if anything did overlap, each group saw it in a different order. It gave somewhat of a tailored feel to it.
Here’s an example of a small crevice you can safely walk into.
You’ll notice how blue some of the ice looks. The reason for this is the amount of blue is related to the amount of oxygen in the ice. The less oxygen, the bluer it is. You get less oxygen when the ice is more compressed. So typically, deep under the surface of the ice it’s blue, giving an effect like (below) when you can see cracks into the ice.
Pools come about when something like a rock sinks into the surface over time, giving something like this below. See how deep the blue is as you peer at the ice deep in the water.
On the surface of many of the pools, if you look closely, you can see air bubbles trapped in the ice.
We were lucky to also see the only insect able to “live” on the ice. God knows what it consumes to stay alive.
Glaciers are a pretty complex piece of nature. It’s not simply ice all over. With the pools, you can see how water area creep and shrink around the ice. They also do this under the ice too. Something like is this is not uncommon.
Deep inside the glacier there are rivers that form.
Allowing you to taste some of the purest water you’ll ever haveâ€¦. if you can bear your hand getting cold as you fill your bottle.
After having lunch on the ice (you’ll need to bring your own food) I took the opportunity to use the ice axe (that the guide was using to chip away steps in the ice) in order toâ€¦.. pose
and test my ability to walk on water (or thick ice in the case of this illusion)
Here are 4 other great photos of the scenery during the 3 hours I spent hiking over the ice…
Once you’re finished hiking on the ice you make you way back onto dry land using the same entry point. While you wait for all the groups to return, you can grab a warm drink and take in the view from the picnic tables they have.
This time, on the boat ride back, the sun is almost the highest in the sky and there’s plenty of ice falling off the glacier.
For me, after missing out on Franz Josef, Perito Moreno was more than just a compromise. It was an amazing experience. My time on the glacier with the Big Ice really did fly by.
If you’re fit enough to spend that long hiking around, I’d recommend it over Mini Trekking. I learnt a lot about these complex natural formations that dominate the landscape in Patagonia. It meant, when I got to Torres del Paine, I could happily appreciate those ones from afar with a much better level of understanding.
Tips for doing the Big Ice
- If you don’t have gloves and hat in your travel gear, save on the cost of gloves and hats from the expensive shops in the area and use the spares at the shelter.
- Don’t forget to pack a good lunch. 4 hours total hiking around and you’ll need some good grub.
- Sturdy boots are best for crampons. Trainers are bad. As the crampons bend and flex, if you’re in trainers, they’ll cut them up and could dig into your ankles.
- Don’t forget to bring money for your park fee (not included in the tour).
- Don’t dwell on the first (central) platform at the viewing deck. The quieter ones on either side have much better views.