It used to be that truly remote places on earth were reserved for the intrepid pioneers – or those with the economic means to secure their passage. Ironically today, despite our desire to be “connected”, many of us are seeking our solitude in more remote places around the world. There’re still plenty of places around the world that remain untouched and unspoiled by human activity and development, where one can still get lost or feel temporarily alone. Patagonia is one of those places.
The region lies at the southern part of South America in both Chile and Argentina, with spectacular views of craggy mountains, wide open spaces, flat plains that span hundreds of miles, and the second largest ice field in the world. The Southern Patagonia Ice Field covers an area of 16,800 square kilometers, the world’s second largest contiguous ice field outside of the poles, with the majority lying in Chile. The glaciers there are a popular tour destination among those seeking that one-of-a-kind Patagonian experience. Stretching across the Andes between Argentina and Chile, the sea of ice feeds dozens of glaciers in the region and at 270 square kilometers, Grey Glacier is one of the smallest in the region.
One of the most popular glaciers to explore in Patagonia is the famous Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares Parque Nacional in Argentina. And though it was tempting to visit, the huge crowds I saw in many online videos made me want to steer clear.
Besides, I was in Torres del Paine (pronounced PIE—nay) in Chilean Patagonia, the main reason visitors head to the (almost) tip of the South American ice cream cone, and I wanted to explore Glacier Grey in the western side of the park. Visitors here can see the glacier in one of two ways – from the comfort of the Lago Grey ferry or on the ice itself with a guided tour. For me, the choice was clear. Enter the only licensed vendor that takes visitors out on daily treks to this amazing glacier.
We launched our Ice Hike with a chilly, but invigorating, boat ride out to the glacier from the base on the shore of Lago Grey. Our guide Kaja talked with us about what to expect on the hike and tour, and made sure we understood completely that she was in charge. She guided this tour several times each day for weeks straight and was very familiar with the subtle changes happening on the glacier each day. We would hike the granite escarpment for the first hour and a half, ascending up and finally onto the glacier, following her in a single line.
The hike up was steep. “Follow my steps” she said, “tread where I tread”. But it never seemed quite as smooth for me. I was twice her age and she seemed to glide up the mountain like a gazelle. Our group was small and intimate – just four of us plus Kaja – and we learned a little about each other as we hiked together.
The view grew more beautiful – and Lago Grey smaller and further away – with each step up. And when we reached the top we simply stopped and stared in awe at the blue banquet spread out before us. Like sugary meringue peaks, Glacier Grey unfolded for miles ahead.
We sat down for a welcome snack break and Kaja strapped crampons to our hiking boots one by one. She secured the harness around our waist and thighs so she could hoist us back out of a crevasse in case we slipped in. Next, she taught us the best way to use our ice ax – always on the uphill between you and the ice, which seems counterintuitive. My first inclination was always to position it on the downhill, bracing myself in case of a fall. Most important, she showed us the proper way to walk on the ice in crampons. A most unnatural feeling, come to find out.
We stepped onto the ice over the bluest, deepest crevasse, onto an immediate incline rather than a nice flat surface, and my first few steps felt strange. For a split second I was honestly absolutely terrified. Ten feet downhill behind me was a place of no return if I slid in. I doubted she could hoist us out of that one. Ten feet ahead of me, the others started out, finding their ice legs, planting one cramponed foot squarely down on the ice, and then the other. So for a moment I stood completely still, and found my balance.
Hiking on a glacier is awe-inspiring, and humbling. Like anything in nature, the uncertainty of being in it, and in this case ON it, leaves you slightly terrified but wanting more. As we walked, passing shallow creeks of ice water flowing down the mountain, we followed Kaja’s lead walking right through them. She stopped at one flow so we could refill our water bottles and relish the icy clear water over 20,000 years old.
Underground rivers flowed beneath us, rumbling loud enough to muffle our chatter. It’s moments like that when you realize just how vulnerable you really are. Like a horse swatting a fly with its tail, Mother Nature is there to remind you of your tenuous place in the universe, and anything could happen.
About the time we thought we’d be heading back, Kaja pointed at the other side of the glacier valley to the bright blue caves on the other side. So we hiked on. Up steep hills, down steeper descents, hopping across narrow crevasses only a few feet wide, to the most spectacular display of color I’ve ever seen. Kaja explained the science behind the pure blue. The density of glacial ice absorbs every light color of the spectrum except blue, so that brilliant blue – almost turquoise – is what we see.
The ice cave we stood over had long collapsed, leaving a beautiful heart-shaped natural bridge to span the seventy foot depth below. The glacier flowed toward us from the Andes, stretching out to Lago Grey behind us, framed by the natural blue arch.
It’s hard to beat the experience of seeing a glacier up close, not to mention setting foot on one. We made it back to base just in time to catch the last Lago Grey ferry of the day. Without a doubt, it was a day of amazing new experiences. So it was fitting that I toasted the day in an equally spectacular way – with a traditional Pisco Sour, and a big chuck of glacier ice floating in my drink.