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Mini-Trekking on Glaciar Perito Merino

Cerro Torre hidden amongst the clouds
Cerro Torre hidden amongst the clouds
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Perito Merino Glacier is truly one of the fascinating sites of Patagonia. One of the few "stable" glaciers on the planet, Perito Merino Glacier dwarfs even those that I had seen earlier on this journey. And to experience walking on and under the glacier truly makes one appreciate the world around them. Unfortunately the best (only?) way to experience the glacier trek is through a tour with Hielo y Aventura (part of Adventure-Life's itinerary). While an excellent excursion, there was a bit of the herding of the sheep feeling to the day of which I am not very fond, but that could probably not be avoided. But enough of the grousing, let us simply get to the day's tale.

Today was my last full day in Patagonia and South America (except for tomorrow's travel day). I had a morning pick-up at 8:30 AM for the 80 km trip to Perito Merino Glacier. So I was down for breakfast a bit before 8:00 to get some food, pick up my sack lunch, and await transportation. Jim and Susan came down as well, closer to 8:30 (they had hit breakfast and headed back to their room before I came down). Transportation arrived shortly after 8:30 AM and we loaded into the 15 passenger van. We were the last stop for the van but our destination at this point was only a larger bus to take out to the glacier. Changed vehicles and were on our way once again. Heading west out of El Calafate we had some additional stops to pick-up additional excursion members.

The drive in was uneventful and relatively boring. Nothing really exciting to see as for the most part as the lake existed initially on our right (north) and the flat dry land around us. Eventually we left the main lake to cross the peninsula to the Brazo Rico arm of the lake. On the drive in we passed the boundary into Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The bus stopped and a park employee boarded to take our 30 Peso ($9-10) park entrance fee (for international visitors). A short while after the park entrance we started to get some tantalizing glimpses or Perito Merino itself. Before we reached the main viewing platforms for the glacier itself, the bus pulled into a small lot down towards the Brazo Rico. There our boat (appropriately named the Perito Merino) was waiting to transport the group of 40 or so peole to the opposite shore of the lake.

During our short boat journey the southern section of the glacier appeared from around the Magallenic peninsula. It was truly an incredible sight. It was much taller than Grey Glacier (Perito Moreno 150-200 ft tall, Grey 100 ft tall) that I had viewed 10 days or so earlier, and chunks of ice continually calved off the face emitting loud roars as the ice tumbled into the waters below. If you were hearing the roar you had already missed the actual calving of the ice, but you could see the after-effects as the ice and slush rippled out from where contact with the water had been made. Our boat ride was a short 20 minutes or so to the opposite shore and we were met by guides who separated the people into two groups - English and Spanish speakers. Here was one spot where I wish I had stronger Spanish skills as that group was maybe 10 or so while the English speaking group contained almost 30 people (our English speaking group was principally Europeans who spoke English as a second language as I could distinguish some German, Italian, and French among the speakers and some other languages I did not understand). We had a short walk to the edge of the glacier, back approximately a 1/2 mile from the front face of the glacier. There we had a quick natural history lesson, laced up the crampons (10 point as opposed to the 12 point crampons we had on Glaciar Torre), and headed out onto the ice.

The glacier trek on Perito Moreno was quite tame compared to Glaciar Grande/Torre earlier in the week. "Trails" had been carved into the ice to allow for easier walking by the Mini-Trekking participants. The trail also avoided any remotely difficult sections of the ice. But for all that it was still an amazing experience out on another glacier. The weather today was much calmer than on Monday, so it was easier to appreciate the beauty around me than at Torre. And it was incredibly beautiful; empty and desolate, but beautiful. The process of erosion takes place on a much faster, but smaller scale as water carves the ice into exquisite canyons, gorges, and crevasses. It's best to just view the pictures although these can't do the views any bit of the justice that they deserve. As we came off the glacier, we were guided around a small bend where a table awaited us. As a little quirk of the ice trek, we were presented with a glass of scotch "on the rocks", said rocks being crushed ice from the glacier itself. A bit corny, but a nice touch nonetheless.

After the glacier trek itself we got to experience what I found to be the most interesting and amazing views of today's excursion. A trip further up the edge of the glacier brought us to the entrance of some ice caves underneath the glacier itself. Our guide presented us with two entrances to the caves; one a walk in/walk through a short section. A second entrance presented some other views, but also required a bit of spider-crawling around in the mud to navigate the low ice-ceilings. Being the adventurous sort, I chose the second option along with two other trekkers that I did not know. We took turns snapping a few pictures of each other as we crouched in the passageway before the cavern opened up around us. As we proceeded further into the caves, the ice turned a shade of translucent blue that I don't think I will ever forget. It completely enveloped everyone in the cave beneath the glacier and tinted the entire world around us.

But all too soon we were directed to return to the surface world above. A bit dirtier, but amazed at what I had just experienced I slowly walked back to the hut at the shore of the lake to await our return to the main peninsula. Ate my sack lunch while waiting for the boat and then we were off again. Upon disembarking we were herded back on to the bus for the journey to the viewing platforms. This only took about 15 minutes or so. On leaving the bus we were told that we would have one hour to view the glacier from the viewing platforms. At that point we should head back to the bus for the return journey to El Calafate. Walked down to the various platforms. From the upper platforms one could see the north face of the glacier and also running back along the entire length of the glacier many miles distant back towards the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap.

The platforms also provided a clearer view of the ice dam the glacier had formed as it ran aground on the Magellenic Peninsula. Every few years the glacier advances far enough to touch the peninsula at which point the Brazo Rico arm of Lago Argentino is effectively dammed from the outlet of the lake. When this occurs the Brazo Rico rises (at this point the water level was 1m (3 ft) higher on the Brazo Rice arm than on the main lake) and exerts tremendous pressure on the ice. Eventually this undercuts the glacier and causes the dam to rupture. Of course one must get lucky to be there at that specific time (or be a good planner). The last ruptures were in 2006 and 2004.

Lower views gave closer views of the north face. With our strict schedule I hurried through the views with Jim and Susan. We tried to wait and capture a decent image of the glacier calving but Perito Moreno would not give us a good thundering crash on this day. I waited until the last possible moment hoping for a good show and was forced to race up the stairs to the bus to make it back in time as one of the last folks to get on the bus.

And with that we were heading back to El Calafate. As the bus journeyed back on its 1+ hour trip to town, I realized that this was my last true activity for my Patagonia adventure. This evening I would have a final dinner with my new friends at a nice little restaurant in El Calafate (a wonderful meal of lamb and appetizers along with a bottle of an excellent Merlot), then return to the El Shehuen and prepare for my homeward journey the following morning. But if there was a final way to experience Patagonia, Perito Merino Glacier was as amazing and wonderous an excursion as one could have. Even though it was definitely the most touristy outing of the trip, the glacier and surrounding area will always provide a final exclamation of the power, grandeur, and majesty that is Patagonia.

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