glaciers

Glaciers in Argentina

The Patagonian ice fields extend for about 16,800 km2, covering part of Chile and part of Argentina’s geography. Even though that more than 80% falls into Chile (such as Glacier Grey, in Torres del Paine and Glaciar Aguila, in Agostini Sound), Argentina offers easy access to some of the most impressive glaciers in the continent (among them, the upmost famous Perito Moreno!).

While in Calafate, we decided to take a boat trip through Los Glaciares National Park – a World Heritage site since 1981. The trip took us along a small part of Lago Argentino, the largest lake in the country – coming so close, you could almost touch the ice!

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Among all the white icy islands we came across with throughout the tour, there were also a few intense blue bodies of ice. It appears blue because this ice is very compact and so absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum, except blue – which is transmitted instead. The deeper under the surface of the visible glacier, the more compact the ice becomes and therewith, the bluer it reflects when a piece of it cracks and ends up floating in the water.

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Have you ever come up close to a glacier?

Glaciers in Calafate, Argentina

Visiting glaciers is exciting. I study the details of their rips, cracks and holes sharpening my senses in the hope of catching the next slide. I block all distractions – In my head, it’s just me and the glacier. Then I hear a crack. My heart starts racing and my head keeps turning from one side to the other.

Where did it come from?

Nothing seems to move. I continue to examine its rips, trying to guess which parts loose and are highly probable to break off in the next few minutes. I stare at it continuously, as if my glare could burn the last little piece that attaches it to the rest of the block. I hold my camera tight. I’m sure its going to happen any time soon.

I hear another crack. And another one. My head is spinning – I don’t know where to look anymore. And then, I see it – A big piece of blue glacier falls into the water at slow motion.

Not slow enough for me to turn on my camera. I will have to learn to be happy with only a mental picture then.

There have been a few times in life when I looked around myself, admired how far I had gotten and then told myself:

Holy sh*t, you actually made it!
(yes, I occasionally talk to myself – specially when I’ve accomplished something good or am about to do something that my other me knows I will regret in a few seconds).

Those times when I’ve felt so proud of myself that I shook my hands in glory and accomplishment have been usually limited to academic stuff: you know, the day I picked up a diploma in my masters’ graduation or the day I arrived a my 14th floor hotel room in Hong Kong and admired the beginning of my career. Or the day my school maths teacher, who peeked into each of our calculators and pencil cases during an exam didn’t notice my super super secret crib. But occasionally, I feel proud after completing a more physical challenge.

This, was one of them.

Overview of the 9km Trail to Mirador las Torres

We started off the day leaving our hotel at 7am to drive to the start of the trail at Hotel Las Torres. The hike is a 9km walk to the Mirador, most of the being (considerable) uphill. At the initial stage, the walk wasn’t steep; but for a good part of it, you walk exposed to the wind (which is usually quite strong around that corner). After walking about 300m uphill, you’ll stay at that level for a while, and will already start appreciating a broad view over the valley.

Torres del Paine, ChileLooking back

Looking into the Valley, Torres del Paine, ChileLooking forward

After reaching the campamento Chileno, you hike for another few hours – first drawing the curves of river Ascensio (a rather comfortable after-lunch walk), and later entering the woods. At this point, the trail starts to become steeper until reaching an open space from where the crazy moraine climb begins.

The Final Stage: Rocky Moraine

This final climb reaches 890m height in only 0.8km distance. However, you need to account for 45min/1 hour to reach the top. This is when you put your hiking shoes into a test – the path is a rocky ramp!

All the way up the moraine, you won’t see more than the peaks of the towers. It’s only once you reach the top that you discover the majestic landscape in front of you.

Torres del Paine, Chile

View From the Mirador: All three towers: Torre Sur, Torre Central and Torre Norte; the Torres glacier and a lake formed of glacial water.

Practical Information

Route: From Hotel Las Torres to Mirador Las Torres (Chile) – circular
Elevation gain uphill: 1.157m
Elevation gain downhill: 1.157m
Length: 19 km
Duration: 8 – 9 hrs trekking (12 hrs including breaks)
Difficulty: Challenging
Wikiloc: Mirador Las Torres, Chile

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Hiking aficionados will, sooner or later, come across The W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park – one of the most popular treks in Chile. This 5 day trek covers most of the park’s highlights including, among others, the Valle del Francés, which is often rated as the best landscape in the park.

I’d like to say that I did the complete W Trek – but I didn’t.

Instead, we stayed at one of the few hotels in the area and took day excursion to explore the different branches of the Trek. Was I lazy? Maybe – but I couldn’t really consider it part of my annual vacation leave if I had to return to the office with a damaged back, right?

Valle del Francés (or Frenchman´s Valley) is the central spike of the W, starting at Lago Pehoe towards the north east. Soon after departing from the Refugio Paine Grande, which was conveniently located next to the lakeshore, we could already admire the majestic Cuernos del Paine in front of us.

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

After an almost leisurely walk with easy paths and only minor ups and downs, we reached a suspension bridge over Río Francés. Even though this bridge was not as impressive in height and length as the one I crossed over the Massa River in Switzerland, the view over the raging river, the mountains and glacier definitely made up for that bit.

When crossing the bridge, we could get a 360º View over many of the park’s attractions: turquoise blue lakes to the right, the Cuernos del Paine to the front, Glaciar Francés to the left and Paine Grande to the back.

Waking up at 6:30am already became worth it!

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Once on the other side, we arrived at the Campamento Italiano, a simple (but therefore free of charge!) campsite in the park. From here on, day hikers are advised to continue up north as much as they want (there’s meant to be a beautiful viewpoint another 2 hours away from this point), always keeping in mind the departure of the last ferry back to the other side of Lake Pehoe.

Since our group was mixed in age and level of fitness, we all decided to continue up the river for another 20 minutes and find an exclusive spot to enjoy our lunch with a first class view of Glaciar Francés and take our time to explore the area.

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

The view over the fast-flowing river and the Glaciar Francés.

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

A bumblebee next to the French River

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Cuernos del Paine in the background

We wanted to postpone our time to return as much as possible – It just felt too good to sit on a warm flat stone, getting some color on our skins while cooling down our feet in glacial water. However, when the time had come to catch the last ferry of the day, we were surprised by a breathtaking view of Lake Pehoe (no Photoshop for this one, I swear!).

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Practical Information

Route: From Refugio Paine Grande (Lake Pehoe) to some point before Refugio Británico (Chile) – circular
Elevation gain uphill: 516m
Elevation gain downhill: 516m
Length: 19.6 km
Duration: 4 – 5 hrs
Difficulty: Easy
Wikiloc: Ok, so I didn’t find a wikiloc for this route exactly, but it might help to check out this guy who did the complete W circuit for reference.

Shortly after waving goodbye to a colony of Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena, we arrived at our last stop: Punta Arenas. From there, a mere 5 and a half hours ride took us into one of the World’s most impressive landscapes: the Torres del Paine National Park.

Torres del Paine National Park is takes it name from three impressive granite towers (torres) that, together with the horns (cuernos), rise more than 3,000 meters above the Patagonian steppe. It’s beauty and uniqueness was officially recognized in 1975, when it was declared World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

What makes this place so special?

The Mountains

Mountains in Torres del Paine, Chile

Those of you who know me, know that I love mountainous landscapes., which is a bit unusual from someone who’s spent her teens in a bikini.

That Torres del Paine National Park is considered a paradise for hikers and climbers and overall mountaineers was no surprise – its many valleys and peaks form a fantastic playground for any adventurer seeking for unspoiled allure!

I took the above picture of one of the Cuernos del Paine while hiking in Valle Francés.

The Lakes

Lake in Torres del Paine, Chile

Although I had spent two years living next to a beautiful lake in Switzerland, I held my breath as I saw the shades of blue of the lakes in the park.

Shouldn’t this color belong in the Caribbean?

I took this picture was taken from Puente Weber, overlooking Rio Paine and the Paine Massif.

The Flora

Flowers in Torres del Paine, Chile

The best months to travel to Torres del Paine is between October and April – not only because of the milder temperatures and longer hours of sunlight, but to appreciate the diverse flora that colors the ground of the park.

I soon learned that looking down can be as rewarding as looking up!

The picture above is of a bed of lupins, one of the iconic wildflowers in the Andean region in Patagonia.

The Waterfalls

Waterfall in Torres del Paine, Chile

The Park has two waterfalls – Salto Grande (pictured above) and Cascada del Rio Paine, which exhibit very different attractions. Salto Grande caught my eye due to the tremendous power used to drain the water from Lake Nordenskjöld to Lake Pehoé. Cascada del Rio Paine, although less powerful, had a perfect setting – in front of the dramatic Torres.

Although one can get closer to Salto Grande by walking down a few steps, I am certain that the best view was from the top of the Mirador, from where I shot this photograph.

The Fauna

Eagle in Torres del Paine, Chile

Torres del Paine is the perfect place for those, like me, enjoy getting closer to the regional wildlife. During my time in the park, I walked with guanacos and ñandús (darwin’s rhea), spotted a family of cute grey foxes, flamingos, condors and this majestic eagle – just to name a few!

I spotted this eagle during our lunch break, close to Lago Azul.

The Glaciers

Glaciers in Torres del Paine, Chile

The region we now know as Patagonia is said to have been once covered under a thick volume of ice. Millions of years have passed and still we find hundreds of (smaller) moving bodies of ice. Glaciar Grey is probably the most famous of the park’s glaciers, attracting a considerable number of tourists each year that want to experience ice trekking or get a closer look to the walls of ice from one of cruises. The large pieces that fall off the glacier slowly drift towards the stone beach, creating what is commonly known as a Cementerio de Tempanos (ice floes cementery).

In the picture: Lake Grey with a big ice floe and in the Grey Glacier in the background.

Arrival at Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

After surrounding Cape Horn and hiking up Wulaia Bay to soak up it’s beautiful and unspoiled landscape, we embarked our expedition cruise towards the Agostini Sound, in the heart of the Cordillera Darwin, in Tierra del Fuego. The region is famous for its numerous glaciers that, in some cases, reach all the way down to the sea.

In the afternoon, we got on our zodiacs to get a closer look to one of the most fascinating glaciers, the Aguila Glacier.

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

The Aguila Glacier is situated at the end of a tranquil lagoon and surrounded by mountains. The easy walk from the beach where we disembarked to the glacier itself took less than 15 minutes, and once I stood in front of it, I couldn’t help but taking more than 70 shots of it.

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

I was fascinated by the bright blue cracks, the way sun light illuminated the whites, the water reflections of the lagoon… there’s no doubt about it – Glaciar Aguila is ideal for any landscape photography enthusiast like me.

This is a continuation of my day hiking from Belalp to Riederalp, in the Bernese Alps. Don’t miss the first part of the 14 kms hike!

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At the time I placed my feet on the suspension bridge, adrenaline sarted to rush through my veins. I was walking on a gridded floor, and 80 meters beneath, the Massa river carried freezing meltwater coming straight from the glaciers.

As I approached the center of the bridge, I took a moment to admire the landscape. Impressive mountains on both sides, a furious river rushing below, and Europe’s largest glacier appearing in the back of the narrow valley.

20110823-094538.jpgMy view to the left.

20110823-095537.jpgMy view to the right.

After we had crossed the suspension bridge and climbed up a sandy path, we reached a small lake, the Gruensee (in english, Green lake).

It was surprising to read that, only 80 years ago, this area was still covered under the Aletsch glacier.

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What a difference has global warming made.

It’s scary to think that, in only one year (from 2005 to 2006), the Aletsch glacier lost 100 meters. According to scientists, the glaciers are retreating at an average rate of 3% per year – based on this rate, it is highly probable that our grand children won’t get to see Europe’s glaciers. Bloodcurdling, right?

When we entered the forest, we were greatful for the shadows its old trees were creating. Hiking at 2,000 meers altitude hadn’t been as refreshing as we had initially thought!

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The Aletschwald (in english, Aletsch Forest) stretches on the northern slope of the Hohfluh and Moosfluh mountains, beween 1,600 and 2,200 meters altitude and collects some of the oldest trees of Switzerland. Tests have shown that the swiss stone pines located in the forest are at least 600 to 700 years old!

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But it wasn’t only the flora that rewarded us for the (challenging) walk up to Riederfurka. Besides for enchanted trees and a variety of mushrooms, we were lucky to pass close to a pair of curious alpine ibex.

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After 3 hours of continuously walking uphill, we finally reached civilization – a pretty little hotel in Riederfurka, with breathtaking views over the forest, the glaciers and the path on which, one by one, exhaused but satisfied hikers emerged from the forest. A perfect place to rest ones feet, drink cold water and do some serious hikers watching.

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It took us 20 minutes to arrive to Riederalp, from were we took the cable car to Moerel – the closest train station. However, we couldn’t leave the swiss mountains without one last whim:

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A Valisian platter with local dried meat and cheese!

Practical Information

Route: From Belalp to Riederfurka (around the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland)
Elevation gain uphill: 475m
Elevation gain downhill: 479m
Length: 14 km
Duration: 4 – 4.5 hrs (including admiration stops!)
Difficulty: Moderate
Wikiloc: Aletsch Glacier. Note that this loc goes past Riederfurka further to Bettmeralp.

Hiking in Aletsch, Switzerland

The weather forecast promised a sunny weekend with temperatures reaching over 30C and so we decided to escape into the Bernese Alps, in the swiss canton of Valais. Having our doubts about the cooling effect that 1,500 meters difference in altitude could produce, we thought it would be best to reach towards the source of all freshness – a glacier.

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Switzerland has more than 1,800 glaciers, starting at just a few meters up to 23 kms length. The Grosser Aletschgletscher (in english: Great Aletsch Glacier) is the longest glacier in Europe and made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001. It covers more than 120 square kilometers of the Bernese Alps, which is considered to be the largest glaciated area in western Eurasia.

Some people would choose to jump into the lake – we chose to hike around the Great Aletsch Glacier.

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Our hike started at the Belalp Hotel, which is a 20 minute walk from the cable car station and rests right on the edge of the Aleschbord. From there, we hiked down a steep path down to Aletschji. During most of the 2.5 hours down, we had a breathtaking view over the glacier. Frankly, I could get tired of looking at it. At some point, I started to feel anxious, following an internal debate on whether I should or should not keep on taking pictures every 2 minutes and risk missing the last train to return home that day. I couldn’t resist myself, and decided that this risk was worth taking.

We came across some of Valais’ Blackneck goats. Their forequarters are black and their hindquarters white, and have long wavy hair. Aren’t they extremely cute?

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Every time we could, we drank and cooled our skin with glacier water – it taste so pure and refreshing!

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After descending 500 meters, we reached a 124 meters long suspension bridge that runs across a 80 meter deep ravine. Underneath, the Massa river flowed, charged with freezing water coming straight from the glaciers…

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As the title suggests, I’ve divided this post into two parts – one for each side of the Massa River. Please click here to move on to part II