May 31, 2016

Breathtaking Glacier Views in Patagonia

The Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong

Have you ever wanted to travel to the ends of the Earth? Can you imagine being in a town that is closer to Antarctica than to any major population center? Would you like to strap crampons on over your boots and, like the T-shirt from the 1970s says, "Go Climb A Glacier"? If so, then my sixteen-year old daughter and I have one word for you – Patagonia.

Patagonia is not near anywhere that you likely ever have been, and that may be one of the best things about it. At least two flights are required to reach El Calafate, a town on the periphery of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz. The first flight takes you to Buenos Aires, a beautiful, vibrant, and charming city that is worth an extended visit (or two) on its own – for my daughter and me, this was our fourth time in Argentina’s capital city. From New York, it is about eleven hours nonstop, generally overnight, with a one-hour time change. So, if you can sleep on the long flight or manage a business class upgrade, you will arrive refreshed and with only the slightest morsel of jet lag – imagine the time change from the East Coast of the United States to Bermuda. And the excellent Argentine coffee will halp you shake off any lingering drowsiness.

The second flight is another matter entirely. From Buenos Aires, you fly south, south, south for more than three hours, over the Southern Atlantic and the Argentine coast to the remote town of El Calafate. El Calafate is the gateway to the backpacking, hiking, and adventure travel for which Patagonia is justly famous. It is nestled on the shore of Lago Argentino, a vast and deep freshwater lake. In the dozen miles from the friendly airport to town, we saw nearly nothing in the way of development – instead, we gazed at rolling hills dotted with boulders, small shrines to the Virgin Mary, dozens of horses, and one – exactly one – deep green pine tree. And of course, that beautiful lake.

El Calafate is the kind of town where interesting things happen. In 2006, Steve Fossett set the gliding high altitude record of 50,722 feet – nearly ten miles. In 2010, it was one of the best venues in the world to observe a total solar eclipse – and imagine how clear the air must have been! These days, El Calafate, which is named for a delicious dark blue berry that grows wild in Patagonia, is known for its food, its hospitality, and of course, adventure travel.

It does not take long to get a sense of the town. The main street is Avenida del Libertador General San Martin. This is where you will find the bank and ATM, many excellent restaurants at every price point, a large craft market, and of course, many excellent outfitters that can meet your needs for a bus tour, a boat tour, or a week-long trek. There are several small local hotels within a block or two of Avenida del Libertador as well. You won’t find global brands in El Calafate, but you won’t miss them either.

We stayed at one of the best and most charming local properties, the Hotel Posada Los Alamos. This property is designed in the style of an expansive Alpine villa, with exposed brick and stone walls, vaulted exposed-beam ceilings and the warmest of welcomes from a multilingual staff. Many of the rooms have fireplaces, and a large breakfast buffet (including traditional fried bread and Calafate berry preserves) is included in the very reasonable room rate.

Early that evening, we faced our first serious challenge – deciding among a range of delightful options for an early dinner. We settled on La Lechuza Pizza a la Piedra, which is the more casual of the pair of La Lechuza restaurants located on Avenida Libertador. With the help of our Argentine friends, we were easily able to navigate the menu and enjoyed a tasty meal of burgers, pasta and salad. On other nights, we sampled small family-run restaurants, and one afternoon we feasted on sweet and savory breads at Panaderia Don Luis, where we were the only customers. And as we studied the maps, guidebooks, and brochures describing our glacier adventure the following day, I realized that I had very little idea of what exactly to expect!

We arose early the next morning in time for a quick buffet breakfast at La Posta, the hotel’s knotty-pine restaurant, including several local specialties, and then assembled for our 7:15 a.m. bus to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Several steps are involved in getting to the glaciers, even from El Calafate, but our outfitter, Hielo & Aventura, made it simple for us. The first step is a 50-mile bus ride, through the Patagonian mountains and valleys. About halfway through, we entered the National Park, paid the admission fee, and continued to a small pier located in Bajo de las Sombras port, deep in the park.

After the bus, the next step was a boat, with the glacier in sight. We boarded a boat to cross the Rico Arm of Lago Argentino, with eyes (and iPhones) fixed on breathtaking views of the Perito Moreno glacier. Much of the glacier wall was bright – actually, brilliant – white, but the glacier’s deep crevasses were pure sapphire blue. Unimaginably, startlingly blue. The sun was warm, the air was cool, and the breeze blew tiny flecks of ice the size of grains of sand into our faces. We reached the opposite shore in about thirty minutes, and hiked about a quarter mile to several huts where we could store our box lunches and any other loose items, pick up boots and gloves if needed, and meet our mountain guides.

We organized into groups of about twenty, based on language skills, and the Anglophones headed out first. We hiked about half a mile along a path and series of raised boardwalks to our first stop, on a small crescent pebble beach directly across from the face of Perito Moreno. Here our guides gave us a thorough orientation, and they were delightful, informative, and direct.

We learned that the Patagonian glaciers, unlike many others around the world, are not receding – in fact, they are in balance, and even though they calve off huge chunks of ice on a regular basis, they grow from their Western exposure to the moisture of the Pacific Ocean, and flow at a comparatively (for a glacier) brisk pace. Perito Moreno is vast – three miles wide, with an average height of 240 feet above the surface of Lago Argentino and a total ice depth of almost 560 feet. And it is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which spreads across Argentina and Chile and is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. We also learned that just a few weeks earlier, the glacier had a massive rupture, caused by the pressure created as it advances into the lake.

But while our guides were well versed in the geology and history of the glacier region, they were most focused on our trek. "Follow our instructions," the lead guide said. "Stay behind me, do not follow the guides to the side, they are checking the safety of the ice. If you do follow them, you may fall and die instantly." Already it was clear that this was not just another nature walk! "We will stop for photos at several places, but do not try to take photos while we are hiking. It is very dangerous!"

Crampons were next. Crampons for glacier trekking bear a remarkable resemblance to medieval armor. They are made of heavy metal with thick leather straps, and their "soles" are comprised of inch-deep metal prongs. At first, we found it challenging to walk with them – the preferred technique entails turning each step into a stomp. It seemed especially difficult as we made our way down the last hundred yards or so between us and the ice. But as soon as we were on the ice field, it became clear that our heavy metal footwear was not a luxury – it was a necessity.

Confidence came quickly as we followed our guide’s lead with care. Every few steps, he chopped at the ice with a large ice pick, The crampons and gloves that seemed awkward at first became our allies as we moved in a single file line, with two guides to our left and right checking the stability of the ice and one more at the rear. We shared gasps at the sights and struggled for comparisons with things we had seen or done in the past.

For the next two hours, we discovered the glacier’s landscape – at first, up a crunchy mix of ice, rock, and soil, then along steep walls of ice marbled with dark lines of earth, and then onto the top of the glacier itself. Imagine rolling "hills" of brilliant pure white, crisscrossed with lines of deep blue, all against the background of the Andes peaks. Even photos scarcely do justice to the experience of traversing streams, lagoons, gullies, crevasses, and fields of pure white and blue ice. At some points, waterfalls cascaded down from the top of a deep crevasse, at others, rounded masses of ice undulated as far as we could see. Occasionally, but not often, we could see the group behind us, and it was hard to imagine that we had just followed the same path. Mostly, we could see only the vast white of the glacier, the snow-capped mountains behind it, and sometimes, the expanse of the lake. And sometimes, we could hear a low and indescribable sound, as a chunk of the glacier’s face calved into the water.

Of course, not everyone can tackle a glacier trek – but if you are steady on your feet and able to hike several miles, you should be able to manage without difficulty. But it is worth noting that these magnificent edifices can also be viewed – quite appropriately, perhaps – from the water. Several outfitters offer boat trips lasting from one hour to most of a day, and on the day after our glacier trek, we embarked on the "Greatest Glaciers of Lago Argentino" cruise for several hours. This cruise began in Puerto Bandera, and took us into the north branch of Lago Argentino, to the face of the massive Upsala glacier. Upsala is the largest glacier in South America, covering an area of nearly 230 square miles, or three times the area of Buenos Aires. The approach to Upsala is a mix of deep green forests and valleys, and as with the other glaciers, the background is the Andes peaks. We navigated through more than a dozen massive stark white and deep blue icebergs to reach the glacier wall, looking up as if we were gazing at an urban edifice. From Upsala, we sailed to the Spegazzini glacier, smaller at 25 square miles but breathtaking in its height of nearly 450 feet, or the equivalent of a 40-story building.

Toward the end of our trek, our guide whimsically promised a surprise. As we came around a bend, there it was – a large pine box, turned into an impromptu bar, a huge bowl of glacier ice, and pitchers of glacier water. Oh, and yes, a bottle of single malt scotch. Whether with "ice" water or scotch on the rocks, we toasted the glacier, our guide, and each other for a remarkable adventure. And even though this seemed like one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" experiences, my daughter and I have promised each other to return!

The Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong

The Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong is a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge in the Eastern District of New York. She is a member of the American Bar Association House of Delegates, representing the Judicial Division’s National Conference of Federal Trial Judges, Business Law Section Council, and Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. She previously served as a member of the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, Standing Committee on the American Judicial System, and Standing Committee on Continuing Legal Education.