A personal account of a six day trek / traverse / expedition on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, visiting El Chalten, Piedra del Fraile, Marconi Glacier, Paso Marconi, Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, Circos de los Altares, Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, Cerro Standhardt, Paso del Viento, Lago Toro.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap gives me a nervous ache in the pit of my stomach. I'm usually an desk-bound project manager. Yet I'm going to traverse it.
Reaching out of my tent, I glance at the huge expanse of ice we're camped upon. Dotted across this, the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, huge mountains slice out of the ice and soar into the sky. The largest peak in view is the snow-covered Cerro Lautoro, an active volcano. Sulfur fumes rise from its top and mix with the clouds that stream from its summit ridges. The peak is 35km away but seems close enough to touch. Behind Cerro Lautaro there is more of the same - ice and mountains - with no human habitation until the ice cap melts into the Pacific Ocean, 30 kilometres further on.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is a great ocean of ice sweeping west from the southern coast of Chile to its border with Argentina. Up to 650 metres thick and almost 13,500 kilometres square, it is said to be one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions.
Icy wastelands such as the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, not without reason, are usually out of bounds to the office-bound adventurer. But short trips here are possible, with the services of a guide, in Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park.
Los Glaciares National Park doesn't have, say, the Himalaya's high altitude to attract the masses. But its mountains rear up out of an otherwise flat landscape. Mount Fitzroy dominates the area, by virtue of its sheer size and bulk. Standing 3,441m high, it soars above its neighbouring peaks, spouting out glaciers and satellite crests that overshadow everything except the Torre Range, a collection of needle-like spires 7km south. Undisputed queen of the Torres is Cerro Torre, the Tower Mountain. It rises vertically for nearly all of its 3,128m and is generally regarded as one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb. That's not because of the altitude or highly technical climbing, but by virtue of its location: standing sentry for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre lies right on its edge. Once described by the South Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner as "a shriek turned to stone", the mountain receives the full brunt of the prevailing weather. The prevailing wet conditions, coupled with the almost constant high winds, regularly see Torre and its adjacent peaks covered in a maelstrom of moisture-laden, boiling storm clouds and coated in a rime of perilous, and at times unclimbable, snow and ice mushrooms.
Most people see Cerro Torre from the east. A feasible 2 day journey takes you from Buenos Aires to El Chalten, where you can step into the famous view found in the postcards all over the park's gateway town of El Calafate. Less common - and a world away in terms of the memories you'll come away with - is to ski out onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap and traverse over the ice cap, to the remote glacial cirque called Circos de los Altares, where you can gape, mouth wide open, right underneath Cerro Torre's cathedral-like proportions.
Not everyone who attempts the Patagonian Ice Cap traverse reaches Circos de los Altares. The biggest obstacle is the weather. Strong winds, known locally as Escobado de Dias, or God's Broom, are generated far out in the Pacific Ocean. Known to gather speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour, they race across the flat surface of the ice cap and hit the mountains with great force. Any visitor to the cirque, or climbing high on the mountains at this time, is at the complete mercy of the weather gods.
Another obstacle to a successful traverse of the ice cap are crevasses, both on the Marconi Glacier on the way up to the ice cap and at the mouth to Circos de los Altares. The largest of these crevasses, 100 feet (30m) across, even has a name, La Sumidero. Crystal clear water arrives into this 'sink; before swirling round and disappearing down a great black hole which would easily swallow a man. Then there’s your pack size. Potentially nine days out from El Chalten requires a lot of food and equipment and you'll analyse the contents of your rucksack like never before. 'Light is right' is the mantra for any such trip but remember, a canny man always keeps his toothbrush in one piece.
Most people will require the services of a mountain guide for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. You can use one of the local companies or hire one direct. In 2005, I used Pedro Augustina Fina of Argentina. He's a nice bloke, greyhound fit, with a naturally friendly smile. The trick is to slow him down with much of the gear, and to use your gas canisters first. He'll be wise to that now though. Pedro travels each year to El Chalten early, from Buenos Aires, to do some mountain climbing before the guiding season starts. He's been up both Aguja Poincenot and Aguja Guillaumet, serious peaks either side of Mount Fitz Roy and once spent 2 days under the ice cap hiding out the weather, after an ascent of Cerro Lautaro. On a different trip he took me on a partial circumnavigation of Mount Fitz Roy. But that's another story.
The author spent 7 days in 2005 traversing the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. He got superlative weather all week and spent two days enjoying the views in Circos de los Altares. Unfortunately he can't guarantee you'll get the same.
About the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap Traverse
Los Glaciares National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site in Patagonia at the tip of South America. It is named after the multitude of glaciers that flow east from the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, a great ocean of ice sweeping west from the borders of Los Glaciares National Park to the southern coast of Chile. The ice cap is up to 650 metres thick and almost 13,500 kilometres square and is said to be one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions.
About the trek
A full traverse of the Southern Patagonia Ice Cap is a major mountaineering expedition. For lesser mortals, week-long treks from El Chalten are possible with the assistance of local mountain guides.
This demanding trek/expedition is a fantastic and possibly unique adventure that circumnavigates the Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountain ranges by way of the Southern Patagonia Ice Cap. It gives the experienced trekker the opportunity to experience polar-type exploration as they travel across compact pack ice on snowshoes, towing their belongings behind them on a sled. The highlight of the expedition is an overnight camp in the glacial scoop of Circo de los Altares, the Cirque of the Altar. This great mountain cirque, originally termed ‘Hunger Valley’ but rechristened in 1974 by the first mountaineers to scale Cerro Torre, stands many kilometres from its two nearest exits to the ice cap; Paso Marconi and Paso del Viento. The remoteness of the cirque from these passes, and from the relative safety of El Chalten, is heightened by the sheer, kilometre-high west faces of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt, towering above the cirque floor.
The village of El Chalten in Argentina.
Minimum 6 days.
When to go
November to April for the Patagonia Autumn/Spring/Summer.
In good weather, fairly easy technically but very demanding. Physical fitness and stamina are a must.
Weather and conditions
Anything from still, blue skies to raging hurricanes and blizzards, with everything in between.
Mountain tents for the duration.
All on foot, though it is possible to get a lift to the closest habitation to the ice cap; the campsite at Piedra del Fraile.
Other things to do in Los Glaciares National Park
Smaller, day-long treks let you view the beautiful glacial lakes beneath Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Just outside the park, the vast Perito Moreno Glacier calves icebergs into Lago Argentino. Los Glaciares National Park – Travel & Trekking Guidebook by Colin Henderson has all the information on these trips and a variety of other things to do.