From the Archives: Jeff Fuchs is a mountain explorer who retraces ancient trade and pilgrimage routes. As editor-at-large for Outpost, he’s written about tributaries of the Silk Road (Wool, Salt and Spice routes), Peru’s Great Inca Road, and so many Himalayan footpaths they’re too numerous to list. In this story, he heads to the tip of South America, to the spectacular ice fields of Patagonia.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs
My eyes filled with tears as viper-like shards of ice blew up under my sunglasses—tiny crystals that were rocketing into me with little popping sounds. Though the wind, as always, was invisible, every sense screamed of its presence.
It ripped at clothing, exfoliated the skin, sounded like a shrieking maniac, smelled of fresh ice, and tasted like clean water. Wind had been shooting through the stone and the ice in this part of the world for as long as the planet existed, and here in Patagonia, it had perfected its tactics.
We are three bodies on an ice trek with that wonderful gift of travel—time. And have come to see a place that is on a kind of literal frontline of climate change: a narrow funnel of land that in a stunning expression of geography spreads eloquently across southern Argentina, to the very tip of South America. Few places anywhere host such magnificent and potent winds—here they harry, they stalk, they bludgeon.
Charlie, our guide, had motioned us to get down moments earlier, and here we lay, face down on the glacial ice, waiting out the howling air. Up ahead, I could make out the red jackets of Nana and Charlie nestling on the ice floor. Nana, a Taiwanese friend, had arrived here to see nothing but spires of ice and utter remoteness to be amidst her; and as I looked over at her now, it was as if the landscape itself was permeable, was trying to absorb her.
Nana had the hunger and large eyes of someone who can be in awe without needing to speak. A native of Taipei, with powerful legs and an equivalent will, she had hoped Patagonia would be exactly what we were taking in: a space entirely barren of people, encased in silver, whitish tones. I had spoken at length to her about coming here and already she was completely captivated.
Charlie, a languid and seasoned guide who had become as much friend as he was local expert, was taking us further out into (and onto) the ice field. Like so many of these gracious elegant hunks of frozen water, the glacier beneath us was slowly melting. I had come not to analyze this but to simply see, feel and take it in—mostly because like many I believe “it” would inevitably change within a worryingly short period of time. Numbers don’t always give full impressions; sometimes they just frighten, and I wanted impressions.
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The samples we will take as we trek are simply what the senses take in: eyes and ears will be busier than fingers. Statistically, there is more than enough data to speak to the fate of ice and water in the world where climate change is a daily utterance. Spending so much of my own time in the realm of another of the globe’s gauges of planet health, the Himalayas, I’ve come here, however, to mostly be.
From the nearby peak of Cerro Torre (Mount Torre), we were but three dabs of colour on a monotone of white, here on Glaciar del Torre (Torre Glacier). Though no walls, no lines, delineated where we were, all of this magnificence was part of the 4,459-square-kilometre Los Glaciares National Park on the Argentine side of Patagonia. We would spend several days in this UNESCO World Heritage site, wandering at will and exploring a place entirely dedicated to stone and ice.
An old Argentinian friend, Diego, once told me, “You must see the region, for it will change.” The stone will not move; but the ice, and the namesake of the park, may potentially disappear. And so our plans came together quickly, as they do when the heart is running on an ideal. A week spent living on or near the ice was our goal, and the irrepressible force that was Charlie came into the picture. Nana’s intense desire to both see and feel the place was her fuel and she easily made the journey from Taiwan.
For me, coming here was part of a greater journey through Argentina’s Andes and Buenos Aires, a teeming city where the memory of culinary thrills had yet to abate, and from where it’s but a brief plane ride to what feels strangely like the end of the world. Nana and I had arrived together and found Charlie (as many good things in life are) through word of mouth.
The rough plan was to set up a base camp east of the main glacier region, and to use it as a daily point of departure and return. By setting out on daily schedules, we could take in as much of the bowl-shaped beauty as possible. Base camps also provide a kind of understated luxury; they don’t need to be re-erected every night, and they’re comfortable and competent.
We had made our way into a valley where the stone narrowed, leading us further toward the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, a 14,000-square-kilometre swath of land the size of Luxemburg, and the second largest mass of ice in the southern hemisphere. Looking around at the predominantly white sheath stretching across the horizon, it didn’t seem so unreal that almost 40 percent of the park is ice field, housing 47 major glaciers, some of which feed its two large lakes. (The park has another 190 smaller glaciers. Read more on the Southern Patagonia Ice Field by NASA here.)
Nature’s elements often insist on being recognized, and here in southern Argentina, at the southern tip of South America, they seemed sure of their abilities, playing in concert for days, creating a kind of live and vibrant spectacle of ice, rock and wind. All life and non-life were subjugated to impulsive bursts of stampeding air: plant life held low to the ground, and the few trees that survive had long ago bent in submission, warped by the furious elements.
The winds here are known throughout the world for their reckless strength. High pressure systems from the west are drawn by low-pressure systems from the east, so that a constantly moving force never stops passing over and scrubbing the land. Winds scour more than 200 kilometres an hour at times (though 40 is average), sending daggers of ice whipping forward, producing three times the energy as those in the North Atlantic. So much does the wind dominate that trees, rocks and snow all pay homage to it—and so do we.
Now, as we lay on the ice, it all seemed part of Nature’s plan, forcing us to bow and pay our respects to a greater force. The sky was a calm and seamless blue, seemingly in contrast to the unseen wind. And face down there on the glacier, we were being initiated, being reminded that what was invisible had the power to humble.
Trekking in Los Glaciares National Park
Yet our interest lay more in the mountains than the ice. About 8,500 kilometres to the north, the almost 70 million-years-old Andes Mountains commence, passing through seven nations, entertaining the world’s highest volcanoes. But it is here in Patagonia—a region that straddles both Chile and Argentina—where they begin funnelling to an end. Further north along the range, cultures remain tucked into isolated villages and tight valleys, while here in the south, rocks and ice were solitary residents.
The Andes and their extremes were to be my focus during a series of treks and journeys I was undertaking in Argentina over two months. This was as far south as I would go, and it was as beautiful a place as I have ever been, or seen. (And I lived near the Himalayas.) We are out on a sloping slab of immense and unending ice that is dozens of metres thick, and that almost moans beneath us in a sort of melancholy roar. The sound is like a kind of announcement to my soul that all things distant will cease to matter and that the senses need to be configured, sharpened and tuned to the present.
The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world—rather incredibly, their northernmost extremity extends (sort of) to the Caribbean Sea: the islands of Aruba and Curacao represent their submerged northerly “peaks,” while their southernmost “tail” ebbs under the Antarctic Sea.
The rust and taupe-coloured Andes of Catamarca and Jujuy provinces in northern Argentina, and the arid deserts of La Rioja and San Juan, were long left behind—here at the bottom of the range, the ripples of the mountains were layered in white, with the winds providing a soundtrack to this lonely space. Many times I have thought of how wonderful and strange it was that in South America, where talk and expression are so much a part of people’s lives, there is still so much isolated beauty where voices seem to have no place.
When the wind finally died down, Charlie screamed “Vamos,” and we continued on, with the sharp peak of Cerro Torre falling off to the left. Directly to our right, the broad peak of Mount Fitz Roy sat blanching in the sun. Up further, my still barely visible footprints from the previous day’s wandering sat as rippled indents marching upward in the clean drifts.
They seemed to beckon once more, reminding me of the spectacle I had witnessed the day before—having moved up a massive slope of white, spending hours edging forward in increments, I had been treated to the kind of spontaneousness that only nature can muster.
A sudden sharp sound somewhere above and to the right rang out, followed by silence. I looked up at the sheets of ice, ever so carefully. Nothing. Then noticed the little pearls of snow streaking downward, leaving almost minuscule trails in the soft white. Knowing rather than seeing that something was coming, I stood stock-still. Without warning, a rumble higher up began and shook things briefly before subsiding.
Seconds later, a thrust of cool air came down from the heights, followed by a slow motion wave of white, as though the whole mountain was sinking into an abyss. For 10 seconds an entire wall of snow and ice plowed downwards not a hundred metres from where I stood. It didn’t rage at full speed, but powered down softly with an almost unearthly force—watching it made me think that power of this sort has no need for speed. It seemed so huge a swath of white that I felt as though it was I who was moving, and not it.
As the wave of snow came to a halt, all became still once more. These events are happening with more frequency, as even smaller temperature changes here affect conditions. The remoteness of the region also means such shifts are not as easily recorded. No animal migrations are thrown off, no intrepid birds can tell of what they might see from above.
The distant sun commands at will in the high mountains here. Its relentless rays loosens slabs of ice and snow from their high homes and sends them charging down to change the landscape yet again. Spring and summer thaws literally send mountains rushing down over mountains, and now the seasons were less defined, less certain than ever. On our first day together Charlie hinted at this, of what he worries most about for this region.
“Everything is becoming a stew.” It is as much these words of locals, their own oral narratives and observations, as any statistics, that speak of change and the speed of change. He called it, rather poetically, “a renovation of the landscape…with the architect having no blueprints to work from.”
Trekking with Charlie, wandering the peaks and valleys, was like travelling with nature’s most detailed observer. No brutal element, no raging torrents of wind, could faze him or leave him disturbed, and it was this that made time with him a kind of sage travel experience. He was Zen and Tao in his approach to each moment, each element—except, that is, when it came to this accelerated change in climate.
Up ahead, Charlie and Nana continued along a ridge further into an expanse of ice surrounded by peaks. We are four days into trekking, and Nana, a muscular and enthusiastic trekker, was revelling in the uncorrupted sheets of blue and white.
The sun, which seems to play at being either entirely present or entirely hidden, is beating down on us as we plough west. Apart from a party of nearby Austrian climbers, we had 16 square kilometres of ice to ourselves.
These glaciers are testaments to the world’s conditions, and hold in them incredible wealth: at present, the world’s glaciers contain about 70 percent of the Earth’s freshwater. These self-contained reservoirs store this precious cargo in ever-smaller blocks of ice, as climate change takes an ever-greater annual toll. Walking along, staring at the occasional thick cobalt glass patches, it felt like walking on the surface of a long hidden sea. Years of successive compacting had squeezed the oxygen out of the ice, creating high intensity blues that made me feel I had never before seen the very colour.
We crunched along in our crampons, skin absorbing a furious sun. Our small group trailed the three Austrians and their guide Diego, carefully avoiding crevasses and drops in the ice. These drops were light blue tunnels shooting down and leading to an almost certain death somewhere far below in an icy crypt.
Metres deep, they often remain unseen until pressure is applied, at which point the top layer gives way in a silent plunge down. As the massive ice blocks melt and shift, these fissures shift too, so what was safe one morning may be a death tunnel hours later. Nothing here could be taken for granted.
The ice was a soft blue fresco, recreating itself in different forms at will. Looking ahead, jagged ice teeth pushed out of the snow in perfect symmetry about 12 metres high. These massive teeth had been formed by ice shifts. Groans and creaks would rip through the air, the ice stretching and contracting beneath us. Climactic changes have seen these ebbs and flows occur more often too—all is related in nature, as it has always been.
The ones I peer intently at rest below the mass that is Mount Fitz Roy, a stunning upright of jagged stone that at 3,405 metres (about 11,100 feet) remains one of the most technically challenging mountains on the planet to climb. Our ice march has been punctuated by descents into valleys, across streams of silvery white water, with the sharp spires of Cerro Torre and its brothers and sisters looking over us constantly. Water here, we learn from Charlie, was absolutely pure. It contains no minerals, no pollutants, was cold enough to numb the gums. It hydrated us, and Charlie held it and savoured it in the manner of worship.
Winds ravaged yet stillness prevailed, and quiet glacier streams offered up gentle burbles. Few marks upon the landscape exist here, other than monochrome white and soothing blue, though gashes of black stone broke the pattern of white at odd intervals. Fossilized lichen was still visible on some stones, kept perfect by a dry cool environment. Sun, snow and ice seemed content to mesmerize us into a hallucinogenic state—it was a place of numbing calm.
Gusts of westerly wind split the clouds to allow glimpses at the ominous Cerro Torre. It stood defiant, light frothy clouds hovering around its peak. Charlie chuckled and said that whenever he looked at it he thought of how deceiving beauty could be. I asked him if he was speaking of love, or the mountains. “Both,” was his reply.
Further down, sudden grey cliffs covered in bleach-white snow warned of something coming forth. Just off to the right is snow-covered Mount Fitz Roy, named for the man who captained Charles Darwin’s ship up the nearby Santa Cruz River in 1834.
It is a sad irony that Darwin was so less curious of this stoic region, when it turns out these precious and remote masses of ice are so crucial to survival. (Perhaps he should have spent more time on land, and less fiddling with charts aboard the safety of his ship.) Fitz Roy, a beast of a rock, may see one or two successful climbers ascend annually—compared to Everest, which under ever-increasing numbers of climbers may see 80 times that in a single day during the high season.
Here, magnificence is measured in shape and form as opposed to altitude, temperature and size. Judging distances, with their lack of reference points, is a guessing game at best.
Patagonia is a region where, like the North Pole, the health of the planet can be monitored. Delicate mosses, known locally as Old Devil’s Beard, grow in abundance, their light green tentacles adorning trunks of trees. They grow particularly well in environs with zero-percent pollution, and though they run rampant on the scarce trees in the area, warning signs are present.
Patagonia has recorded the fastest levels of glacial retreat on Earth. The ice fields here are losing the equivalent of 42 cubic kilometres of ice every year, which stunningly equals the size of about 10,000 large sports stadiums. According to a study undertaken by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Chile, the rate of ice loss on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field occurred almost twice as fast from 2000 to 2012, as it did from 1975 to 2000. Apart from Antarctica, this southern tip of South America contains the largest ice fields on the planet, and as they’re melting they are contributing to rises in global sea levels. Comparing data from previous years, the researchers found that all this melting now accounts for about two percent of annual sea level rises—up from an average of .042 millimetres a year to .067 millimetres. Oddly, the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier continues to expand.
The Argentinians themselves know the value of this land; they’re reducing the number of supply horses, for example, that can come into national parks. Here, at times, the laws of the land supersede laws of convention, and the old Greek adage “with liberty comes eternal vigilance” seems prescient: the words appear to have taken hold in the people, and Charlie in particular seems the best of all conservation representatives.
He was a calm alpine machine who spoke little, except to warn us of the deadly fissures which lay in wait on the ice. He did not speak simply to impress, preferring the wonders to unfold as we trudged onward, then whispering an explanation of what we saw. He was, in many ways, the perfect understudy to the mountains.
The clear water of the glaciers ran in crystal rivulets, carving effortlessly through the ice. Charlie would call the water “magnifico” in his purring voice, and as many times as he had been here to climb and to trek the sights had not become mundane. Indeed, they were magnificent and silence encased us, until Charlie finally said, in his accented English, “I hope you never forget this place—it stays here in me,” while pointing at his temple.
He looked up toward the sky, adding that only the gods get to decide who successfully climbs here: the mountain teeth of Patagonia are known around the world for the skill and the patience needed to climb them—yet it’s the weather that ultimately decides if an attempt is allowed.
“Many a climber has waited for weeks, while his time to ascend disappears with an unsympathetic weatherman,” Charlie tells us.
He finishes with a suspicious smile that almost looks satisfied at such a result. I wonder at him, thinking he might be one of those rare climbers who are content that not all stone should be ascended by all who show up.
As the Ice Field Rumbles
Our friend, the sun, had shifted, and while there was much day left it was time to head back to camp. A loud crack stopped us and echoed through the air, followed by an eerie silence. In a flash I recalled my experience of the previous day, and wondered where the now expected white descent would take place. Far ahead, we could see the Austrians had stopped as well.
After a moment came that familiar rumbling. Charlie whispered “Avalanche,” and then high off in the distance to our left a whole chunk of ice shifted and disintegrated, sending pieces of glacier tumbling down. An incredible white on white; a little empire crumbling and streaming its way down, erasing all, as if to begin anew.
We head back through the Torre ice field, around a lagoon’s green waters, and walking through the prehistoric Nirè (a type of tree) forests that have been bent by the winds. Intense green leaves, small and thick, defied the ice and stone here, as if to infuse a little colour into the place. Our camp sat sheltered in a low-lying area, out of sight of the ice. Cool evening crept in—the cool coming from the ground up, and the sun taking its daily bow.
A canvas-covered field kitchen and an eating area comprised the rest of our encampment. The Austrians and their guide Diego returned. Diego was all nonstop motion, all twitching muscles and ceaseless optimism. He told me that if he ever had an office job chances are he’d simply disappear one day and never return, just pack a bag and walk till the mountains were within sight.
With the sun gone, a deep cold seeped into the camp, as if the world had suddenly opened its deep vents. We had been arriving and departing for days now; coming back after days on the ice fields and taking supplies on forays into and beyond the glaciers. Our arrivals at camp were that much more wonderful on seeing the warm face of Guadalupe—our cook was one of those natural beauties who seem oblivious to it.
One of the guides told me her nickname was “Sloppy Beauty” because her hair was forever dishevelled and she had a quality of brutal bluntness that only enhanced her appeal. Most importantly on this trip, however, was how she could conjure up spectacular meals at will, and for us she had attained a kind of status typically reserved for the mountains. Some even called her “Cerro Loupe (Mount Loupe),” for short.
Hot chocolate and biscuits followed dinner, until darkness pulled the night over us. Darkness came late, but when it did it shut down everything, even as the ice and the earth eked out their cold. I briefly wondered what the ice was like during the night—did it sleep too, or did it wake to marvel at its own beauty? Was it aware of its own changes, its own losses, its own importance?
My insulated tent seemed strangely incapable of keeping out the air that was seeping from the frozen ground. Somewhere in the dark, one of the Austrians was snoring with a vengeance, though apart from that the night was deadly still.
The mornings typically found us shaking out our numb joints, followed by a steaming cup of mate (what I would call an Argentinean tea-like beverage), and a bowl of porridge. I had my own stash of Oolong tea (I am a tea connoisseur—no, a self-declared fanatic!), which came with me on all of my outdoor jaunts, my loyal little leaves eager for water.
On the morning of departure, Guadalupe packed a bag of goodies while Charlie quietly reminded me not to forget what I saw and felt here. “It will have changed in a few years from now.”
The trek back to civilization carried us over bogs and through forests of barkless trees, with one geography ebbing into another as we approached a more green topography. Nana and I had departed the safety of camp and the brilliance that was Charlie, as we needed to head north to another section of the Andean spine.
As we trekked, we saw tiny red berries called manzanilla growing low to the ground, adding dashes of brilliant colour to this cool and perfect place. I had deliberately chosen a more remote route, wanting to ease into civilization gradually.
For the seven hours it took to reach the nearby town of El Chaltén, Argentina, a major launching point for a southern Patagonian trek, not once was the wind absent. Tibetans used to believe that wind was both the origin of life and a bringer of change—and I couldn’t help but wonder if here it was simply blowing air, or creating life. *
- This story first appeared in Outpost magazine and has been adapted.