Monthly Archives: February 2018

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Circo de los Altares – Day 4

The weather forecast over dinner last night predicted clear skies and little-to-no wind for our first day hiking down the South Patagonia Icefield to the Circo de los Altares campsite.

Or not…

The day didn’t start out too bad to be honest, but within an hour, the clouds had completely obscured the mountains and the wind became a force to reckon with.

Heading towards the Icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Heading towards the Icefield, the weather didn’t start off too bad

We spent the first hour crossing another crevasse field towards the smooth snow we could see from the Refugio Garcia Soto.  After 1.5 days, hiking across a glacier with crampons had started to lose some of its novelty and, if you have weak ankles, I wouldn’t recommend that you undertake this trip this late in the season.  

crevasse field and dark clouds over the icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

By the time we’d reached the other side of the crevasse field, the weather was looking a lot worse

Juan bought our friend, the rope, out again once we reached the snow and tied us together in a 3rd configuration.  We were in an area where the crevasses ran parallel to our direction of travel, so hiking in single file would result in all of us falling into the crevasse if Juan was clever enough to find one.  In this new configuration, we fanned out in the same way that search and rescue teams do, so that if one person fell into a crevasse, the rest of us would hopefully still be on solid ice and could pull them out.

Another rope configuration - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I was in the middle of the group and so had trekking companions fanned out on either side of me

This was tough going!

Although the snow was only about 5-15cm deep, it still required more effort than walking on a solid surface, and we were battling a strong headwind.  Fortunately, this section was relatively short, and we once again changed into the original configuration of a single-file.

My shadow and the rope - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

My shadow and the rope as I follow Reto down the Icefield

Here I discovered that being short is a disadvantage.   Although our route was fairly flat and the snow not terribly deep, it was still easier to walk in the bootprints of those in front of me than to forge my own way through the snow.  But everyone in front of me had a much longer stride.  I felt like a little kid trying to walk in the footprints of my dad – managing to reach the first few, but then either having to jump or make my own way for a few paces before rejoining the trail.  

For the next 8km, Anita (who was roped behind me) and I half-walked/half-ran to keep up with the pace.  It was a great workout, but when we stopped for a brief lunch, we had to ask them to slow down a bit!

Trekking down the Icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The bootprints made by Juan, Rafa and Reto were just a little too far apart for me. I ended up half-walking, half-running down the Icefield

By this time we were out of Argentinean empanadas and had moved on to our “brick sandwiches” for lunch.  These are large, heavy bread rolls stuffed with a huge amount of meat and cheese, and were very reminiscent of our lunches on the Torres del Paine Circuit (where I first coined the term).  As I did in Torres del Paine, I ended up pulling all the filling out and eating just that, not bothering with the bread.  While it is important to eat more calories on an Expedition like this, it was still too much for me – particularly when I don’t eat a lot of bread normally.  The difficulty was actually getting to the filling!  Because it was so cold, prizing the roll apart took some skill and perseverence!

lunch - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Lunch on the Icefield. This was an exceptionally brief one due to the lack of shelter and the fierce wind – to the point where most of us didn’t even sit down (top). The “brick sandwiches” were enormous (this one is already have eaten) and difficult to pull apart to get to the good stuff (bottom)

Almost all of our snack or lunch breaks on the Expedition were very short as, in these conditions, you cool down very quickly once you stop moving.  Here on the Icefield we had no protection from the howling wind, and we soon hoisted our packs and continued our hike South.

Looking back up the flat icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Looking behind us in the direction from whence we’d come. The Icefield was relatively flat with about 15cm of snow, and the strong wind roaring down it meant we didn’t stop for long at any of our breaks

For the next hour or so we continued hiking down the back-side of the mountain ranges that have turned El ChaltĂ©n (a town which didn’t exist before 1985) into the hiking capital of Argentina. By this point we had a tailwind of at least 60km/hr and, even though it was working with us, it was tiring to continually need to brace yourself against its pressure and random gusts. 

Mountains - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The back-side of the mountains for which El Chalten is famous. Not many people get to see this!

We entered another crevasse field covered in a light dusting of snow, and Reto, Rafa and I all fell.  Reto was first, falling to his knees as the snow gave out underneath him.  Then Rafa plunged to hip-depth about half an hour later.  My own experience was just to knee-depth, but it was an interesting experience to have what appeared to be solid ground disappear beneath me.

water-filled crevasse - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

We came across these easily visible water-filled crevasses, but there were many, many others that were hidden beneath the thin layer of snow!

Our campsite for the night – Circo de los Altares – was located about half way down the mountain range and set in a small valley that offered some protection from the wind.  It is meant to be the most spectacular campsite of the Expedition, but unfortunately the weather was not cooperating!  Perhaps tomorrow…

Circo de los Altares camp - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

View towards the mountains from the Circo de los Altares camp. Unfortunately, this was the best view we had of what is apparently the most amazing campsite of the entire trip

We arrived at about 3pm and quickly went about setting up the tents and creating small snow walls for extra protection. 

Setting up camp at Circo de los Altares - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Setting up camp at Circo de los Altares. Pitching tents and building snow walls

And I have to admit, even with the mountains obscured by cloud, it was pretty spectacular!

Circo de los Altares camp - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views of our camp at Circo de los Altares – towards the mountains (top) and towards the Icefield (bottom)

Despite the relatively sheltered location and our snow walls, it was still very cold and windy outside, so we hunkered down in our tents listening to the wind beat against the outside.

Inside the tent - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

It was nice and cosy inside the tent, despite the wind howling outside

The weather deteriorated as the afternoon progressed, but Juan and Rafa kept us supplied with hot water, and eventually appeared with a delicious rice and lentil stew for dinner and a Dulce de Leche Milka bar for dessert 🙂  Juan also explained the plan for the next days before we all had another early night.

Explaining the plan - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Juan explaining the plan for the next days

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 5.5 hours
  • Distance Covered: 14.7km
  • Altitude:  +73m, -335m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El ChaltĂ©n to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to BahĂ­a TĂ©mpanos
  • Day 8 – BahĂ­a Tempanos to El ChaltĂ©n
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Gorra Blanca Ascent – Day 3

Our Day 3 of the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – the climb to the summit of Gorra Blanca (White Hat) – doesn’t actually exist in any of the information made available by Serac Expeditions or Swoop Patagonia.  Due to the unpredictable nature of Patagonian weather, the expedition has extra days built into the schedule, and this summit is an optional side-trip available to the guides if the weather cooperates.   We were very fortunate to have had good weather so far, and a decent forecast for the rest of our trek.

If you don’t think about it too much, summiting Gorra Blanca would seem to be a doddle compared to the previous day’s vertical climb up a massive cliff.  For a start, we would only be carrying a day pack – leaving the majority of our heavy backpack behind at the Refugio Garcia Soto.   However, if you delve into the fine-print on a map, it reveals that the summit of Gorra Blanca lies at 2900 metres above sea level – 1500 metres above the level of the Icefield.  That’s right, an ascent of 1,500 metres in less than 5km.  If you do the maths – you’ll realise it is bloody steep!

Gorra Blanca as seen from the Garcia Soto Refugio - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Gorra Blanca as seen from the Refugio Garcia Soto. The summit is the small, snow-capped peak just to the left of centre

We were up at 5am for an early breakfast, and out on the ice just as the sun started to light the Eastern sky.

On the ice before dawn - Gorra Blanca ascent - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

On the ice before dawn, ready for our ascent of Gorra Blanca

Wet-weather gear (this time mostly to cut the wind), crampons, harnesses and headlamps on, we set off in the pre-dawn darkness back down the last part of yesterday’s route.  This initial descent was necessary in order to cross a depression in the glacier before starting the ascent proper.

Trekking companions silhoutted against brightening eastern sky - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Fitz Roy range in the background as my companions hike up from the depression in the glacier in the pre-dawn light

The first part of the ascent saw us negotiating a complicated crevasse field 

Negotiating the crevasse-field in the pre-dawn light - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Negotiating the steep crevasse field in the pre-dawn light

and we had to back-track several times to find a way through when the crevasses were too wide for us to jump.  If you are scared to stare into and jump over the abyss, this trek is not for you!

Images of crevasse field - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

We had to find a way through an extensive crevasse field at the start of our ascent to the summit of Gorra Blanca

With the sun finally above the horizon and the worst of the crevasses conquered, we stopped for a snack and to rope ourselves together for the next part of the ascent.  We had reached a point where snow started to cover the ice.  Early in the season, this doesn’t cause any problems as the snow covering is thick and can support the weight of a person.  However, in February, the snow can be quite thin, and the ropes were to ensure that if one of us fell into a hidden crevasse, the others could brace and pull them out.

Juan instructing group on how to walk while roped - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Juan explaining to us how to walk while roped

For most of us, it was our first time hiking while roped and Juan explained that we had to keep enough slack in the rope so that it just touched the ground as it hung between one person and the next.  This was to ensure that if one of us accidentally “discovered” a crevasse, we wouldn’t fall too far and hurt ourselves.  

“The other important thing to remember”, he said “is that you owe me a beer every time you tread on my rope!”

Crampons are sharp enough to damage a rope and, if stepped on too many times, will render it useless as a safety measure.

Rope - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The rope! And cool patterns in the snow formed by the very strong winds that usually roar through here

I have to say, it can be surprisingly difficult to keep the rope from underfoot!  Juan searched for a pace that would suit the whole group, but even once established, individuals would speed up or slow down randomly.  The rope required constant vigilance and I found myself totally obsessed with it as we started up the snowy slope.

Hiking while roped - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

This is how the rope should look – just touching the ground between each person

This first part of the ascent was a steep 30 degree incline.  And if that doesn’t sound all that steep – I challenge you to walk up a similarly inclined hill for an extended period!  Even with the slow pace set by Juan, it was a good workout. Fortunately, watching the rope kept me distracted.  

After a brief rest at the col (essentially a saddle point), we then headed for the even longer and steeper (about 45 degrees) slope that led up to the final summit “mushroom”.  Looking up from below, it still seemed impossibly far away. 

Route to Gorra Blanca Summit - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Taken on the way down, you can see our boot-prints in the snow. We hiked up the smooth slope on the left to reach the ridge (the col). Then followed the ridge to the summit. Yes – it was very steep!

By this time, the rope had lost its allure for me and my attention was unfortunately focused on my pounding heart, straining lungs and tired legs.  It was a very tough, uphill slog!  However, we were unbelievably lucky with the weather, and each of our short rest stops was a relief and a welcome opportunity to look around and take in our incredible surroundings.  

Anita waiting behind me on one of our rest stops - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Anita waiting behind me on one of our rest stops up the 45 degree slope from the col to the mushroom of Gorra Blanca

Up, up, up we trudged.   And I have to admit, I almost broke about 50 metres before reaching the base of the “mushroom”.  But the rope won’t let you fail, and I was almost dragged that last short distance by Juan, Rafa and Reto who were in front of me.

Approaching the mushroom - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Approaching the mushroom at the summit of Gorra Blanca

Here I regained my composure (and my breath – we were at almost 3,000m above sea level at this point) and we all added extra layers to what we were wearing.  Though there had hardly been any wind at all during our climb, Juan expected it to be very blowy standing on the summit.

The last short section up the “mushroom” was essentially vertical.  Juan and Rafa gouged “steps” into the ice, strategically placed an ice-axe as a hand-hold, and then scrambled up themselves so they could use the ropes to assist us.  

Climbing the summit mushroom of Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The last few metres to the summit of Gorra Blanca was almost vertical. Thank goodness for crampons, ropes and icepicks

And finally, we were all there!  On top of the world with a 360 degree view of the most incredible landscape.  From here we could see Lago O’Higgins and the 200km distant San Lorenzo mountain (it was an amazingly clear day)!  Lago Viedma, Cerro Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and the whole Fitz Roy/Torre massif, Cordon Gaea, and the South Patagonia Icefield.  

Views from the summit of Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Unfortunately I didn’t take a panorama. But here are three views from the summit of Gorra Blanca. Lago O’Higgins and San Lorenzo mountain (can you spot it in the far distance in the top image?), the Fitz Roy massif (middle) and the South Patagonia Icefield (bottom)

It was every bit as cold and windy as Juan had predicted and we only stayed for about 15 minutes.   Yes, I know.  All that effort for 15 minutes.  But to be honest, each step of the way is an amazing experience, and the sense of achievement at the end is incredible. 

This is called “Type 2 Fun” – not necessarily fun in the moment, but the best thing ever after once it’s done.

Me at the summit of Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Success! The summit of Gorra Blanca with an amazing view over Cerro Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and Lago Viedma.

Once back down the “mushroom”, we ate a quick lunch and changed rope configurations for the descent of the 45 degree slope.   It is always more dangerous to descend than ascend, and in this new configuration, our guides could brace us if we fell and couldn’t regain our footing. 

We split into two groups with Anita and Reto tied to Rafa, and Jan and I tied to Juan.  We were to walk ahead of and to the side of our guide, following the bootprints we had made on our way up.  It looked to me as if Juan and Rafa were parents with two wayward children on leashes, but who was I to comment.

The decent - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

In this configuration we split into two groups to ensure a safe descent of Gorra Blanca

We made it back down to the col without anybody starting an avalanche, and had another snack and rope configuration change near an ice overhang that looked just like a wave breaking!

The Ice Wave - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Juan and Rafa playing in the “Ice Wave”

We were back to the original rope configuration, but this time with Reto in the lead.  He set a cracking pace down the trail we’d made on our way up, and it was such a pleasure to plunge down the snowy slope admiring the incredible surrounding vistas.  So much easier than going up!

Descending Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

We had one more change of rope configuration to put Juan and Rafa in the lead as we picked our way back through the crevasse field – a journey which seemed to take forever.  Hiking on the melted top of a glacier is ankle-turning stuff, even with mountaineering boots with ankle support.  You have to concentrate and watch every step you take to be sure of your foot placement, and after 7 hours of difficult hiking, this is pretty draining.

Negotiating the crevasse field - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

The glacier is not smooth and you really have to watch where you are walking. Negotiating the crevasse field again with the South Patagonia Icefield in the background

At one point, I saw the Refugio below us to our left and thought we must have been taking a different route back to avoid the final climb from the depression in the glacier.  But it was a false hope.  An indeterminable amount of time later, the hut appeared above us to our right, up the hill that I had hoped to avoid.   This made sense, of course, as there was no other way to cross the glacier.

The never-ending approach to the Refugio - Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

We could see the hut below us from the crevasse field (top), but we still had to walk the long way around the depression in the glacier to get to it (bottom)

On the way up to the hut, we all stopped to refill our water bottles.  One of the fabulous things about hiking in Patagonia is that in many places (and particularly here), you can drink the water straight out of streams and rivers … and off the top of glaciers.

Refilling drink bottle from the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

You can refill your water anywhere on the South Patagonia Icefield

Juan and Rafa filled all the water bags they were carrying so we would have enough to cook dinner and breakfast without having to go out again, and we finally reached the hut, tired but elated at our very good fortune to have been able to summit Gorra Blanca.  Many people don’t have that opportunity due to poor weather.

Juan and Rafa refilling water bags in front of Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Juan and Rafa refilling our water supply from rivulets of water flowing along the top of the glacier. Gorra Blanca is the left hand peak in the background

After tea and bikkies, we spent the rest of the afternoon soaking in the sunshine

Soaking in the sun outside the Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Anita and Reto soaking in the sun outside the Refugio Garcia Soto

drying clothing

Drying clothes at Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I’m not sure this is what the Chileans had in mind for the gye-ropes that hold down the Refugio Garcia Soto. But it worked a treat!

checking out the local vegetation (yes, it exists!)

Vegetation - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

There are some very hardy plants in this world!

and enjoying the views that so few people have the opportunity to see.  Move your cursor across the image to scroll through the full panorama.

 

After a dinner of instant soup, pasta+pesto+grated parmesan, and chocolate, I headed back out to watch the evening light play over the Refugio Garcia Soto and surrounding landscape.   

Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto perched on its rocky outcrop above the South Patagonia Icefield

The Fitz Roy range glowed against a backdrop of dark clouds.

Cerro Fitzroy from the Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The views don’t get any better than this!

The summit of Gorra Blanca looked like an impossible achievement.

 Gorra Blanca - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The summit of Gorra Blanca in the evening light

But we had conquered it.

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 9.5 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.5km
  • Altitude:  +1500m, -1500m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El ChaltĂ©n to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to BahĂ­a TĂ©mpanos
  • Day 8 – BahĂ­a Tempanos to El ChaltĂ©n
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

Like what you have read? Please follow and like me:
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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Marconi Glacier – Day 2

The trip description from Serac Expeditions for the South Patagonia Icefield Trek says this about Day 2:

…we trek up the glacier until nearing the Marconi pass – entrance to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.  This will surely be the Expedition’s toughest day.

This is what had been fueling my fears for months!

We awoke to rain and wind, and had a brief breakfast of cornflakes and tea while still in our sleeping bags.  Although I put it off as long as possible, I did eventually have to emerge, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the rain was not as heavy as it sounded from inside the tent.  We got dressed in our waterproof pants, jackets and gaiters and packed up quickly ensuring, as per Juan’s advice, that our sunglasses, crampons and harness were easy to get to in our packs.

And so began our climb up to the glacier and the entrance to the Icefield.

Trekking companion on the climb to the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

A not-so-steep part at the beginning of our climb to the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier.

Was it as tough as it was made out to be?  

Absolutely!

And this was despite the fact that we had a pretty good day for this part of the trek!  On some expeditions the wind is so strong that they have to stay extra days at Lago 14 waiting for it to abate.

The first 1.5 hours of the climb was essentially straight up a vertical cliff – in many places more like rock-climbing than hiking.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. changes in climate over the past few years have made ascending directly via the Marconi Glacier too dangerous.  This new route accesses the Icefield via the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier, whose face is at a higher altitude than the Marconi Glacier. 
  2. we were trekking at the end of Summer.  Earlier in the season this area is covered in snow and you can essentially just snow-shoe your way directly up to the glacier face.
Beautiful light on the mountains - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

At one point Rafa tapped me on my shoulder and said “Mira detrĂĄs de ti” (“Look behind you”). The light was truly spectacular, and provided a welcome distraction as we climbed

There were some very tricky parts – particularly for a person with short legs and carrying more than 1/3 of her bodyweight on her back!   One of my favourite images from the entire expedition is the following, which completely encapsulates the challenges of Day 2.

Juan helping Anita on top of a narrow ledge with a steep drop-off to the left - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

An encapsulating moment. Overcoming the third obstacle of the trek, but with the most incredible view

We had already climbed up from below the lake, being careful to brace ourselves against wind gusts and not fall on the slippery, wet rocks.  Juan instructed us to put on our harnesses as we faced our third obstacle of the trek – a “step” that was taller than I was, with a sheer drop-off on the left-hand side.  An attached rope provided the solution as we harnessed ourselves to our guides and used the rope to pull ourselves up onto the 1 metre-wide ledge.  Anita has just executed this maneuver in the image and Juan is unhooking her.

At this point, we found a slightly sheltered place behind a rock for one of our short snack stops.  The food provided by Serac Expeditions for this trek was great, and included Argentinean empanadas for lunch on the first 2 days!  I chose to eat one of these, rather than diving into the chocolate bars, muslei bars, and other snacks – partially to save the others for later when I would be craving something sweet, and partially because they were the heaviest food item I was carrying!  Anything to reduce weight 😀

Argentinean Empanadas for lunch - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Argentinean empanadas for lunch. There was no shortage of food on the expedition

Another obstacle we came across a little later was essentially a rock “chute”, where I had to brace myself against the walls in order to reach the top.  Usually I’m quite coordinated, but on this particular occasion I somehow managed to get myself turned around and wedged pretty tightly in the narrow crack.  I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to get myself out.  But I was determined not to have to ask for assistance, and through sheer force of will I managed to extract myself.

Up, up, up we climbed.  I couldn’t imagine doing this if it had been any windier!

Silhouette of trekking companion climbing toward the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Did I mention it was steep?

Eventually we reached the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier and it was time to affix our crampons.  

Affixing crampons - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I’ve worn crampons before, but each time they are slightly different. Juan affixed them the first time for me. Yes, it was still raining

Then up onto the ice.

The next hour was a steady 30 degree climb up the glacier to the Icefield.  At this time of year all the snow had melted so we were walking on hard ice and had no trouble spotting and avoiding the crevasses.  The views back down the glacier were stunning, though the rise of the glacier itself seemed to be never-ending.

The view behind (top) and in front (bottom) as we climbed the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The view behind and in front as we climbed the steady 30 degree slope of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier

It was a relief to finally reach the Icefield where our trek flattened out.

Looking back across the flat icefield towards where we'd come from - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Looking back across the flat icefield towards where we’d just come from. These two people were the only ones we saw for 6 days, and this was as close as we got to them

Here, the crevasses became wider and deeper, often with small trickles of water falling into the abyss. We also came upon a Moulin – a hole created when melt-water encounters a weak-spot in the ice and, due to the Coriolis effect, begins to boar a narrow vertical shaft into the glacier.  Ultimately, both processes deliver water to the base of the glacier to lubricate its movement, and it is for this reason that glaciers tend to move faster during Summer. 

Crevasses and a moulin - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Learning about Moulins (top) and some of the larger crevasses on our hike to the hut

An hour later, the hut (our home for the next couple of nights) was in sight, though there was one last uphill in order to reach it.

Approach to the Garcia Soto Refugio - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto was at the top of this rise on the bare rocky ground. Climbing another hill was the very last thing I wanted to do after scaling what was essentially a cliff to get here

We had crossed the border into Chile at around the point where the glacier flattened out, and arrived for a late lunch at the CONAF hut. 

Exterior of Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto – our home for the next two nights

There are usually 3 Chilean Carabineros (police/border guards) stationed here (seriously, you find these poor guys stationed at the most remote outposts of their country) but, given their absence, we had the place to ourselves and quickly settled in.  The hut was not warm (renewed respect for the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut in East Greenland), but we spent a great afternoon drinking tea and chatting around the dining table.

Inside the Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Making ourselves at home at the Refugio Garcia Soto. It was not heated, so was quite cold inside.

We also made several excursions outside to explore our surroundings.  Although the mountains were obscured, we were treated to a bright rainbow arching over the glacier.

Rainbow over the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Rainbow view from the Refugio Garcia Soto

Amazing patterns in the ice.

Ice patterns - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I loved these patterns in the ice, looking towards the Icefield itself

Spectacular vistas over the Icecap (move cursor over the image to scroll the panorama).

 

And to top it all off, a platter of peanuts, olives, cheese, salami and crackers on one of our “tea-breaks” back inside the hut!  Heaven!

Luxury snacks on Day 2 of the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Luxury snacks! The food provided by Serac Expeditions was fantastic, and this was a real treat to celebrate the end of the hardest day of the expedition. No wonder our guides were carrying 26kg!

We finished the day with a beautiful sunset that promised better weather tomorrow, and headed to bed early due to tiredness and the fact that we had to wake up at 5am for our ascent of Gorra Blanca.

Sunset from the Refugio Garcia Soto - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Sunset over the Fitz Roy range from the Refugio Garcia Soto

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 5.5 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.3km
  • Altitude:  +818m, -22m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El ChaltĂ©n to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to BahĂ­a TĂ©mpanos
  • Day 8 – BahĂ­a Tempanos to El ChaltĂ©n
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Trekking-Argentina-South-Patagonia-Icefield-camp-Lago-14.jpg

Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – RĂ­o ElĂ©ctrico – Day 1

I slept surprisingly well despite my nervousness about the trek, and was at the office of Serac Expeditions just before 8am.  There we added 1/2 of a tent (the tents were shared) and our specialised equipment for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition (crampons and harness) to our packs, as well as food for the next 6 days.  

Inside Serac Expeditions with the guides packing the last of the gear

The last of the gear to be packed for the expedition. The entire floor was covered when we first started

Everything was divided evenly and, in the end, each of our packs weighed around 21kg (the guides were carrying 26kg).  I was the smallest person in the group, and this was more than 1/3 of my body-weight.  Lifting it from a standing start was challenging to say the least!

Packing and ready to go on the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Final packing for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition. My backpack (hired from Serac Expeditions) is the one in the middle

Once we had all the equipment and food packed, we bundled into a minivan for the 40 minute drive along a bumpy gravel road to the RĂ­o ElĂ©ctrico – the starting point of our expedition.

Trekking companions walking past sign to Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Leaving the parking lot at the Río Eléctrico to head toward Piedra del Fraile

The first few hours were nice and flat and followed the river through the Lenga trees to the Refugio Los Troncos at Piedra del Fraile. However, to make it a little more challenging, Juan and Rafa set a cracking pace, which meant I was almost running to keep up as I tried to stop and take photographs along the way.

Valle Eléctrico and Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Hiking through the Lenga forest (top) to reach the Refugio Los Troncos at Piedra del Fraile (bottom)

We stopped at the Refugio for about 1/2 hour for a snack and a rest and to admire the incredible surrounds, before loading up again and continuing past the “point of no return”…

Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views from Piedra del Fraile (top and middle) and the sign indicating the point of no return (bottom)

From there we entered a wide glacial valley surrounded by impressive peaks

Trekking companions in the wide glacial valley after Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Glacial valleys tend to be wider than river valleys, and U-shaped rather than V-shaped

and eventually reached the Lago Eléctrico, which we skirted around for the next hour or so.

Lago Eléctrico - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The turquoise waters of Lago Eléctrico

About 1/2-way around the lake, we encountered our first major obstacle of the expedition – the Pollone River.  It was time to change from our hiking boots into our river-crossing shoes. 

Trekking companions changing shoes - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Prepping for the river crossing

Just like the rivers in East Greenland, the Pollone River originates from a glacier and is absolutely freezing cold.  Unfortunately, I still don’t own neoprene socks, so by the time I slowly negotiated the deep and very swiftly flowing river (there were a few hairy moments, even with the aid of my trekking poles), my feet were once again in agony from the chill.  

Crossing the Pollone River with Cerro Fitz Roy in the background

We continued following the shore of Lago ElĂ©ctrico to reach the scheduled campsite at La Playita but, as agreed with Juan at the briefing the night before, we did not actually make camp there. 

Looking back towards the lake and La Playita - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

The end of Lago Eléctrico and La Playita campsite

The idea was to hike an extra 1.5 hours on this “easy” first day, to make the “very hard” second day a little less difficult.  Seemed like a very good idea, so we started our ascent toward the alternate campsite at Lago 14.

Trekking companions ascending towards Lago 14 - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

A little further on, we encountered our second obstacle of the trek – the raging RĂ­o ElĂ©ctrico Superior.  This was a huge amount of water flowing down a very narrow channel in the rocks and, in order to cross, we had to use a zipline!  So this is why we were carrying harnesses 🙂

Rafa and Juan setting up the zipline - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Juan and Rafa on either end of the zipline. Juan helped us hook up, and Rafa helped pull us across and disengage us at the other end

I went across first with my 21kg backpack dangling between my legs.  The line was angled slightly up so we actually had to pull ourselves across – thank goodness Rafa was helping out!

Obstacle number 2 out of the way, we continued our climb to Lago 14.  We were hiking against a pretty stiff wind at this point and I was very tired when we finally arrived, but you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful campsite!

Campsite at Lago 14 - - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Campsite at Lago 14 – an absolutely stunning location

Juan and Rafa showed us how to pitch the tents and we settled in before it started drizzling.  The views to Cerro Fitz Roy were absolutely stunning, and it was clear why it is often called “the smoking mountain”.

Cerro Fitz Roy - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views of Cerro Fitz Roy – the “smoking mountain” – from Lago 14

Unlike in Greenland, we had no communal dining tent on this trek.  Juan and Rafa would boil water for tea and cook our dinner, and shuttle-run between the tents to deliver thermoses of hot water and our meals.  I have to admit I felt sorry for them being out in the cold, but very thankful at the same time that I didn’t have to go out there in it!  Although I love the idea of being a trekking guide, I’m not sure I’d really enjoy the reality of it.

Dinner on the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

While camping, Juan and Rafa would deliver our meals to our tents. Yes – our plate was a tupperware bowl

After Jan and I finished our in-tent/in-sleeping-bag dinner, Juan appeared with the map and explained the plan for Day 2.  An early start for the very steep climb up onto the Marconi Glacier and the Icefield itself.  This is the day I’ve been worried about…

Juan explaining the plan for Day 2 in our tent - - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Juan explaining the plan for Day 2, armed with a map and the weather forecast

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 7 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.3km
  • Altitude:  +500m, -185m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El ChaltĂ©n to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to BahĂ­a TĂ©mpanos
  • Day 8 – BahĂ­a Tempanos to El ChaltĂ©n
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Vuelta_FitzRoy.jpg

Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Prelude

In 2015, I did the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit trek with Swoop Patagonia.  Although I had hiked most of the trails of the Torres del Paine National Park in my 3 previous visits (it really is one of the most spectacular places on the planet), I specifically wanted to do the Circuit for the moment when you reach the top of the John Garner Pass and have the South Patagonia Icefield stretched out before you.

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

I fell in love with long-distance trekking on that trip.

A rainy dawn at the Torres del Paine National Park

A gorgeous sunrise over Los Cuernos in the Torres del Paine National Park meant walking in rain for the rest of the day on the Circuit Trek

From there, I crossed the border into Argentina, re-visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate

Perito Moreno Glacier

The face of the Perito Moreno Glacier – one of the most impressive glaciers I’ve ever seen.

and exploring for the first time around El ChaltĂ©n – Argentina’s (then largely unknown) mecca for hiking.   

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitz Roy massif

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitz Roy massif

It was there that I first learned about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition, in which you spend several days trekking on the Icecap itself.  Guess what replaced the Torres del Paine Circuit on my bucket-list?

Fast-forward to 2017.

One of the friends I made while on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland told me she was traveling to Patagonia in early 2018.  While helping her plan her trip, I suddenly remembered the Icecap Expedition and went searching for it on the internet.  After the 12-day trek in Greenland, the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit Trek in Peru, and the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile, I was looking for a new challenge and, having re-read the description, it sounded like the perfect trek to tackle next.  I contacted Swoop Patagonia (they were amazing last time) and signed up for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition with their Argentinean partner company Serac Expeditions.

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén - Argentina

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén

The website makes it very clear that this is a strenuous trek with an intermediate technical difficulty.  While the distance didn’t phase me at all, I have to admit I was a little nervous about the cold, and that fact that I’d have to carry a full backpack for the first time in 20 years.  On my other long-distance treks I only had to carry a day-pack, as the rest was schlepped by porters or donkeys or boats. 

Due to the nature of the trek, both Swoop Patagonia and Serac Expeditions screen potential clients for suitable previous experience and, fortunately, I passed the grade.  But I still had several months to stew on the question of the cold and carrying the weight of the backpack…

It was almost a relief when, the day before the expedition started, the group met at the wonderful Patagonia Travelers Hostel in El ChaltĂ©n (I highly recommend it as a place to stay) for a briefing with Juan, our guide, and Rafa, our assistant guide.   There were 4 of us in total – Anita and Reto from Switzerland, Jan from Czech Republic, and me, and this get-together was to make sure that we each had everything we needed to be safe and relatively comfortable on the trek.   

Rafa went through all my gear with me, item by item, and gave me the tick of approval.  Then we all gathered around the map as Juan explained the plan for the next 8-9 days.  

Our trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

The thick lines highlight our actual trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition as recorded by Reto and his fancy watch. This was exactly the plan that Juan suggested at this briefing

Despite my fears, it sounded incredibly awesome, and I was really looking forward to getting started.

The last part of the briefing was to take us to the police station to register our trek and get stamped out of Argentina (we would spend several days trekking in Chile), and I decided to have an early night in anticipation.

Sign to the police station in El Chalten

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El ChaltĂ©n to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to BahĂ­a TĂ©mpanos
  • Day 8 – BahĂ­a Tempanos to El ChaltĂ©n
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

Like what you have read? Please follow and like me: