The heart of things (Radical Torah repost)
A pre-Pesach miscellany

A day on the ice

I don't write here often about my curious fascination with the polar regions. Back in 2004 I had the chance to hear modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders speak at Pop!Tech, and blogged it in a post called Digression: obsession with the poles. And when President Obama was inaugurated I posted an inaugural ode which draws on imagery of polar exploration. But that's about it. Well: here's a third post in this unofficial series touching on ice and vastness and beauty.

In 1998 I picked up Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita, which is about the strange, unearthly beauty of the bottom of the earth. Since then I've read every polar exploration chronicle I can find, both Arctic and Antarctic, though my heart belongs most to Antarctica. Maybe it's so impossibly far away from where I live that it becomes a representation rather than a real place, a symbol of inaccessibility and yearning. (Annie Dillard reads this idea through a theological lens in a truly gorgeous way -- I recommend her essay "An Expedition to the Pole," which you can find in Teaching a Stone to Talk.) Like Dillard, and Wheeler, I love reading the polar exploration narratives because of their purity of yearning... and because Antarctica had no native population (save penguins and seals), I can revel in the history without being troubled by the problematics of colonialism and exoticism.

Well, alas, I can't announce at this time that we decided to set off from the tip of Argentina toward Antarctica. (Argentina is a delightfully affordable country in which to travel, but the relative strength of the US dollar there still doesn't make travel to Antarctica remotely reasonable.) But I feel like this vacation let me get a little bit closer to understanding life on the ice, because one of its highlights was a "minitrek" on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, which was incredible.

I'd read an account of the minitrek experience (Simon Hampel's Day 26: El Calafate and Perito Moreno Ice Trecking), so I had some sense of what to expect, but I didn't realize how it was going to feel.

From the moment when we stepped off the plane in El Calafate, I think Ethan and I were both blown away by the wild gorgeousness of Patagonia. Patagonia feels like Montana, like West Texas, like Iceland, like the kinds of remote wild places that we love best. I love the mountains, the wind, the scrub -- and maybe especially the dazzling pale blue and turquoise glacial lakes and the amazing masses of ice which create them.

Perito Moreno is a rare stable glacier. Not only is it not shrinking, but some years it even grows. (That's a real rarity in this era of global warming.) It's an amazing presence. Driving into the park and catching glimpses of the glacier in the distance is like driving into Denali and seeing a glimpse of the eponymous mountain hovering over the horizon. But Perito Moreno is also one of the world's most accessible glaciers; our minitrek guide joked that one could fly into the small El Calafate airport and charter a taxi direct to the foot of the glacier, which is more-or-less true. (Cars and buses can enter Parque Nacional Los Glaciares from two access points, one of which is near El Calafate; roads extend onto the Magellanes peninsula. From there, one has to catch a boat across the lake to reach the ice itself.)

We took a small boat across the Brazo Rico (the Rico arm of the lake which the glacier and peninsula together nearly bisect) and landed on the far shore. There we walked through austral lengual forest: twisted pine trees, calafate bushes covered in thorns and tiny ovoid leaves which were beginning to redden as autumn got underway, thick moss growing everywhere, and everywhere trees downed like driftwood -- remnants, maybe, of the last time the glacier reached the peninsula Magellanes and dammed the two branches of the lake, causing the water to rise precipitously until the force of the waters finally broke the ice dam with a prodigious crash.

We heard ice crashes on our trek, though small ones. After our walk in the woods we got a brief lesson on glaciology, then went to be fitted with crampons. After our guide showed us how to walk safely on the ice we stepped onto the glacier itself. The sounds amazed me: first the soft crush of our crampons on the ice (as though we were walking on a compacted snowcone), then the periodic crashes of ice calving from the glacier's edge into the lake below, then the rush of water (it is the end of summer, so all over the glacier water is flowing -- streams and rivulets seeping; sinkholes and crevasses filled with clear water and the extraordinary color palette of compacted ice.)

The colors amazed me too: the white of the ice (both dirty and clean), the textures of the ice (pebbled and hard, though when our guides used ice axes to carve steps for us, ice chips flew like a spray of water), and most of all the extraordinary blue of the ice which has been compacted until it resembles tourmeline in the sun. Where we were walking (the ablative slope of the glacier) the ice was rounded, though often steep. (Crampons are awesome.) To our right, in the center of the river of ice, were jagged peaks of ice like a luminous blue accordion of glass shards. I'm guessing they don't take the newbies among those kinds of crevasses.

Up and around we went, marveling. I kept saying shehecheyanus, making spontaneous blessings for walking on the glacier, for seeing the ice, for feeling it and hearing it (the gunshot sounds of small icebergs calving), even tasting it. Toward the end of our trek our guide led us to a secluded hollow where, lo and behold, they'd set up a table and swank highball glasses and a few bottles of scotch! One guide took his ice axe and hacked off bits of ice to put in everyone's glass, and we toasted the glacier with scotch "on the rocks." Probably the most amazing lunchtime cocktail I'll ever enjoy.

After our minitrek was done, we picnicked at the edge of the woods and eventually took the boat back to the far coast where there are roads. By then, black clouds had blown in and the rain was coming on strong -- but just before our boat docked, I looked up and saw a rainbow over the glacial lake. It was amazing. Just one more marvel to add to the list in a day which was already overflowing with unbelievably beautiful wonders.

An hour and a half in borrowed crampons on the ablative slopes of one glacier hardly qualifies me to understand what real Arctic or Antarctic trekkers undergo now -- or underwent then. But next time I crack the spine of one of Shackleton or Scott's diaries, or follow Ben Saunders' progress somewhere exciting via twitter and RSS, I'll remember what it felt like to walk on Perito Moreno, and I'll marvel in a whole new way.

We tried to cap the day with a drink at the fabled Shackleton Lounge, but it's closed for the season already -- alas! Still, it was an incredible day, absolutely the highlight of our trip. What a wonderful world.

Should you ever be so lucky as to find yourself in Patagonia, I can't say enough good things about Hielo y Aventura, the folks responsible for our mini-trek. They also do a longer "Big Ice" journey and a boat trip. They rock the house.

See all of my photos from the minitrek here: A day on the glacier.

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