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Memphis Flyer On Ice in Patagonia

Walking on an Argentinean glacier is, well, really cool.

By Paul Gerald

APRIL 3, 2000:  The Japanese guy's dad looked pretty nervous. And why wouldn't he be? He was wearing loafers with metal spikes strapped onto them, and he was about to set foot onto the surface of a glacier. Roughly 50 square miles of ever-flowing ice, averaging hundreds of feet thick, began one step in front of him, and it was his turn to get onto it. And he had paid for this pleasure.

But we all stepped up and onto the ice, one by one, and commenced an astonishing couple of hours on top of one of Argentina's premier tourist attractions, the Perito Moreno Glacier. It's one of dozens that flow downward from the Patagonian Ice Cap, which straddles the mountainous border between Chile and Argentina and is the world's third-largest chunk of ice outside the poles. It's a couple hundred miles north to south and averages 20 east to west.

What makes the Perito Moreno exceptional is that it's one of the few glaciers in the world that's actually advancing. It moves forward 5 feet per day, but it loses 3 feet of ice per day to evaporation and calving. Occasionally it even cuts off one part of Lake Argentina from another, causing the isolated section to rise as much as 60 feet. It last did so in the 1980s, and in 1988 the water broke out, draining an area the size of Pickwick Lake in about three days.

Aside from the awesome spectacle of standing in front of a piece of ice 15 miles long and 3 miles wide, it's the calving that most people come for. As the glacier slides down the hillside into the lake, it pops and groans and cracks, and occasionally enormous pieces fall off the front and into the lake. Some of these are literally as big as houses. One of the favorite challenges is to get a photo of this occurrence, but without extreme luck or patience (focus on a spot and wait all day) all you ever wind up with is a picture of a big splash.

Falling -- that's what you tend to be thinking about when you step onto the glacier. Our guides had taken us to a safe area (or so they told us) off on the side of the glacier and fitted us with crampons, and with one step it became obvious you couldn't slip on this stuff if you wanted to. The surface looks like a white Slurpee but feels like concrete made with knife-tips instead of rocks. Just to lay your hand on it is to feel pain, so gloves and sunglasses are mandatory.

The Japanese man got the hang of it quickly; the housewife from Boston had more trouble with the concept of not slipping on ice, but she eventually caught on. Also among our group were Italians who talked constantly, English people who were headed for a week on another glacier, and our two Argentinean guides, one of whom grabbed an ice axe and climbed a 50-foot vertical wall just to show how "easy" it is. Mountain people do like to show off.

We walked up and down impossibly steep faces, and nobody ever fell. We stared down into crevasses, some of which were only a few inches wide but dozens of feet deep. We marvelled at the ponds and little creeks that form on the surface in summertime. Often a creek will simply disappear into a hole in the surface. We looked under portions of the glacier, where creeks flowed and waterfalls fell and ice caves loomed. We heard about an inch-long worm that is the only animal that lives on a glacier. It's so well adapted to the cold that if touched by a human it dies instantly, as if torched by a deadly heat ray.

And occasionally we would all stop and marvel at the blue. As the ice forms, the lower levels of the glacier are compressed by all the pressure of snow and ice above, and the result is ice that's so dense that it becomes a blue which defies comprehension. No matter how often people see it, they stop and utter admiration. Imagine a 50-foot wall of Paul Newman's eyes. I

As we were running out of time, our guides said we had one last stop, and they led us up a little hill and into a kind of cove where, next to a small pond, sat a table and a cooler. A guide took his ice axe to a nearby face and hacked out a pile of ice. From the cooler came chocolates, glasses, and a bottle of Chivas Blended Pride. We each got a glass of glacial ice, added as much glacial runoff as we wanted, and filled the rest with whiskey.

We drank a toast of thanks to Ma Nature, then reluctantly headed back to dry land.


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