Hiking Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia is an absolute highlight of any trip to the icy wilderness at the tip of South America. But it's not all just about hiking. There's a lot you need to know about ice as well...
What it's like Hiking Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia
I know before I unzip the tent that I will find ice outside. I know, because there was ice there last night. Ice on the path, ice hanging like swords from the trees and ice, simply ice, forming the glacier.
Patagonia promised me an adventure and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares delivered.
EL CALAFATE as a base
I joined a small group yesterday, plucked from the simple town of El Calafate, with its lines of wooden cabanas and hotchpotch of people from around the globe.
Following our education at the park’s entrance (don’t pee in the streams because everyone drinks from the water) we set off at a pace, striding through pebbled boulders, dark pines and slippery paths.
Our guide, a lean man wearing a T-shirt, didn’t have time for slackers.
Too Cold to Stop
“It is too cold to stop,” he said, as an American paused to take a photo. Hibernating beneath fleeces, thermal underwear and a surprisingly itchy hat, I wondered about giving tips on outdoor clothing. In the end I decided against it.
Even he layered up, however, when we reached the glacial stream. The water gushed with unsettling ferocity, a young buck of a river looking to make his mark on the world.
I glanced around for a bridge and realised that the adventure would start earlier than expected. Some well-practiced threading of equipment (on the guide’s part, not mine) suspended a cable across this churning gash in the rocks.
Before I knew it, I was in the harness and clipping on. It’s easier to go first, right?
CROSSING A GLACIAL RIVER
My clutched the cable, frozen and feeble. I stepped towards the torrent, flicked my legs up – and missed.
Never mind. I’d have to make do without. One, two, one two, hand after hand, keep on going. I must be doing this wrong, though. Where the hell did my legs go?
All I can see is the flat sky above and the domineering line of the cable. One, two, one, two. Don’t look down, don’t listen.
That second instruction is impossible. The water drenches my senses, a raging, deafening rampage.
I have a strange flashback to swimming backstroke at school: the sensory deprivation, the rhythmic movement.
My head thuds into a rock.
The pain from not looking where I’m going.
I’ve arrived intact, even if my dignity hasn’t. As I watched the others flail across, lungs sharp with the freshness that only cold air provides, I allowed myself to feel a little proud.
What it's like to wear crampons
The next day, we needed crampons. It felt like strapping cheese graters to my wrists and walking down the street on my hands.
Crampon teeth sink into the ice to offer more security, the base straps onto the boot. Many of the ridges are narrower than my foot. If I fall, it won’t be to ground. It’ll be into that crevasse with its death-blue tinge and promise of an icy coffin.
My bravery at the bridge is soon forgotten.
The British policewoman strides along. The American photographer makes great progress. The guide has all but disappeared.
If I don’t hurry, I’ll lose the safe path and have to fend for myself.
Shaken by Falling and Ice
All I can imagine is falling and I’m shaken, really shaken. I need to focus on something else because this cannot possibly help.
By some miracle, I catch up. We must have finished because aside from this lily pad of ice, a solid glacial wall stretches up, up and up for thirty metres or more
Then the ice axes appear.
“I’ll go first,” I hear someone say and then I realise it was me. Some part of my brain has responded without permission. Shamed after the feeble performance on horizontal ice, it suddenly thinks that vertical would be better.
I brace myself. Groin-chafing harness – check. Rope – check. Rudimentary instructions and total lack of experience – check, check, check.
Vertical Ice: Bringing out the axe in Patagonia
The technique, as far as I can make out, is to sling each axe into the wall and then kick the foot spears into the ice afterwards. And repeat. Within seconds my lungs burn, my shoulders shriek and my conscious mind tries to concentrate on anything other than the fact that I am clinging to H2O with less than a centimetre of cheap, damaged metal.
This time I really can’t hear anything, except for the crunch, the swish and the slunch of my poorly orchestrated movements.
My toes turn numb and all I can see is the ice. White, sparkling, incandescent ice. But suddenly, my axe finds air, flailing, empty air.
I have arrived. I have climbed the wall.
I look over my shoulder at the insect-like people below, my hands trembling with adrenaline and exertion.
Complete. Conquered. Cowered.
I fall slowly, softly down on the ropes until my feet reach solid ground.
Ground? No, it’s the ice I’m thankful for.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR HIKING LOS GLACIARES NATIONAL PARK IN PATAGONIA
Where is Patagonia?
Patagonia is the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile, named after the legendary Big Foot creatures who roamed here.
There are many different tour companies that can help you arrange a trip to Patagonia. Alternatively, you can travel there independently and just join guided tours when you need ice climbing expertise.
Where is Los Glaciares National Park?
Los Glaciares National Park is located in the Austral Andes mountain range in Argentina, close to the border with Chile. It is considered to be one of the most important natural parks in all of Latin America and includes over 400 glaciers, lakes, and fjords.
Its famous spots include the Perito Moreno glacier with its jagged icefalls and Mount Fitz Roy,above the mountain town of El Chaltén and Lake Viedma.
When is the best time to travel to Los Glaciares National Park?
The biggest obstacle is the weather. It's only really a good idea to head to Patagonia between late November and early March. It's a long way from most English speaking spots so leave yourself at least two weeks to make the most of your trip.
How to get your bearings in Patagonia
El Calafate and Ushuaia serve as the base towns for the wild outdoors. Torres del Paine and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares are outstanding places to spend a few days. The Perito Mereno Glacier also lives within reach of the El Calafate (it's the glacier with the arch that collapsed that you have probably seen on many an advert about global warming.)
Beyond the ice, there are curious relics of colonial history in the form of Bristolian farms and communities with a rich Welsh heritage.
Where to stay in and around Los Glaciares
Don't panic, despite this article, you don't have to camp. There are number of fresh wooden cabanas dotted along Patagonia that feel very luxurious. Don't miss the beautiful lakeside Hosteria Pehoe in Torres del Paine, beloved of instagram feeds and offering impossibly scenic views.
However, it is worth camping in the parks for at least one night. Nothing beats seeing this world-class landscape as the sun comes up.