/* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
	font-family:Times;}     The wind was howling the afternoon I met Huentes Tours' lead guide, Robert, at a lakeside hut.  His  poco  English was better than my  poco  Spanish so, he gave me the basics in English.  To register for tomorrow's hike on Glaciar Exploradores, I must pay 40,000 pesos ($65) and put my name on a list.  There was no liability release form and no advice on prep.  "We give you crampons, mitts, lunch," said Robert loudly.  "Leave at 900 hours, back at 1800.  Write your age here."  "What do you think?" I said.  "45."  "Deal," I said, getting a laugh.  The next morning was overcast, temperature in the mid-60s.  On the walk from hotel to Huentes' hut only stray dogs stirred.  At 9:00 our crew (2 guides, 8 guests) materialized and we threw our backpacks and selves into a worn minivan.  They would speak Spanish for all of the tour.  I understood next to none of it.  We headed west up Valle Exploradores on a 2-way gravel road that was, more or less, one lane with skinny shoulders.  The blind corners, rutted dirt, and scarce signage tempered not the driver's incaution.  I used my failsafe worry suppressant - acceptance of futility - and gazed out the windows.  The drive was akin to being inside a continuum of a natural history museum, one that depicts a land's development over millennia.  Only this continuum moved backward in time.  As we drove, the landscape returned to the dawn of its creation.  In 50 miles, millions of years of change unwound.  At first the rivers were clear and the lakes were royal blue.  30-60 foot ash and beech trees thrived from the shorelines to the highest elevations (8-9,000 feet).  15 miles into the valley, mountaintops became bare and tree lines were introduced which, further on, slowly erased lower and lower.  As the road climbed, the sun came out.  Lodgepole pine trees poked up with the confidence of a species that would eventually prevail.  From contrasting directions, rivers surged.  They were turning the gray of baked clay.  Green tinged the lakes' blue.  Topsoil thinned.  Shrubbery, ferns and grasses displaced forests.   Soft shouldered mountains grew saw-toothed peaks and giant cliff faces.  Waterfalls punctured the high walls.  Light rain squalls rolled over us.  Suddenly the minivan stopped.  Robert hollered back at the passengers, instructions I supposed.  All I got was  aqui.   We piled out and were handed wads of gear and a lunch sack.  Minutes later, off we trudged.  The forest's canopy shielded us from the wind blowing down from the glacier.  A soggy single track trail bumped steadily upward.  Then switchbacks kicked in - narrow, steep and erratic.  We slipped on roots and ducked low branches but the pace was agreeable.  I hadn't a clue about the route or what lay ahead.  We entered an expansive floodplain punched with shallow pools called kettles.  We skirted around the floodplain then over a gentle rise of grasses in hard dirt and through a patch of alluvial mud to where the vegetation and the trail ended.  In one hour we were on the threshold of the moraines.   Not until then did I notice the mountains had retreated to a 360° cirque.  We found ourselves in the center of a valley a mile and a half wide.  Amassed in the valley were chaotic rows of stony hulks.  Known as drumlins, they're made of glacial till - boulders and rocks - in sizes ranging from looting bricks to bank safes.  The breadth and discord of colors and shapes had no discernible source and absolutely no fit.  The rubble looked like the aftermath of an explosion with no epicenter.  A god had kicked the hell out of his construction set.  There was no way around it.  Clambering over the debris would put me face to face with the beast that created all I'd seen today.  Temperature had dropped 10 degrees.  Clouds were lowering and dripping sprinkles.  We set off but no longer in a single file.  Each hiker found his own path and pace and I felt the first collective chill of doubt.  That the boulders had achieved at least a provisional balance, we took on faith.  A person's weight could alter it just enough to make the slog skittish.  The bigger the stone, the less it moved.  I plotted my steps four at a time to quickly get off the wobbly ones.  No plane was horizontal or boot sized for predictable purchase.  The ankles took a beating.  20 feet in front of me someone stumbled.  In falling, his arm dropped into a gap between the stones.  A guide pulled him out and settled his fright.  Minutes later, from behind, I heard a woman yelp.  She'd cut her hands trying to catch a fall.  I gave her my gloves.  Thence, I learned that rock to rock, the grit had no consistency.  Edges were sharp as if recently fractured.  I didn't mind the work.  Passage to a glacier should have a toll.  Often I paused to catch my breath and take it all in.  The panorama was beautifully bewildering, especially in the 30 foot deep hollows.  How do you navigate your way out?  Robert forged ahead but not so far that his red jacket couldn't be seen cresting the mounds.  Up and down a mile of drumlins I climbed, dodging spills.  My first impression of this space as ruin was wrong.  This was, in fact, a foundation for something new.  Coincidentally, I realized something about the thunder I'd heard since the hike began.  It was actually rock fall.  The boulder field faded into gravel and sand as we reached the melting rim of the glacial snout.  It was littered with small sharp stones like the cut glass cemented to tops of barrier walls.  Sediment blown across the ice peppered its white ridges brown.  In the slivered beds of rivulets were hints of a supernatural blue.  The low cloud ceiling could not conceal the unmistakable blue of a glacier that glowed as if from a buried light.  I looked up for my first clear view of Exploradores, probably 3 miles away.  Its swath of scratched porcelain, of unfathomable gravity, was cradled by two mountains.  Further on it curved to the right, behind the shoulder of one.  As expected, the glacier's heft was astonishing, but its composure was transfixing.  At first, I did not move - stillness was right reverence in its presence.  Everything else - the ring of mountains cloaked in a million trees, the spouts of falling water, thewind, the pinging rain, my panting - was subsumed by the glacier's imposing silence.  Knowing the nil of my moment upon its eons of being did not make the moment any less profound.  I whispered an invocation and imagined another voice in return.   All in good time.   It was almost noon and the temperature was in the 40s.  Robert gathered the hikers to show us how to strap on crampons and gaiters.  We sat on the slush.  Though the spikes were bent and the straps were ripped, the crampons would make walking on ice safer.  Last, we put on insulated mitts.  We were set to explore the glacier's terminus zone for two hours - ample time but not enough to reach it's ablation wall where the net loss of mass occurs.  The group adopted an expeditionary line but I rambled away.  My crampons easily grabbed the ice which was porous with brittle strands of crystals.  In a half mile the dark rocks and sediment had all but vacated the terminus zone.   What remained was a sea of whites and blues, the colors of water's transfiguration.  Turning in a deliberate circle, I saw all the stages of melt and recession in the lifts and falls.  Underfoot, at depths and in ways I could not imagine, was the grind of originating a landscape.  I saw only the armor.  Further on the field's rolls eroded into arêtes, valleys and spurs.  Every guttered white decline was striated in powder blue.  I estimated the angle of drop-off to be from 30° to 60°.  I zigzagged to avoid slopes and stay on ridges.   The space started expanding - downward.  The arêtes stayed relatively even as ravines sank to narrow them.  Stunning cavities appeared at lower levels.  The melt had bored beneath the frozen surface like a decay and opened tunnels big enough to enter.  Or fall into from the bridges above.  I was bewitched by crevasses and seracs.  I chose paths to be surrounded by them, though gauging the scale was difficult in ill-defined light.  The slopes were sharper and deeper than they looked at first.  Some fell away 50 feet or more.  The cracks that pierced deepest unveiled upright ovals of cobalt blue.  From high perspectives I saw dozens of these pockets interrupting the diagonal striations.  Small and large, they resembled nothing so much as pudenda.  Behind them were forces I'd never know and probably shouldn't confront.  I thought of them as naked portals to the promise of life.  As I walked I knew that I was in the spectral company of violence.  On another day, in the cold and brutish weather that is most common, there'd be danger in extremis.  Frostbite, broken limbs and death occur in the vicinity of glaciers.  Moreover, there was the constant corrosive violence of tectonics and recession, measured in centimeters and over millennia.  Yet nothing in this window of time felt forbidding.  The rain had turned to mist and the air was windless.  I was granted serenity.  I could have wandered for hours.   On a ridge top 100 yards ahead, the nine others had stopped.  By the time I joined them, they were halfway through lunch.  I dug into mine.  We were within 1 mile of the ablation wall.  Damn fine place to grab grub.  It did not escape me that what I saw as rare marvel was actually a Patagonian banality.  Spectacles are a commonplace in this part of the world.  The rarity is the observer.  It was 2:00, time to turn back.  No one talked as they shambled; all were exhausted.  It was, more or less, the same route we took out.  Even so, I loved seeing things in reverse, under different light and with the chance to listen again.  I'd knew I'd never return.  Occasionally, I stopped to look back at Exploradores.  On one turn, before re-crossing the drumlins, a rainbow appeared over the frozen sea I'd walked.  I took my final photo and stowed the camera.     Ted Samore ©2015
prev / next