Tuesday 8 February

(magnify) Moreno Glacier

We start early for our drive to the Moreno Glacier. Luqui has arranged for a guide to accompany us to talk about the area on the journey. The dry windswept steppe gives way surprisingly abruptly to a comparatively green transition zone in the shadow of approaching hills.

A small boat is waiting to take us to the foot of the Moreno Glacier. The Moreno Glacier is unusual in that it is the only glacier in Patagonia that is currently not in retreat. Every so often, its advance brings it up against a headland where the Brazo Rico arm of Lake Argentina meets the Canal de los Témpanos (Iceberg channel) leading into the main part of the lake. When this happens, it cuts the Brazo Rico off and the water level there starts to rise. Eventually the pressure on the glacier becomes too great and it forces a tunnel through the glacier’s snout, producing a spectacular display of rushing water and ice as the water levels equalise, slowly at first and then ever faster as the tunnel increases in size. When the glacier was breached in March 2004, the difference in water level was over ten metres. After that the glacier continued to advance, sealing off the lake once more, and was breached again in December 2004, this time with a height difference of only a few metres.

We pass by tortured strata of rock at the water’s edge. A little further on there is clear evidence of the change of water level in the form of a denuded zone on the bank several metres high rising up from the present water-level. As we approach the glacier, the passage that is now open between the glacier and the headland comes into view. A few weeks ago the roof of the tunnel bridging the glacier to the headland collapsed in dramatic fashion, and now all that is left on the headland is a wall of ice.

Icebergs calve off the glacier at regular intervals, and our boat is rocked by the wave sent out by one as it disappears and then bobs back up to the surface.

(magnify) Meltwater

Icebergs prevent the boat putting in at its usual place so we have a short scramble over rocks to reach the lodge where we leave our bags. A short walk then takes us right up to the edge of the glacier, where we are equipped with crampons. Stepping gingerly out onto the ice, it takes a few moments to get used to the feel of them. But my confidence rapidly grows as I realise that I simply cannot slip when the points are dug into the ice. It even becomes possible to walk down impossibly-steep looking gradients that one would not attempt on rock without good hand-holds.

The ice itself is very rough and covered in a thin layer of dirt. It is as hard as rock and twisted into ridges and pinnacles. Our way is often steeply up or down. There are none of the clear blue ice-caves that I had expected to see, but a lot of water flowing along channels etched into the surface and suddenly down small blue sink-holes. Despite the superficial dirt, the water itself is very clean and good to drink.

(magnify) Group photo
(magnify) On the glacier

(magnify) Icy pinnacles

The guides watch us with eagle eyes as we ascend and descend, especially as some of the ridges fall off in precipitous drops, and the larger sink-holes are a potential danger.

Over a final ridge, and there before us is a wooden table set out on the ice and laid out with tumblers and a large whisky bottle. Served of course with glacier ice. I’m not a whisky drinker, but even glacier water with ice is quite delicious!

Eat lunch back at the lodge, then the boat returns us to the waiting bus, which takes us round to the viewpoint on the headland. There are lots of coaches and tour groups here. A fenced wooden walkway leads down the front of the headland to a series of wooden viewing platforms. I walk down to the right first with Helen. We hear the intermittent gun-shots and crashing, and occasionally see ice debris falling off the sheer 60 metre ice wall of the glacier’s snout. For some reason, it is the smaller debris that seems to make the most noise. But although it looks like rubble falling off, the scale is deceptive. Those fragments are probably nearer the size of a household freezer.

(magnify) Moreno Glacier (magnify) Snout of the Moreno Glacier

It is utterly mesmerising. We try to guess which pieces of ice will fall next, with little success. When the larger slabs go, some seem to come down with a great crash sending out spray and waves. Others enter the water more discretely, like an elderly woman getting into a swimming pool. Most of the action is to the right on the north side of the snout opposite where we are standing.

After watching spellbound for some time, I notice that we have only 25 minutes left until the bus is due to leave. So we hurry along down to the viewing platform on the south side. Unfortunately, we are now behind the ice-wall remnant of the tunnel so much of the view is obscured. The frequency of the crashing sounds seems to be increasing. There is a deep blue, almost black area like a bruise, in the ice wall near to the exit of the former arch, although I cannot see what this might indicate about the ice.

We hasten back towards the convergence of the paths and on to the highest viewing platform, to resounding crashing noises from the glacier. On looking back it is clear that a particularly large pillar, the size of a tower block, is about to go. This time I have my camera ready to record its teetering fall into the icy water.

(magnify) Going, going, gone!

The excitement is quite overwhelming and I can barely tear myself away, especially as another, even larger, rectangular slab now hangs almost in mid-air behind where the pillar had fallen from.

Spray thrown up by a falling ice block

But just as we are about to turn around, there is a roar from the channel to the left. The remains of the tunnel obscure what has happened, but a plume of spray shoots high into the air above the ice and moments later a miniature tsunami races out of the channel.

Our time is up and we must rush back to the bus. As we ascend the steps to the car park, we hear the hanging slab go – a rather muted and low-key crunch behind us.

Come evening, we eat out together at another of Luqui’s recommendations. He suggests that two portions will quite happily feed three here. Pam is quite keen to try the mixed platter for two, so I team up with her and two portions of lamb are ordered between Steve, Don, and Ron. The platter, when it arrives, could have easily fed six! Beef, lamb, chicken, sausage, black pudding, kidney, and somewhat less appetisingly, wobbly rubbery thing that might have been something’s intestine.