There's an old saying "any place worth seeing ain't easy to get to" and that's certainly true of Patagonia. And once you arrive at this vast region known as Patagonia, you realize just how enormous a place it is.
Thankfully, the Chilean national parks of Torres del Paine (pronounced PIE—nay) and Bernardo O'Higgins offer a more structured glimpse into the amazing natural wonders of Patagonia, for those of us who don't have months or years to spend blazing our own wilderness trails.
Patagonia lies at the southern part of South America in both Chile and Argentina, with spectacular views of craggy mountains, wide open spaces, flat plains that span hundreds of miles, and the second largest ice field in the world. The Southern Patagonia Ice Field covers an area of 16,800 square kilometers, the world’s second largest contiguous ice field outside of the poles, with the majority lying in Chile. Stretching across the Andes between Argentina and Chile, the sea of ice feeds dozens of glaciers in the region.
I spent a month recently discovering the incredibly huge and long country of Chile - and only a week of that was spent in Torres del Paine National Park. One of the highlights of the Park for me was seeing and hiking Glacier Grey, one of the regions smallest glaciers at 270 square kilometers and receding rapidly each year. Visitors can see Glacier Grey in one of two ways - from the comfort of the Lago Grey ferry which takes you all around the lake and in front of the glacier, or on the ice itself with a guided tour. For me, the choice was clear. Enter BigFoot Patagonia, the only licensed vendor that takes visitors out on daily treks to this amazing glacier.
We launched our Ice Hike with a chilly, but invigorating boat ride out to the glacier from the BigFoot base on the shore of Lago Grey. Our group was small and intimate - just four of us plus our guide Kaja. My husband and I were hiking with a young woman named Kelly and her father John, the oldest in our group who out-hiked us all. Kaja talked about what to expect on the hike, and made sure we understood completely that she was in charge. She guided the ice hike several times a day for weeks straight and was very familiar with the subtle changes happening on the glacier each day. We would hike the granite escarpment for the first hour and a half, ascending up and finally onto the glacier, following her in a single line.
The hike up was steep. “Follow my steps” she said, “tread where I tread”. But it never seemed quite as smooth for me. I was twice her age and she seemed to glide up the mountain like a gazelle.
Between stopping to take photos and huffing and puffing my way up, I was always the last one trailing behind the rest. The entire hike.
The view grew more beautiful - and Lago Grey smaller and further away - with each step up. And when we reached the top we simply stopped and stared in awe at the blue banquet spread out before us. Like sugary meringue peaks, Glacier Grey unfolded for miles ahead.
We sat down for a welcome snack break and Kaja strapped crampons to our hiking boots one by one. She secured the harness around our waist and thighs so she could hoist us back out of a crevasse in case we slipped in.
Next, she taught us the best way to use our ice ax - always on the uphill between you and the ice, which seemed counterintuitive. My first inclination was always to position it on the downhill, bracing myself in case I fell. Most important, she showed us the proper way to walk on the ice in crampons. A most unnatural feeling, come to find out.
One by one we stepped onto the ice over the bluest, deepest crevasse I could see around me, onto an immediate incline rather than a nice flat surface. My first few steps felt strange and for a split second I was honestly absolutely terrified. Ten feet downhill behind me was a place of no return if I slid in. I doubted she could hoist us out of that one. Ten feet ahead of me, the others started out, finding their ice legs, planting one cramponed foot squarely down on the ice, and then the other. For a moment I stood completely still, and found my balance.
Hiking on a glacier is awe-inspiring and humbling. Like anything in nature, the uncertainty of being in it - and in this case ON it - leaves you slightly terrified but wanting more. As we walked, passing shallow creeks of ice water flowing down the mountain, we followed Kaja’s lead walking right through them. She stopped at one spot so we could refill our water bottles and relish the icy clear water over 20,000 years old.
Underground rivers flowed beneath us, rumbling loud enough to muffle our chatter. It’s moments like that when you realize just how vulnerable you really are. Like a horse swatting a fly with its tail, Mother Nature is there to remind you of your tenuous place in the universe, and anything could happen at any moment.
About the time we thought we’d be heading back, Kaja pointed at the other side of the glacier valley to the bright blue caves on the other side.
"That's where we're going", so we hiked on. Up steep hills, down steeper descents, hopping across narrow crevasses only a few feet wide, to the most spectacular display of color I’ve ever seen.
Kaja explained the science behind the pure blue of the glacier. The density of glacial ice absorbs every light color of the spectrum except blue, so that brilliant blue color - almost turquoise - is what we see.
We finally reached the ice caves. Some were small enough for one person to stand in. But a huge cave lay before us collapsed, leaving a beautiful heart-shaped natural bridge that spanned the seventy foot depth below. The glacier flowed toward us from the Andes, stretching out to Lago Grey behind us, framed by the natural blue arch.
It wasn't until Kaja said we needed to head back so we didn't miss our boat that I realized how utterly physically exhausted I was. I felt sick thinking about the hike back. Couldn't we just walk out to the ledge and jump in the glacial lake and the boat can pick me up, I thought to myself? I really don't care if I freeze to death! I honestly didn't think I could take another step.
Just then John came over and reached into his pocket. "Here" he said, "have you ever tried these? REI makes them." For a quick second I hesitated at taking the quarter-size white disc he offered me, but the label on the tube looked legitimate and he seemed honest enough. And at that point I was game for just about anything.
I took a disc and popped it in my mouth, and then everyone in the group did the same - even Kaja. Needless to say, we made the hike back down with an added spring in our step. For me it was an absolute lifesaver, and I'll forever be grateful for John and his carb discs that saved my butt for the hike down.
We made it back to the BigFoot base just in time to catch the last Lago Grey ferry of the day. Without a doubt, it was a day of amazing new experiences with new friends. It's hard to beat the experience of seeing a glacier up close, not to mention setting foot on one. So it was fitting that I toasted this amazing day in an equally spectacular way - with a traditional Pisco Sour, and a big chuck of glacier ice floating in my drink. Cheers!
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If You Go
DEPARTURES: Every day 8:00am / 10:00am /14:30pm
DURATION: 5 hours
PRICE: $CLP 95.000 per person / approximately $95 USD
Tours available from October to April.
NOTE: The ferry departs Lago Grey down the road from Hotel Lago Grey (not from the Hotel) so allow yourself some extra time. The parking lot is 1 kilometer down the road from the hotel. You must hike in from the parking lot, across a very long and rocky moraine beach, to the waiting ferry on the other side. If you're doing the Ice Hike, the ferry stops and drops you off at the BigFoot base about halfway to the glacier.