If you haven’t yet had the chance, make a point of exploring a glacier. Go in the summer and find a “dry glacier,” one that is bare ice with all the previous year’s snow melted away. Explore crevasses, drink from an “ice luge,” photograph the remarkable shades of blue. In my view, a day out on a glacier can be even more aesthetic than a view from a high peak. Find a place like this in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., the European Alps, and the Patagonian Ice Fields, where rock-hard glacier-ice is just a stone’s throw from a trailhead parking lot.
I came to El Chalten in Patagonia, not to explore ice, but to see two of the world’s most inspiring peaks, Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy. According to the first climbers, they were “mountains worth dying for,” and although I was not in climbing shape to attempt either one, I would be satisfied if that the Patagonian storms would halt for a moment and I could catch a glimpse of the climbing world’s most famous stone towers. So on the last day of January, I left base camp, where climber’s had been waiting several weeks for a good weather window, and traversed El Glaciar Torre to the base of Cerro Torre. I figured I could boulder around at the mountain’s base so that I could claim “I climbed on Cerro Torre.” I never made it. The glacier was a destination in itself, and as I lost myself in its mazes of crevasses I soon forgot about the infamous peaks above.
El Glaciar Torre has it all: a snout that cliffs out into a freshwater lake, a nearly impassable ice fall, surface-ice streams, deep crevasses, and subglacial tunnels. Akin to the canyon country of the Desert Southwest, much of the glacier’s topography is carved by summer meltwater, streams running above, below and inside the deep moving ice. As I gazed down at the debris-covered low-elevation ice, I noticed a remarkable ice bridge. Glaciers typically have snow bridges that span crevasses and form over the course of a winter and melt out in the summer. But this was something different. Upon closer inspection, I realized that this bridge was the remnants of relict ice conduit, an extinct tunnel created by running water. Measuring some three meters in diameter, one could only imagine the discharge that once poured through this tube on a late-summer day.
I walked to the base of the tunnel and along the edge of the glacier itself. As I descended down an adjacent gulley, I saw a phenomenon that I had never witnessed in all my time working and climbing on glaciers. A stream came down from the mountains and disappeared into the glacier. Usually glaciers contribute to streams, not the other way around! I looked a little closer at this interface between solid and liquid, and crawled into an ice cave below. Wow! I was now inside the glacier. The stream created a crawlable entrance and I was soon surrounded by ice walls. On one side was sheer bedrock, the rest of the tunnel was pure ice. As I penetrated with my headlamp deeper inside, it soon became evident that I was in a mote, a crack in a glacier that separates ice from the surrounding earth. The white light above made me realize that I was already more than 100 feet deep. I walked and crawled for another 100 meters to the cave’s terminus and found some of the most stunning displays of glacier hydrology. This is what I studied for two years at Oregon St., and never before had I seen so vividly the dynamics of water inside a glacier. Inside the cave, pipes of water exploded out the side walls of ice, like springs on a roadcut. The pressurized flow converged to form a high-discharge subglacial stream which soon disappeared under the ice, probably forming yet another conduit below. Spectacular! If only I had the proper camera to shoot it in the darkness.
I photographed and explored smaller crevasses and tunnels until the moon came up and it was time to return to basecamp. I jugged back, skipped over blue crevasses in my tennis shoes, and by my fatigued headlamp, I tied a sling around my hip so that I could zipline across the river to my campsite. As I traversed the line I pondered the future of the sport of sub-glacier exploration. Would it retain its sense of awe in the same way of that of caving and canyoneering? One thing I knew for sure. This had been of my most spectacular days out in the mountains, and it came at a small price. I didn’t climb a single pitch.