A six-day trek: Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

A final home for a short story I wrote to promote a Patagonia travel and trekking guidebook I had published on Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It describes a trip onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions. (The photos are from a tiny compact camera I used at the time, before I started taking photographs professionally. I’ve included them as I think they illustrate the story well).

The remote west side of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt from Circos de Altares on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

The remote west side of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt from Circos de Altares on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

Camping on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap gives me a nervous ache in the pit of my stomach. I've read many, many stories of horrendous weather that can sweep through the region.

Reaching out of my tent, I glanced at the huge expanse of ice we're camped upon. Dotted across the ice cap are huge mountains that sliced out of the ice and soared into the sky. The largest peak in view is the snow-covered Cerro Lautaro, an active volcano. Sulfur fumes rise from its top and mix with the clouds that stream from its summit ridges. The peak is 35km away but seems close enough to touch. Behind Cerro Lautaro there is more of the same - ice and mountains - with no human habitation until the ice cap melts into the Pacific Ocean, 30 kilometres further on.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is a great ocean of ice sweeping west from the southern coast of Chile to its border with Argentina. Up to 650 metres thick and almost 13,500 kilometres square, it is said to be one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions.

Icy wastelands such as the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, not without reason, are usually out of bounds to the office-bound adventurer. But short trips here are possible, with the services of a guide, in Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park.

Los Glaciares National Park doesn't have, say, the Himalaya's high altitude to attract the masses. But its mountains rear up out of an otherwise flat landscape. Mount Fitzroy dominates the area, by virtue of its sheer size and bulk. Standing 3,441m high, it soars above its neighbouring peaks, spouting out glaciers and satellite crests that overshadow everything except the Torre Range, a collection of needle-like spires 7km south. Undisputed queen of the Torres is Cerro Torre, the Tower Mountain. It rises vertically for nearly all of its 3,128m and is generally regarded as one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb. That's not because of the altitude or highly technical climbing, but by virtue of its location: standing sentry for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre lies right on its edge. Once described by the South Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner as "a shriek turned to stone", the mountain receives the full brunt of the prevailing weather. The prevailing wet conditions, coupled with the almost constant high winds, regularly see Torre and its adjacent peaks covered in a maelstrom of moisture-laden, boiling storm clouds and coated in a rime of perilous, and at times unclimbable, snow and ice mushrooms.

Most people see Cerro Torre from the east. A feasible 2 day journey takes you from Buenos Aires to El Chalten, where you can step into the famous view found in the postcards all over the park's gateway town of El Calafate. Less common - and a world away in terms of the memories you'll come away with - is to ski out onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap and traverse over the ice cap, to the remote glacial cirque called Circos de los Altares, where you can gape, mouth wide open, right underneath Cerro Torre's cathedral-like proportions.

Not everyone who attempts the Patagonian Ice Cap traverse reaches Circos de los Altares. The biggest obstacle is the weather. Strong winds, known locally as Escobado de Dias, or God's Broom, are generated far out in the Pacific Ocean. Known to gather speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour, they race across the flat surface of the ice cap and hit the mountains with great force. Any visitor to the cirque, or climbing high on the mountains at this time, is at the complete mercy of the weather gods.

Another obstacle to a successful traverse of the ice cap are crevasses, both on the Marconi Glacier on the way up to the ice cap and at the mouth to Circos de los Altares. The largest of these crevasses, 100 feet (30m) across, even has a name, La Sumidero. Crystal clear water arrives into this 'sink; before swirling round and disappearing down a great black hole which would easily swallow a man. Then there’s your pack size. Potentially nine days out from El Chalten requires a lot of food and equipment and you'll analyse the contents of your rucksack like never before. 'Light is right' is the mantra for any such trip but remember, a canny man always keeps his toothbrush in one piece.

Most people will require the services of a mountain guide for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. You can use one of the local companies or hire one direct. In 2005, I used Pedro Augustina Fina of Argentina. He's a nice bloke, greyhound fit, with a naturally friendly smile. The trick is to slow him down with much of the gear, and to use your gas canisters first. He'll be wise to that now though. Pedro travels each year to El Chalten early, from Buenos Aires, to do some mountain climbing before the guiding season starts. He's been up both Aguja Poincenot and Aguja Guillaumet, serious peaks either side of Mount Fitz Roy and once spent 2 days under the ice cap hiding out the weather, after an ascent of Cerro Lautaro. On a different trip he took me on a partial circumnavigation of Mount Fitz Roy. But that's another story.

I spent 7 days in 2005 traversing a part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Despite Patagonia's reputation for bad weather, I got superlative weather all week and spent two days enjoying the views in Circos de los Altares. Unfortunately I can't guarantee you'll get the same.