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Ice Climbing in Chalten

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“Poor Dai!” exclaimed Caelen as he lay prostrate on the bed with his ankle elevated and covered in an ice pack, “What state will he come back in?” Caelen’s anxiety was justified, for Dai was going ice climbing with five Hot Rock women, and he was unlikely to escape without at least a dusting of pink glitter.

We met in the rain at 7am, a little dubious as to the conditions, but too keen to let a bit of weather dampen our enthusiasm. After all, it was at least 2 hours walk to the Base Camp where we would meet our guides – plenty of time for the weather to change. We headed up the trail towards Laguna Torre and the glacier. Within 20 minutes we passed the cliffs where Caelen had taken his fall three days before and involuntary shiver ran down my spine as I relived the moment yet again.

As we headed into the wooded valley that ran up to Laguna Torre, a light covering of snow lay on the trees and bushes around us. The drizzle eased and the morning brightened into a cool, clear day. The valley was beautiful, our trail well marked and predominantly flat and our packs virtually empty. All in all, the going was very pleasant.

We reached Base Camp in good time and tucked in with relish to the mint tea our guides had prepared. Aside from Dai and Anthea, who had their own, everyone needed to be fitted for a pair of crampons – sets of metal teeth to be strapped over our hiking boots to give us the necessary grip to walk on the glacier and, apparently, to climb sheer ice faces. Frankly, I was dubious. My boots were not made for crampons, and nor were the majority of the others’. They were too flexible, more likely to bend and buckle when I tried to kick into the vertical ice than to bite securely. Still, I was prepared to wait and see.

Crampons organised, everyone, of course, needed to hit Mel’s makeup department to have their glitter applied. “What’s this for?” asked one of the guides as we shimmered him up. “It’s so you’ll look pink and glittery and pretty!” we told him. This was reason enough.

Our first obstacle, within 15 minutes or so of leaving the camp, was a broad, fast flowing stream. Ropes stretched across from bank to bank, anchored to rocks high above the water. By clipping our harnesses into a device on the rope, gripping the rope and leaning back, we could pull ourselves hand over hand to the other side. I’d heard of a Tyrolean Traverse before, but I’d never actually seen one in action.

When my turn came, I was a little nervous. I’ve been climbing and abseiling long enough to harbour few irrational fears about ropes snapping or harnesses opening, and my inspection of the anchors on my side and observation of other, heavier people crossing safely pretty much eliminated my more rational fears of inadequate safety precautions. The predominant fear remaining was whether I’d be able to do it. It looked like a long way, pulling arm over arm – would I be strong enough? Or would I be left languishing embarrassed somewhere in the middle as I ran out of steam?

I set off, trying to find a balanced posture and sustain an even movement as I made my way across. Progress to the middle point was easy, as the rope naturally sagged under the weight and gravity was my friend. From the middle to the far side was more strenuous, and as I couldn’t see in the direction I was going I had little sense of distance. Just as I began to tire a little, the far bank and my waiting guide came into my upside-down vision. I was there, and after all it had been very easy.

From here we had a walk of about an hour to the edge of the glacier. We followed a stony ridge for some time before entering the forest once more, climbing a steep muddy slope and then down loose, broken rock to the glacier itself.

It was time to don our crampons and practice our John Wayne walk – bandy legs, bent knees, and a backwards tilt when walking down hills. For walking on the glacier, I grudgingly conceded that strapping crampons to my hiking boots seemed adequate, but I remained to be convinced on the climbing front.

We trekked across the glacier, stepping across crevasses, kicking our way up slopes and swaggering down them. We had come to El Chalten from the Moreno glacier, and for size, beauty and magnificence this small glacier could not compare. At Moreno, though, we’d admired from a distance. The deep curving holes carved by melting ice, soaring pinnacles and deep chasms were undeniably impressive and the sight of the glacier calving - shedding icebergs into the lake - was awe-inspiring, but we had not actually gone up close. Here we were walking right on the ice and we could appreciate its smaller features rather than being overwhelmed by the whole.

After a walk of an hour or so across the glacier, we reached the ice cliffs. We were beginning to get anxious about time, as it was now about 2pm, and we had a long walk home. We weren’t sure how much time we had for climbing. Our guides quickly set up top ropes, though, and got the group moving. Dai and Anthea were especially eager to get going, as they had new ice axes to try out. Luckily, given that these are expensive pieces of gear, they came down buzzing after successful attempts. The rest of us had to work with the makeshift crampons strapped to our hiking boots, but while that may have slowed us down it didn’t stop us getting there eventually.

We squeezed in as many routes as we could, before physically pulling Dai, Anthea and their shiny new axes from the ice and heading for home. We made good time over the now-familiar territory, and everyone sped across the Tyrolean traverse like pros, but it was still a long way back to town. It was about 8.30pm by the time I stumbled into the hostel, filthy, starving and exhausted. “How was your day?” asked the patient from his bed. “Brilliant!” I buzzed, ready to start into a blow by blow account of the day. “!’m glad,” he moaned, “But I’m really jealous!”

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the Moreno glacier - Argentina travelogues
Photograph of Sarah and Dai near Chalten going ice climbing Argentina travelogues
The Moreno Glacier

Through snowy woods to Base Camp

Picture of the ice climbing gang having lunch near Chalten Argentina travelogues
Photograph of Sarah on the Tyrolean traverse near Chalten Argentina travelogues
Lunch on the ice
Sarah on the Tyrolean Traverse

Picture of the Moreno glacier Argentina travelogues
Photograph of the Moreno glacier Argentina travelogues
Sunrise over the glacier
The glacier and the mountains