Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Grey Glacier, Grey Lake and a boat trip

Grey Glacier is another of the chief attractions in Torres del Paine National Park. It is located on the west side beside the Cordillera del Paine and the Paine Massif and is at the south end of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The glacier covers a total area of 270 square kilometers and it is 28km long, however, like all of Torres Del Paine's glaciers and most glaciers around the world for that matter, it is retreating. Flowing southward, at one end is the Patagonian Ice Field and at the other a 40-metre wall of ice, which smashes ice blocks into Grey Lake below and with them, glacial rock flour, the silt which gives Grey Lake its milky blue/grey color. Grey lake is really a by-product of the glacier and because of the glacial silt it is a “dead” lake meaning that nothing lives in it. In some areas closest to the glacier, it is more than 500 meters deep and its waters reflecting the Paine Mountains behind it turn it into a postcard worthy picture. The surface of the lake and much of the glacier can be seen when following the big circuit of Paine Mountain Range at John Garner Pass. There is another view from the south shore of the lake, where the glacier can be seen in the background with icebergs floating on the water, some quite close to the shore. However, the best views of the glacier and the surrounding mountains are seen by boat which is booked from the Hotel Lago Grey. The boat leaves at 3 in the afternoon and sailing time is about three hours but can be cancelled because of weather, if necessary. The day we had scheduled the trip started windy and stormy and by noon although the rain had stopped, the wind had not abated much. We wondered if this was one of the days it would be cancelled but when we showed up at 2 o’clock, we were told the trip was definitely a go. Hmm. By 2:30 everyone had checked in, some 20 or so brave souls. Besides us, there were the four ladies from Texas and the rest were predominately a group from France. Everyone was bundled up against the elements. After a short bus ride, there was a 15 minute walk to the dock, first crossing a narrow, wood-slatted bridge which moved steadily in the wind and then across the beach which exposed us to the elements and left most people breathless. The wind was fierce and howled around us. There was no boat at the dock and we all huddled against the rock cliffs for any small shelter. The lake looks rough, ice-cold and very uninviting but none of this lessens the mood of anticipation for the trip ahead. After no more than a few minutes, the boat appeared. It looked smaller than I had expected and anchored a short way off-shore. A smaller motor boat then came and this would transport us out to the “Grey II”. As we got aboard the small boat, everyone was handed a life-jacket and instructed to wear it at all times when on deck or up on the second level open viewing area. My only thought was that if anyone fell in the water, hypothermia not drowning would be the issue. But, rules are rules. As we were climbing onto the main boat, one of the crew suddenly told us to check out the cliffs. There was an Andean Condor flying around. Considered quite rare, there are only a dozen or so breeding pairs in this area. Once, we were all safely ensconced on board, inside and out of the wind, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and after a brief introduction from the captain and crew, we were underway. Even with the wind and cold most people were too excited to stay inside and went to stand on the back or go up to the top to check out the scenery. We were not disappointed. The Cordillera del Paine surrounded us and the sharp snow capped granite peaks were beautiful as they were reflected in the water by the sun, peaking out behind clouds. There were icebergs and chunks of ice of various sizes in the water and nudging against the sides of the boat. The glacier in the distance was starting to loom larger and we could make out the tongues of the glacier. Tongues are segments of a glacier which has been divided by a “nunatak” – a piece of land that has separated the glacier to create an island in the middle and the tongues are the parts that form the ice wall where chunks break off which fall into the lake. It is now just a short time before we reach the base of the glacier and the giant wall of ice which soars in places 40 meters above us. The rock and ice formations leave everyone spellbound and speechless for minutes while the boat cuts the engines and the only sounds are those of nature surrounding us. The water as it rocks the boat, the groan of ice moving under its tremendous weight, the occasional splash as chunks fall into the lake and stillness, nothing more. Then, the cameras are out and the photo ops begin. But nothing can detract from the perfect images. There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe this phenomenal feat of nature, the millions of years that went into the making of this amazing park and this spectacular glacier. The colors were mesmerizing, ranging from pale azure blue to the deepest of periwinkle. Glacial blue, ice blue, the names of shades of blue flash through my mind but none of these truly represent the colors that surround us. The shapes and formations of ice sculpted over the ages and the field of ice as it looms over our heads looks as though it goes on forever. And yet this and most of the other world’s glaciers are rapidly receding. Global warming, the natural cycle of the earth, God’s creation, man’s destruction - who knows for sure and the arguments rage on but for this one moment in time, I can just stand in awe at the majesty of it. We must have taken a hundred or more photos as, at each turn there seemed to be yet another view equally as photogenic. As the boat idles and we move around to get different aspects of the glacier, a crew member appears with a tray laden with either straight whiskey or pisco sours mixed with ice made from glacial water. “Million year old ice” as it is known. (Pisco is a national drink from Chile). And so we stand on deck, as the boat gently glides past the giant wall of ice in front of us and occasionally nudges small icebergs floating by and we stand and toast one another. One of the ladies from France summed it up quite perfectly. “C’est tres magnifique”, she said. Ah, yes. It is very magnificent. Was the trip worth it? Absolutely – every penny, every step, every view. Did the weather affect the trip? Absolutely – in a good way. This is Patagonia, cold, desolate, windswept, glaciers, icebergs floating by, the end of the world. If it was warm and sunny, it would have detracted from the experience. And would we return? Absolutely. Now, if only we can figure out a way to stop the rapid melting of the glaciers. That would also be tres magnifique.

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