Anna Leask

Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Chile: Glacial beauty rewards hard graft

Stunning views - and ice for a pisco sour - justify a long journey through an icy wilderness, writes Anna Leask.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, at the end of the Andes Mountains, is the second-largest ice field in the world. Photo / Supplied
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, at the end of the Andes Mountains, is the second-largest ice field in the world. Photo / Supplied

A Chinese businessman once completed the rugged 12km trek to Patagonia's Grey Glacier wearing a full suit and polished black dress shoes.

I'm not really sure how he survived it, considering I almost didn't in full hiking gear and armed with a walking pole and guide just metres in front of me.

Well, that's a bit dramatic, but falling in a glacial stream just before the halfway mark and having my hiking pants freeze solidly to my thigh was a bit frightening all the way out in the wilderness.

After a half-hour boat ride across Lake Pehoe, we started hiking towards the glacier. Snow was falling softly as we wound our way inland.

We'd been told earlier that a large part of the first 6km was uphill, but it wasn't too arduous and the spectacular scenery made us forget about the intense workout our legs were getting.

We had to cover about 2km an hour, so while there was time for photo stops, there was no time for slacking.

Layers came off and were put back on hurriedly as the weather changed, but we trudged on, eager to get to the glacier we had heard so much about.

Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, located at the southern end of the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina. It is the second-largest ice field in the world, covering 16,800sq km. The Grey Glacier itself covers 270sq km and its ice wall rises up 35m from the surface of the Grey Lake.

The day before, after our walk along the glacier-fed Pingo River, we had been taken to a viewing platform on the shore of the Grey Lake to see the icebergs that had broken away from the huge ice field and floated downstream. After seeing those giant beasts, we knew we were in for a brilliant view at the actual glacier.

We were just coming up to the clearing where we would get our first glimpse of glacier when mini-disaster struck. While crossing a stream, and after thinking I had found solid ground with my walking pole, I suddenly found myself falling towards the water.

Solid ground turned out to be a hollow and moving branch. Everything was in slow motion as I inched closer to the water, scrambling at the same time to stay upright. I knew that water was well below 0C. I knew I wasn't carrying spare clothing (to keep my pack light). I knew I was about to get very wet and very cold.

After falling in sideways, leaping back up and stumbling in again - creating quite the splash - I managed to get myself back to the trail. I feared the worst when I saw our guide Juliette's face. But, miraculously, most of me had stayed dry.

My jacket, thankfully, covered me from neck to mid-thigh and as I fell sideways, only one leg was wet. And boy was it cold. Within five minutes I could no longer feel my thigh. We got to the lookout, though, and the view of the glacier was stunning. Even from 6km away, the blue and icy-white colours were vivid.

After about 10 minutes of steep uphill walking, I could feel my leg again and no longer feared having to be airlifted out of the glacier with hypothermia or frostbite.

Lunch was a picnic at a sheltered spot and we scoffed down soup, sandwiches and coffee with warming liqueur.

We finally arrived at the end of the walk and warmed up in the Grey Ranger Station while we waited for our boat to arrive to transport us home - via an up-close-and-personal encounter with the glacier.

We were told that the ice fields within the park covered the whole area 15,000 years ago. But now, as in New Zealand, the glaciers are retreating bit by bit.

We were taken to the boat by dinghy. We cruised among icebergs, some solid, others looking like shiny blue crystals floating on the lake surface.

We stood on the deck of the boat, marvelling at the ice field, oohing and aahing at the icebergs and, just when we thought we couldn't be more impressed, the drinks arrived. Glasses of Chile's national drink, pisco sour, were filled with ice shaved from the very 'bergs we were navigating.

If you're going to Patagonia, make time to see the Grey Glacier - it's a spectacular place.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines has daily flights from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, via Auckland. From Santiago, LAN offers extensive connections throughout Chile and other South American countries. Visit the website or call 1800 558 129.

Where to stay: The Explora Patagonia four-night package costs from $2780 per person twin-share with the same inclusions. There is also an eight-night option from $4920 per person twin-share. For details check out the website or see your local travel agent.

Anna Leask visited Chile as a guest of Lan Airlines and Explora Hotels.

- NZ Herald

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