The Patag­o­nian Ice Fields

Los Cam­pos de Hielo Patagóni­cos

Patagon Journal - - EXPLORATION -

Eigh­teen thou­sand years ago, an ice sheet cov­ered most of Chile and south­ern Ar­gentina. To­day's Patag­o­nian Ice Fields are its last rem­nants, which con­sist of two non-con­tigu­ous sheets—the North­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field and the South­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field, the world's third-largest con­ti­nen­tal ice sheet af­ter those of Antarc­tica and Green­land. Al­to­gether, these ice fields span 17,200 square km (6,640 square miles), with 90 per­cent of the glaciers in Chilean Patag­o­nia.

The Patag­o­nian Ice Fields are a des­o­late, white land­scape, with some moun­tain peaks ris­ing more than 3000 me­ters high (9,842 feet) and of­ten in­hos­pitable weather and knock down winds. Leg­endary Bri­tish moun­taineer Eric Ship­ton, who be­tween 1958 and 1961 led three ex­pe­di­tions to the ice fields, once de­scribed its ex­tra­or­di­nary en­vi­ron­ment this way: “The in­ces­sant wind, heav­ily charged with mois­ture, forms im­mense de­posits of rime, drap­ing ver­ti­cal precipices, build­ing vast cor­nices on the wind­ward side of the ridges and a fairy-land of weird shapes, minarets, gi­ant mush­rooms, jut­ting gar­goyles, all with a flo­ral pat­tern of ice crys­tals. Seen from a dis­tance, it is beau­ti­ful; to be in the midst of it is fan­tas­tic.”

Ex­plo­ration here did not truly be­gin un­til 1913, when Ger­man moun­taineer Fed­erico Re­ichert en­tered the ice cap via Per­ito Moreno Glacier. In 1931, Fa­ther Al­berto De Agos­tini no­tably ac­com­plished the first east to west cross­ing of the South­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field, in 20 days trekking and climb­ing from Lake Ar­gentino to Fal­con Fjord on the Pa­cific. Still, as Pablo Besser re­calls in his es­say in this edi­tion of Patagon Jour­nal, it was not un­til 1999 that any­one was able to com­plete a lon­gi­tu­di­nal cross­ing of the South­ern Ice Field, when he and three other Chileans - Jose Pedro Montt, Mauri­cio Ro­jas, and Ro­drigo Fica - achieved the feat af­ter mak­ing their way down and over, what had been up un­til then, the “im­pass­able” Re­ichert Fault.

The Patag­o­nian Ice Fields re­main largely a fron­tier land­scape, with the border in the south­ern sheet still not even agreed upon by Chile and Ar­gentina as each coun­try eyes the enor­mous fresh wa­ter re­sources pre­served in the glacial ice. It's also a threat­ened en­vi­ron­ment, with cli­mate change more than dou­bling the pace of glacial re­treat over the past two decades.

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