The Patagonian Ice Fields
Los Campos de Hielo Patagónicos
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.