Crack, rat­tle and pop goes the ice

In his quest for a bot­tle of fine scotch, takes on the Per­ito Moreno Glacier and wit­nesses the spec­tac­u­lar col­lapse of its ad­vanc­ing face. In slow mo­tion, pieces of ice the size of buses come crash­ing down. They are swal­lowed by the wa­ter, which af­ter a f

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

The crack and rum­ble of ri­fle fire re­ver­ber­ates through the jags of cobalt blue ice. I freeze for a mo­ment and my cram­pons claw and gnash into the slip­pery sur­face be­neath me.

I am perched on Per­ito Moreno Glacier whose an­cient frozen bulk slides into Lago Ar­gentino at the south­ern tip of the South­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field.

The 250 square kilo­me­tre ice for­ma­tion is 30 kilo­me­tres long and is one of 48 glaciers fed by the ice field in the An­des moun­tain range di­vid­ing Ar­gentina and Chile. It is the world’s third largest re­serve of fresh wa­ter.

The echo falls away and a chunk of ice the size of a two-storey build­ing crashes into the lake.

For a mo­ment I ques­tion why I am tak­ing a morn­ing stroll across an ad­vanc­ing glacier.

Oh that’s right, I hear a ru­mour there is a bot­tle of fine scotch wait­ing some­where out there on the ice. I may need the whole bot­tle if slabs as big as houses keep shear­ing off.

A few days ear­lier, wind swept and wind burnt, I rode into El Calafate from the des­o­late and cease­less Patag­o­nian Steppe. The town is the gate­way to Los Gla­cia­res Na­tional Park, home to Ar­gentina’s mas­sive Per­ito Moreno Glacier.

El Calafate, nor­mally buzzing and bustling with touts for glacier tours, is a ghost town. The one poor soul man­ning the tourist in­for­ma­tion of­fice lets me know why. I have timed my ar­rival to co­in­cide with one of na­ture’s most im­pres­sive shows.

The day be­fore my ice trek I find my­self stand­ing slack-jawed and frosty with a throng of Ar­gen­tini­ans and for­eign­ers as Per­ito Moreno Glacier un­der­goes its rare rup­ture – a spec­tac­u­lar col­lapse of its ad­vanc­ing face.

The solid mass of blue ice is awein­spir­ing. It has a 5km frontage about 60 me­tres in height drop­ping ver­ti­cally into the wa­ter of Lago Ar­gentino. Over time, the glacier creeps across the lake to the shore and about ev­ery four years even­tu­ally cuts the south­ern arm known as the Brazo Rico off from the rest of the lake. The mount­ing wa­ter pres­sure builds in ice-melt fed Brazo Rico and bores a small hole in the ice wall. This small leak ul­ti­mately is the cat­a­lyst for a spec­tac­u­lar de­mo­li­tion show.

Af­ter the first crack ap­pears in the frozen dam wall, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore the wall falls. The wa­ter flow­ing through from the Brazo Rico widens the crack. It re­lent­lessly nib­bles away then gnaws chunks out of the glacier’s snout. An ice bridge forms as the wa­ter fun­nels through. Mo­ment by mo­ment the hard fought ground won by Per­ito Moreno is lost to the force of the wa­ter and the tun­nel grows wider weak­en­ing the bridge.

Un­der a brood­ing sky icy droplets of rain spit­tle, the hiss of an­tic­i­pa­tion es­capes in foggy clouds from the open mouths of the masses lin­ing the walk­ways and view­points op­po­site the im­plod­ing glacier.

From my van­tage point I can see the wa­ter pour­ing through the grow­ing span of the bridge. Frozen chunks swirl and twirl in the wash­pool. Ice con­tin­ues to drop like shards of glass. A shower of smaller pieces turns into a cas­cade of gi­ant blocks. In slow mo­tion, pieces of ice the size of buses come crash­ing down. They are swal­lowed by the wa­ter, which af­ter a few mo­ments belches up gush­ing waves.

Each time Per­ito Moreno sheds a layer of ice, the crowd an­tic­i­pates the cat­a­clysmic end.

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