Destinations, July 1997
I N T E R N A T I O N A L N E W S
Balanced above a 200-foot-deep crevasse, Bernardo Roil, 27, digs his crampons deeper into the crystalline slope of the glacier. Giant blocks of ice break off beneath him and plunge thunderously into the lake below. A howling wind blows across the moraines, sprinkling brown grit like so much cinnamon. Roil, a guide in Argentina's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, surveys the landscape — incandescent blue fissures, blinding white peaks — and casts a glance towards Chile, 20 miles to the west. "We Argentines will never give up our glaciers to them," he says. "Never."
Rarely does ice generate quite so much heat as here, in the Patagonian ice fields, an uninhabited 8,500 square mile wilderness at the southern tip of South America. Fed by humid air that blows across the Andes and condenses into snow roughly 340 days of the year, these low-lying glaciers are geological anachronisms, the continent's last remnants of the Ice Age. But they've been remarkably volatile lately. In 1991, after a century of sometimes violent territorial squabbles, the presidents of Chile and Argentina signed a treaty setting new boundaries for the area. Among other points, the pact Solomonically divided 10 percent of the glacier field into two equal slabs, rendering unto Chile a slice of what Argentina had considered its land. The treaty was supposed to be ratified by the Argentine and Chilean legislatures last April, with its provisions going into effect this summer.
But pro-treaty forces hadn't counted on the extraordinary emotional power of the ice. In Río Gallegos, the hardscrabble capital of Argentina's southern Santa Cruz Province, antitreaty graffiti began to cover walls late last year, and President Carlos Menem canceled a planned visit. Sentiments were almost as strong in Chile, where many citizens considered the treaty not sweeping enough. They wanted more of the disputed land. With the issue getting front-page coverage day after day, local politicians began to get fidgety — until finally, with the ratification vote only days away, they announced the decision would be delayed until early next year.
All of which makes the upcoming months a uniquely auspicious time to visit the ice fields, at least for those who like their geology spiced with geopolitics. Regional color may never be this vivid again. Certainly you'll learn a few new swear words. (The area's tourism infrastructure will be unafffected by any change of nationality for the glaciers, however.)
To undertake your own ice trek, begin in Río Gallegos, where the locals will gladly discuss their strong feelings about the treaty, if you speak passable Spanish. From here, drive along rutted roads to the shores of Lago Argentino. Suspended 200 feet above its waters, like a freeze-frame avalanche, sits Perito Moreno, one of the most accessible and politically volatile of the glaciers. Parts of it will become Chilean territory if the treaty is ratified. Until then, Argentine guides will possessively lead you on a three-hour guided hike over their land. (Make arrangements through any travel agency in Río Gallegos or through the Hotel Los Notros in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Call 011-54-1-814-3934.)
The trip begins with a crossing of the lake, your motorboat scraping and thumping against broken ice floes. After a hike through pine forest, the guides lead you onto the glacier. (No previous experience is needed.) For the next two hours, you climb near-vertical slopes, descend makeshift staircases hacked into the ice, and inch along crevasses. A vast field of pleated ice surrounds you, cut by deep-blue fissures and dominated by the sweeping backdrop of Lago Argentino. Afterward, celebrate in glacial style by hoisting glasses of whiskey served "on the rocks" — with ice hacked out of the nearest overhang. Toast Chilean-Argentine relations if you choose. But expect to see your guide's face darken.