Discovering Viedma

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In the past, the Viedma Glacier has been that amazing swath of white that I’ve gazed at across Lago Viedma as we make our way to and from El Chalten.
Snaking back around the far northwest corner, behind Paso de los Vientos, into a massive ice field. And reaching east into a giant aquamarine lake that one must traverse to get anywhere here. Viedma is so much more than what you can see from afar.
There’s a three-mile wild white strip of ice that hints at the grandeur behind the peaks. The tongue is barely a tiny dollop of a place cut off from the world. Remote, beautiful and isolated.
On a recent trip, I had hours on horseback to ponder the glacier from the near south during our blessedly chilled stay at Helsingfors. Then, I hopped on a boat, hiked up a iron-filled cliff, strapped on some crampons and went for a walk on Viedma itself.
This is the second-largest glacier in the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and it’s disappearing. All the glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park are receeding except for the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, which is in what scientists call a ’stable’ condition. Some say Viedma will be gone in sixty years. The same goes for all of the glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Icefield, with the exception of the majestic Pio XI glacier, on the Chilean side, with is also the largest in the icefield and is ’stable’.
I’ve poked my crampons into Patagonian glaciers before. But Viedma, I was told, was different from any other glacier I’d hiked on.
“It’s more wild,” Fernando says.
“It’s totally unique,” Milena says. “It’s got personality.”
The first thing I notice is that Viedma is a physically energetic glacier that is under extreme pressure from the two mountains forming the spout through which its tongue protrudes. I could feel it as the boat’s captain nestled into his make-shift harbour. We dock the boat next to a tall cliff, disembark on a wooden plankway and then hike up a moraine that only 12 years ago was under the ice of Viedma. There are tracks of the ice’s retreat scratched beneath each step. It’s a fresh terrain, incredibly raw and chiseled.
Then, we hit the ice. There’s tension beneath the picks of my crampon. I follow Milena along the ridges, peering into complex ice forms, down frozen streams, across at jagged crevases. We fight to stand still amidst giant winds. There were few of us, and we formed a team for a hands-on lesson on glaciology and physical geography.
What I most loved about Viedma, though, was the view east across the Patagonian Steppe.
It’s like a painter’s palate, a selection of serene colours one might want to paint the walls of a private retreat - colours that elude to openness and space. The gentle view blended a rose horizon, bisque-coloured ridges, azure-aqua skies, mint cream waters, puffy snowy-white cloud, cliffs of a burnt brick with burgundy and bronze stripes, and the incredible range of blues and whites on the glacier itself. Clean. And an incredible peace. Room to breathe.
I looked east toward a gentleness that contrasts with the fierce ice, and to the road that I’d traveled up and down so many times. I followed the clouds that ripped east above me. One looked like an ice cream cone (no kidding!). Another was a series of ocean waves. In the distance, some perfect Simpson-esque puffs.
A few days later, I headed back out of El Chalten and watched Viedma blend into the horizon. It’s a memory to hold close and to return to amidst the hustle and bustle of life.