Ice, water, ice: part 2

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The second part of our correspondent's story about traveling in Aysen. In this installment, she writes about sailing on Lake General Carrera and hiking at Glaciar Exploradores.
Text and photos by Clara Ribera
Translation by Katy Harris
“I couldn’t sleep last night because I was wondering whether the Carretera Austral would be frozen,” Pedro tells us as we eat salmon and potatoes at his home and our temporary lodgings in Coyhaique. “To put my mind at rest, I went and fitted snow chains on the truck’s tires.”

A strong person who isn’t afraid to ask questions and educate others, ex-military man Pedro Sepúlveda’s life is ruled by ice. He lived in Antarctica for more than a year and is now a mountain guide in Aysén, where he has lived for years. Originally from Santiago, he now runs Patagonia Silvestre, a business that organizes adventure excursions in the region. 

Driving from Coyhaique to Puerto Tranquilo, the clear day let us see the magnificent Cerro Castillo.Driving from Coyhaique to Puerto Tranquilo, the clear day let us see the magnificent Cerro Castillo.

The plan is to take us north to south along the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), from Coyhaique to Puerto Río Tranquilo, 217 kilometers away. During the long drive, we hope to safely navigate the scant road ice that we will inevitably encounter this time of year. It’s the start of a dry winter. There will be snow that will freeze in the cold temperatures, but that won’t happen for a while yet.  

In the trunk, there are enough crampons for our group of eight, some ice axes, and sandwiches to keep the hunger at bay while out walking. Tomorrow, we will be trekking across the Exploradores Glacier, but today, we will be masquerading as tourists same as we did yesterday on the Loberías del Sur Catamaran, only today we will be taking a boat to visit the marble caves at Cavernas de Marmol of Lake General Carrera.

My friend is nervous, worried that she won’t manage the six-hour hike across the glacier. She isn’t much of a hiker. For that matter, neither am I. But Pedro promised us that this is a hike “that even eighty-year-old women have done.”

“Very fit eighty-year-old women, of course!” he laughs. My excitement grows. After all, how often will a Mediterranean gal like me get to walk on top of a Patagonian glacier? 

I have been in Chile for a few months now and I, born and bred in a temperate climate, am beginning to understand how things work in the far south. Patagonia is full of vast distances, silence and echoes, and frozen highways. In winter, Patagonia is early nightfall, wind whistling through mountains and valleys, dogs barking in the streets of sleepy towns. It is the smell of burnt wood. It is taking refuge close to the stove and sleeping with forty thousand blankets. It is wrapping up until you can’t fit any more clothes on your body.

The Caves
When we arrive at Puerto Río Tranquilo, we err on the side of caution and put on as much clothing as possible before going in search of Juan Aldea. Juan, who I would guess is around 60, has been sailing Lake General Carrera since he was a boy, when he had to catch a boat to school. The little boat that we board seems light. He hands us some life jackets and we set off. 
The small boats stand at Lake General Carrera's shore, where the main touristic atraction is Capillas de Mármol.The small boats stand at Lake General Carrera's shore, where the main touristic atraction is Capillas de Mármol.
 The fresh and calm water welcomes us gently. The journey to the caves at Cavernas de Mármol allows us to be tourists: taking photos of the landscape, a few selfies, and joking about the possibility of falling into the frozen lake. Juan stands on foot at the back of the boat, arms crossed. He watches the horizon, a confident expression on his face, without touching the motor or steering. At times he gives us a teasing half-smile when we ask whether anyone has ever fallen off his boat. Nobody has. 

The marble - white, gray, transparent, smooth, sleek. Sculpted by the gentle, icy waves of Chile’s largest dual-nationality lake – the Argentinian side is known as Lake Buenos Aires – the caves (also affectionately referred to as chapels and cathedrals) are located near the shores of Lake General Carrera. Touching the marble is prohibited, as it would accelerate the erosion already caused by the water. These caves are a perfect example of nature’s exquisite and painstaking architecture.  

The marble caves are the result of the lake's erosion.The marble caves are the result of the lake's erosion.
The tranquility ends when we head back toward Río Tranquilo. The wind and the water are against us. At the front of the boat, I huddle with two other passengers and we cover ourselves, anchored to the strip of wood that acts as our seat. Every now and then, I open my eyes to see and anticipate the approaching wave we have to face. The boat rises and falls. Juan is still on foot at the back, his expression calm. This time, thankfully, he is holding on to the rudder. 
We arrive back at Puerto Río Tranquilo safely. Today has been a day of water. Tomorrow will be ice’s turn. 
Three Days, Two Glaciers
When I think of glaciers, I imagine blue ice; deep, crystalline, pure. The Exploradores Glacier, is… different than what I’d imagined.
Pedro wakes us up early for our trekking day. There is no going back. Half asleep, we board the truck and drive for an hour to reach the start of the trek. He warns us that the only section that could prove a little tricky for our relatively inexperienced group is the area he likes to call “127 Hours,” so named after the film about climber Aron Ralson, whose arm got stuck between two huge boulders.
Further along, we’re told we will also undoubtedly have to conquer a section resembling a construction site; an area so chaotic and disjointed, it will be as though an army of bulldozers had churned up the earth’s depths and left their work half-finished. 
Last stretch before getting to the glacier: rocks, small lagoons and ice.Last stretch before getting to the glacier: rocks, small lagoons and ice.Part of the Patagonia SIlvestres group.Part of the Patagonia SIlvestres group.
The Exploradores Glacier, whose surface area covers 95 km2, is one of the ice strips flowing outward from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field. Accessible by an unpaved road from Puerto Río Tranquilo, it’s relatively easy to reach. After parking the car, the walk begins through a moraine, which we unsuccessfully attempt to bypass. The boulders - some of them icy - are large enough that a person could leap from one to the other, so we have to concentrate and every now and then scramble around a bit. 
The hike is neither short nor easy, but our guide Pedro’s earlier instructions and his suggestions along the way are easy to understand. The boulders are gradually getting bigger and the landscape more dramatic. The grays in the scattered rock mixes with the white and blue of the ice that we occasionally glimpse below. Every once in awhile, we spot a small lake, the water milky from glacial meltwater mixing with sediment. 
When the ice starts becoming more prevalent than rock, we stop to put on our crampons. Then we enter the glacier. For the uninitiated, walking with crampons feels strange; you have to walk like a penguin to avoid tangling your feet and tripping. 
Around us - crevasses that lead you into the deepest bowels of the earth and ice caves, as blue as a cloudless summer sky. We caress the surface of the glacier, digging our feet in firmly, moving forward inch by inch, marveling at every step. We try to climb it but few of us succeed. Only two fit Scots and our guide manage to ascend to a reasonable height.
And the moment to return has arrived: ice, moraine, and car. My time in Aysén has come to an end. I bid farewell to the vast natural expanses as we are heading back to Coyhaique. The sun has already vanished but we saw enough of it during the day to ensure that the road isn’t yet frozen. Pedro drives smoothly and the rest of us sleep peacefully while our minds process the cascade of wonderful images that we will remember forever. 
More information:
Patagonia Silvestre