Glaciers by bicycle: Science, bike tourism, and photography

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Front of Calluqueo Glacier.Front of Calluqueo Glacier.

Text and photos by Marcos Cole
Translation by Zoe Baillargeon
Remnants of a remote past, glaciers have become a magnet that attracts explorers, scientists, and tourists. With strategic water reserves that deliver a series of ecosystem benefits, these ice masses, with their magnitude, shapes, and colors, are one of the most important and captivating landmarks throughout the Andean mountain range.

In South America, Chile contains the largest area of land covered by glacial ice (23,000 km2), but the vast majority of its glaciers are in decline due to several factors. Scientists study these changes through diverse techniques, one of which is the comparison of photographs from different years, thus evaluating the morphological changes experienced by glaciers over time. This technique, known as repeat photography, allows for assessing on a human scale the impact of climate change on glaciers.

Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in glaciers, which is why I studied geography and later became a mountain guide. For several years, I have been fascinated by the world of glaciology, participating in many expeditions as a volunteer throughout Chile. Partly because of that I decided to take a trip photographing every glacier I could access by bicycle. "Glaciers by Bike" was the name I came up with for the project, a solo expedition that combines my passion for glaciers, sports, and photography.

The main objective of this initiative is the development of a photographic survey of Chile’s glaciers in order to compare my photographs with those taken in the past by scientists and explorers. In addition, the project aims to promote cycling as a form of transportation that contributes to combating climate change.
Glacier at Valle Exploradores.Glacier at Valle Exploradores.

The trip
In September 2017, I grabbed my bike and set off in search of the first ice. For six months, I pedaled from the Altiplano to Patagonia, crossing the country from the sea to the Andes, from the mountains of the Atacama desert to the cold and rainy southern extremes of the continent. A half year journey that began in Arica and finished in Villa O'Higgins.

Throughout, the bicycle was my great traveling companion. I started pedaling from Arica to Lauca National Park, where I captured the first glacier photographs of the project. After a week of pedaling, and with a drop of more than 4,000 meters (2.48 miles), I reached Lake Chungará. There, I could contemplate and photograph the glaciers located in the Parinacota, Pomerape, and Guallatiri volcanoes, among others. The cold, wind, and altitude were factors that don’t offer any respite and deeply affected my experience in Parinacota.

After returning to Arica, I continued pedaling south along the coast of northern Chile. Along the Andes mountain range of the Coquimbo, Valparaíso, and Metropolitana regions I had several photographic objectives. The trip went through well-known mountain routes, such as the road to the Libertadores Border Complex or to Farellones, a mountain town located near Santiago. I also had the opportunity to accompany a group of scientists performing glaciological measurements on the Universidad Glacier in the O'Higgins region. As I made my way south, the quantity and size of the glaciers increased. During the first three months of travel I learned so much about the people, glaciers, and bike tourism, yet I still had more than half the country to go.

I continued pedaling toward the glaciers of Nevados de Chillán and Antuco, and then I went in search of the Araucanían ice. The layout of the route was not simply a longitudinal crossing, but also a constant up and down of mountains, exploring lakes, forests, waterfalls and a mosaic of colors and shapes that give life to the landscapes of southern Chile.
Leones Glacier.Leones Glacier.

When I arrived at Puerto Montt, the anxiety burned in my legs just thinking about starting to pedal on the Carretera Austral. After crossing the rainy, thick forests of Pumalín National Park and photographing a large number of glaciers, among them the famous hanging glacier of Quelat, I arrived to Coyhaique, capital of the Aysén region, and strategic point for stocking up on supplies in preparation for the most remote sections of Patagonia.
Bordering the sparkling waters of Lake General Carrera, I arrived at Puerto Río Tranquilo, a place where, daily, dozens of tourists board boats that take them to the marble cathedrals. But from there one can also take the road to one of the most spectacular sites in Chile for glacier observation: the Exploradores Valley. There are about 75 kilometers (46 miles) of road that border the northern limits of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. There, I was able to view enormous masses of ice such as the Exploradores and Grosse glaciers, as well as a significant number of unnamed glaciers, many of which cling to the sides of mountains.

Following the Chelenko basin, a little further south I headed toward the Leones Glacier, another of the giant tongues that extend from the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. At that point, my bike began to suffer from the long and hard route traveled, but despite one or two minor breakdowns I managed to reach Cochrane. From there I pedaled to the feet of one of the giants of Patagonia: Mount San Lorenzo, from whose western slope the Calluqueo Glacier descends, the same one that Father Alberto María de Agostini also photographed in the 1940s.
Camping at Villa O'Higgins.Camping at Villa O'Higgins.

The road to the south passed through beautiful and solitary landscapes, at times crossing the free flowing waters of the Baker River and then heading east toward the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. About 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Villa O'Higgins, I suffered a fall that left me with some injuries, as well as damaged my bike. Even so, I  managed to pedal to the last village along the mythical Carretera Austral and thereby reaching the end of the first part of my journey.

Next pedaling
The project "Glaciers on a Bike" has meant a radical lifestyle change: it involves a nomadic life in order to travel and work among glaciers. It is a dream come true, perhaps unthinkable for me only a few years ago. But there is still a ways to go. In October, I will start the next phase of this initiative, traveling to the Magallanes region at the southern tip of the continent, and then continue to Argentina and other South American countries in search of new glaciers to be documented.

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