Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

La Casa Rosa and the not-so-small matter of the Perito Moreno Glacier

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El Chaltén borders the northern sector of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (‘El Campo de Hielo Sur’). The Ice Field contains a ridiculous number of glaciers, and is a relic of the Patagonian Ice Sheet which covered all of southern Chile during the last ice age. It’s 350km long and an average 40km wide and is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The area it covers is HUGE. The glaciers on the west side run out into the Chilean fjords and the Pacific Ocean and those on the East drain out into two enormous lakes (Viedma and Argentino) and eventually run out into the Atlantic Ocean. Over thousands of years, these huge quantities of melting ice carved out the rugged landscape we see in southern Patagonian today.

But first I had to get there….

The Perito Moreno Glacier – one of the many glaciers in the Southern Ice Field

The following morning I made my way out of El Chaltén. Looking behind me the whole mountain range was in full view (and this is only after the evening before, when I’d realised I had a perfect view of Mount Fitz Roy from the window in my bathroom after all that trekking up and down!).

The Fitz Roy mountain range in full view from the main road out of El Chaltén.

I was also feeling quite pleased with myself as the previous day I’d finally managed to find some plastic underlay from a local DIY store to go under my tent. I’d been suffering from water coming up through both the inner tent ground sheet and through the extra groundsheet footprint I’d already brought with me from the UK, as the ground is sometimes extremely waterlogged. Very small things make me very happy these days!

Winds like I’ve never known before

As I rode out of El Chaltén the wind hit me. Initially it was a diagonal cross/tail wind. Overall it was pretty helpful, but for the first 45km or so I was still having to battle to keep the bike straight and true. I was grateful for the lack of traffic as whilst I could see the impressive mountain range on my right hand side, there was really no shelter as gusts of winds swept across the dry pampa (grasslands).

The wind then turned a little and got right behind me and the next 45km went by in the flash of an eye. I desperately needed a pee by this stage but there was absolutely zero place to do so discretely – I tried my luck and picked my timing just off the side of the road and thankfully nothing passed by!

My route then took a 90 degree turn, so I was now being completely blasted by a side wind that was pushing me hard into the road. I was nervous and a bit scared. With the wind gusts coming so strong, it was also difficult not to over-compensate and ride off the tarmac in the opposite direction when the wind dropped. My left arm was cramping up from gripping the handlebars (this is also the hand I injured back in Valparaiso which still hurts from time to time). I passed a very helpful road sign stating the bleeding obvious…although I definitely haven’t seen any palm trees recently!

As I cycled further I noticed some solar-powered SOS phone boxes every few kilometres by the side of the road – it seems it’s not only cyclists who get in trouble with the wind in these parts. I deliberated to myself how bad things would need to get before I would need to use one…

I passed a little cafe/resto/hotel on the River La Leona and was very grateful for a little respite from the wind and just to take a breather and recompose myself for a while. They had a funny little museum inside with relics left by past indigenous populations and some stuffed armadillos. But they also sold hot chocolate and banana cake – perfect for a weary cyclist!

The Pink House (La Casa Rosa)

I rode the last 10km or so (at less than a third of the speed of the previous 90km), until I reached The Pink House – an abandoned house by the side of the road, famous amongst cycle-tourers as there’s really nowhere else with shelter from the wind to stay down here. I had a good nosey around and then, as all the windows had been removed, put my tent up in one rooms in the lee of the wind to keep me warm at night.

The abandoned Pink House seen from the road

I set up camp in this room – earlier lodgers had kindly left a good selection of stones to ‘peg’ down the tent. Despite the litter and broken bottles in the rest of the house, this room was also pretty nice and clean.

The old fireplace – check out all the languages of cyclists who’ve stayed from all around the world on this wall. Not sure it’s all incredibly polite mind you…

An old boiler – no remaining water services unsurprisingly

I spotted this graffiti on the wall from Tim Millikin who Sara-Ann and I had met back in Bolivia (he’s been riding round the world for a couple of years, from Reading UK to Reading North America hence his blog So funny to cross virtual paths here!

I decided to be a quiet and anonyous passerby rather than scrawl my own name up on the wall. I’d disappear again along with the wind!

The sunset looking either way along the river valley that night was absolutely mind blowing. I think this night at the Pink House will stay with me forever.

Calafate & The Perito Moreno Glacier

I got up at 5.30am the following day to set off riding before the wind got into its stride as I knew I was in for a hard day: it would be a cross-wind for 65km followed by a headwind for 30km into Calafate. It was 24th December so I filmed this little message as I struggled my way through the headwind. (Donations still very gratefully received – see the links above for more info).

I was rewarded by the sight of the astonishing turquoise glacial waters of Lago Argentino. (The frustrating thing is that I could see Calafate directly on the opposite side of the lake, but knew I’d need to suffer through the wind to get there). I met some Argentinian motorbikers at this viewpoint (always entertaining!) who took this rare pic of me and my bike.

It took over 3 hours to do the final 30km stretch to Calafate. For the first half, I decided that if a pickup came and offered me a lift I’d take it. By the second half, I decided the end was within sight and even though the wind continued to get stronger, I’d keep plugging on and ride into town under my own steam. I think I earned my glass of Patagonian Malbec that evening!

The next day I took a tour out to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. This particular glacier is not the biggest but one of the most famous being so easily accessible. It’s 30km long, 4.5km wide and 170m thick. You can see 50m of thickness of the glacier along the shoreline (about 15 storeys high). It’s sliding down the hillside like a massive sled and the oldest ice in the bottom layers is about 350 years old (which is still quite young by glacier standards).

The stunning Perito Moreno Glacier

It is a 10 year process to create the glacial ice. This is one of the snowiest places on earth with 30-40m of snowfall per year. As fresh snow is dumped on the surface each year, the lower levels are compressed. After 8-10 years the snow gets crystallised and starts to form hard glacial ice. It then starts moving downhill. The glacier moves quite fast – up to 3 metres per day – and like a river, flowing fast in the middle and on top, and slower on the bottom and to the sides.

The interesting thing about the Perito Moreno is that it continually sheds about 2m of ice daily, which carves off the front of the glacier in huge chunks, with loud cracks and rumbles. It then replenishes itself at the top of the glacier, so unlike most glaciers in the Southern Ice Field, it is not shrinking.

Watching the glacier patiently, you’ll eventually hear a huge bang and then see chunks of ice the size of office blocks carve off the front of the glacier. It happens very quickly so I only managed to get a picture of the resulting shock waves.

In the ice age, the Southern Ice Field covered this entire area. As the ice melted it cut huge valleys out of the mountainsides. The water is a milky blue from all the minerals and particles from the ice still suspended in the water. You can also see here the fantastic walkways that have been built to enable visitors to get a close up view of the glacier.

The glacier is over 170m thick in places, with 50m visible along the shoreline

The bottom end of the glacier – it works through cycles where the glacier crosses and bridges Lago Argentino to reach the ‘mainland’. Eventually the bridge will come crashing down in a huge spectacle.

Trekking on the glacier

As it was Christmas, I decided to splash out on a short glacier trek. The colours and ice features from up close were amazing.

And finally, a whisky on (glacier) ice. Happy Christmas everyone!

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