My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first.
Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it.
The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. I bumped into two Australians I’d met the previous day, when they’d given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.
As it turned out, we actually weren’t very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn’t stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.
After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you’ve left, or just as you’ve turned to look at something else.
I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn’t see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I enjoyed a hot shower, a carbohydrate-laden dinner and some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.
From Torres del Paine, I headed back into Argentina, getting my second set of Chile exit stamps and fourth lot of Argentina entry stamps. I got a bus past a series of minefields – legacy of long-running border disputes between these two countries – then along the shores of vivid blue Lago Argentino, to El Calafate. After the wilderness of Las Torres, this was quite a dramatic return to easy travelling. El Calafate is one of the major tourist towns of Patagonia, and it is well supplied with cafes, bookshops, hotels and tour operators. And I was here for the same reason everyone else was – to see the Moreno Glacier.
For independent travellers the options seemed limited. The only buses that went to the Glacier came with a guide, and so reluctantly I booked a place on a tour and hoped it wouldn’t be too cheesy. I was well out of luck though – the journey to the glacier was an exercise in herding the punters from sight to sight, with guides telling people to get off the bus and photograph whatever they were pointing at, and then thirty seconds later rushing everyone to get back on. I focussed my irritation on a spectacularly annoying man who was wearing inappropriately smart shoes and awful clothes, and telling everyone what an adventurous traveller he was when this was clearly just about the most daring thing he’d ever done. By the end of the day I really detested him.
When we got to the glacier we were shepherded along a short trail which took us down to the shores of the lake, and then to a view of the glacier. Even though I was trapped in tour hell I was still impressed at the vast towering cliff of ice, and the jumbled mess of icebergs in front of it. And thankfully, at this point the guides buggered off and said ‘be back at the bus in three hours’. Happy to be away from smart shoes man and the others, I had a look around the glacier.
It surprised me. I’d seen glaciers close up in Iceland, but they were nothing like as huge at the snout as this one, which pours off the South Patagonian Icefield and is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Most startling was the noise, an almost constant soundtrack of creaking and grinding. Clearly, something was going to fall off soon, and I was almost certain I’d be looking in the wrong direction when it did. And so it was, a couple of times, until I finally saw a huge lump of ice fall off just as I looked at a particularly precarious piece of glacier. An icy wind was blowing off the glacier, and it was raining occasionally, but later on the sun tried to break through. The weather over the icecap seemed to be improving, and the views of sunlight on the ice in the distance while we were still in gloom were pretty impressive. Not long before I had to get the bus back to El Calafate, two condors slowly glided down the glacier from over the icecap.
I had a day to kill before the next bus to El Chaltén, my next destination. I lazed around in cafes and caught up on e-mails from home, and also met an Irish air traffic controller. She was interesting as I’d never met an air traffic controller before, but also worrying because her sense of direction was so bad that she wore a compass on her wrist. “But as soon as I sit down at the controls, I know exactly where everything is”, she claimed, but I think I might avoid flying into Shannon for now.
Arctic nostalgia tour
In the summer of 1999 I spent a month in Iceland. It was a mindblowing time and I always had in mind the idea that I’d go back some day. Being the type of person who finds some kind of significance in the passage of round numbers of years, I always thought that 2009 was the likely time, but I was never sure if I’d just go back for a long weekend, or for another month of intense travel. In early 2009 the weekend option was looking more likely because I was planning to to spend my main summer break cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But then, for various reasons that plan encountered difficulties, and in a moment of curiosity I looked up flights to the north. In a moment of impulsiveness I ditched the cycling plan and booked a three week trip to Iceland instead.
I reminisced. On our last day in Reykjavík, a miserably wet September day, I’d briefly considered the possibility of a day trip to Greenland. It’s not even a two hour flight from Reykjavík to Kulusuk in East Greenland. But it would have been wildly expensive and really stupid to go somewhere like Greenland for a matter of hours. But now I looked again at the giant white island, and decided it was time to go there. In another moment of impulsiveness I booked flights from Reykjavík to Kulusuk.
My journey started at dusk one June evening. By the time my flight from Heathrow to Reykjavík took off, it was dark in London, but as we flew towards the Arctic we chased down the Sun, which rose again somewhere over the north Atlantic. Not long after this strange new dawn at 11pm, I caught sight of wild scenery far below, and we descended into Reykjavík. The Sun was low on the horizon, and shone through a misty haze to give the country a magical glow. I saw the Blue Lagoon, surrounded by lava flows, steaming gently. A bright double rainbow blazed. We landed just before midnight, and the sun set as I got off the plane.
It was incredible to be back in Iceland, but for now I was just in transit. At 6am the next morning I headed out to the tiny city airport to get a flight to Greenland. As we flew away from Iceland, I saw Snæfell’s perfect snow covered dome, blazing under a cloudless sky, and it seemed that hardly had I lost sight of that than we were flying over the ice-choked seas off the coast of Greenland. We landed in Kulusuk, and I got off the plane into a different universe.
Travelling by plane, you get whisked from one part of the world to another part so quickly that sometimes the change can be shocking. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt as stunned and disorientated as when I landed on Kulusuk Island. The plane had dropped down into a small valley, surrounded by wild mountains, and snow was everywhere. The sky was grey and the air was cool, and I was having a hard time believing I was in Greenland.
I walked out of the tiny airport building, out into the tundra. I didn’t have a map of the island, but in the distance was a group of day trippers, who I guessed would be heading for Kulusuk Village, so I followed them. A dirt road leading from the airport to the village was the only indication that people lived here; otherwise, all was deathly quiet and calm. I climbed a small hill, feeling tiny in the vast landscape, and saw the village not far away. I climbed down towards it and had a look around.
There was not a lot happening in Kulusuk. I walked to the end of the village to look out over the ice-choked seas, and didn’t see many people. Huskies were lying all around, looking very relaxed but leaping up and barking if I walked too close. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea for a while.
Soon I needed to head back to the airport, to get a helicopter to Tasiilaq. I bought some food in the Pilersuisoq shop, appreciating for the first time just how breathtakingly expensive Greenland was going to be, before hiking back out across the tundra to the airport.
I’d been in a helicopter only once before, to see Uluru from above, so I was looking forward to the trip to Tasiilaq. It didn’t disappoint. There was just me and two pilots on board the helicopter. We lurched off from Kulusuk, swept down the valley, over the village and out to sea. I bounced around in the back, taking photos left and right. A few minutes later we flew over a mountain ridge that seemed so close below us that I could have jumped out and made a safe landing, then dropped down over a fjord to land at Tasiilaq.
I camped just outside the town, on an ostensibly organised site that had no facilities bar one horrific toilet. I don’t mind camping in basic conditions but having no running water does make things more difficult. But I had a sheltered spot on a grassy promontory overlooking the fjord, and I was in Greenland, so I was pretty happy. I set up my tent under the cool grey skies. I was severely sleep-deprived after my late arrival in Iceland and early departure to get to here, so I lay down and slept.
When I woke a few hours later, I knew I was in trouble. I had all the signs of imminent disastrous caffeine withdrawal – a slight shaking, a feeling of paranoia and a rapidly developing headache. Groaning slightly, I got up and stumbled into town. I’d heard there was a book shop where you could get coffee, but it was already closed for the day. So I staggered on towards the largest supermarket in town, hoping in a crazy way that they would have some kind of cafe in store. They didn’t. Luckily I found some instant coffee, and now all I needed was water. Could I find any bottled water in the whole shop? No, I couldn’t. I found apple juice, and considered what kind of brew that would make. My symptoms were severe, and I seriously contemplated this option. Then, I found some soya milk, and decided that might work better. Unable to think about anything else, I shuffled back to my campsite, staring wildly and clutching my shopping like an eccentric OAP. I lit my stove, heated up some milk, made a ghastly, stupidly strong pseudo-coffee, drank it so eagerly that it spilled down my face, then made two more in quick succession.
Sometimes I wonder if I should give up coffee.
My cravings were alleviated, but my enthusiasm for Greenland was limited by the prospect of four days camped here with no running water and no showers. I decided to see if there was space in the hostel which owned the campsite. There was, and they said they had been mistaken in letting me use the campsite because in fact it was not yet ready for use. So I packed up my camping things and headed indoors, found a kitchen, brewed lots of coffee, and felt my enthusiasm renewed.
Once I’d recovered from my caffeine deprivation, I was in a position to appreciate just how incredible Greenland is. I went for a walk up Blomsterdalen, a valley running from the fjord up into the hills and mountains of Ammassalik Island. A few locals were out for picnics at the town end of the valley but further up there was no-one. I passed the cemetery, as bleak and haunting as all Greenlandic cemeteries are, and followed a river up to a series of frozen lakes.
On my way back into town I decided to head up into the hills. Hiking here was a dream – no trails, no people, just pure wilderness. I climbed up to a ridge and looked down over the fjord. A ribbon of clouds drifted past the bleak mountains across the water, and icebergs drifted down the fjord.