Posts Tagged With: ice

Back on Top

I’ve rarely felt more like an astronomer than I did during my postdoc in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, freezing my butt off and oxygen-starving my brain atop Mauna Kea at 13,800 ft (4200 m) above the Big Island’s tropical beaches. Its resident telescopes — six at the time, something like 14 now, depending on how you count — have always evoked a strong emotional resonance in me. I’ve written about it before (click here) but MK is always worth a revisit.

Our motivation this time was a visit from Laura and Brian, our old friends from Honolulu, who despite their decades in the islands had somehow never made it to the summit. Fortunately our Lincoln Behemoth Navigator has four wheel drive, so up we went, not without a little wariness: conditions at the summit were reported as below freezing temperatures and nearly 50 mph (80 kph) winds. We did have the good sense to bring along long pants and assorted sweaters and jackets.

Our first stop was the visitor center at Hale Pohaku at 9200 ft (2800 m) altitude. That site was chosen carefully: it is just below the elevation at which altitude sickness sets in for those who are susceptible to it. We stayed long enough to put on warm clothes, use the facilities, and — in my case — purchase my new favorite teeshirt and cap:

Maunakea 2019-025

I worked at the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), whose name you can see on the cap and whose relative telescope mirror size you can at the upper right on the shirt. (Imparting this fact to the cashier got me a 10% discount on my purchase, which pleased me no end.) At the time I worked here, UKIRT’s 3.8 m mirror was the largest on the mountain; now it is not even close. Here is what it looks like from the outside.

Maunakea 2019-020

I spent some 200 nights inside that dome.

The view at the summit is spectacular and rather Martian-looking, an expanse of lifeless rusty volcanic rubble and cinder cones.

Maunakea 2019-013-Edit

Maunakea 2019-008-Edit

But we couldn’t linger; the weather wouldn’t allow it. Here is a worker chipping ice off one of the domes:

Maunakea 2019-007

…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

Maunakea 2019-018

And if you want to get up close and personal with the weather, here is what the guardrail of the summit road looked like as we parked in the lee of one of the domes:

Maunakea 2019-021

As I said, we could not linger.

There is a lot of controversy at the moment surrounding Mauna Kea’s astronomy enterprise. There are very advanced plans to build the largest telescope of them all, the Thirty Meter Telescope, known as the TMT. For my non-metric readers, that is a mirror nearly 100 feet across, a truly giant and enormously capable instrument that would break new astronomical ground but take up a very visible spot on the mountain. But the island hosts a vocal minority of activists who view all of the telescopes — and certainly this planned one — as a desecration of a sacred place: Mauna Kea reaches to the sky, close to the gods. Their view is certainly not universal: there are many Hawaiian traditionalists who feel that since their ancestors were voyagers, the telescopes on the mountain are another form of voyage, honoring the ancient tradition by sending our eyes and minds to the stars. Needless to say, I subscribe pretty strongly to this view. But as a result of the uproar there is a real question as to whether the TMT will be built here; the planners are seriously consider siting the telescope in the Canary Islands (where there are already several other observatories) to avoid the controversy.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-010

The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-009

The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-037

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-033

I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hawaii Sky-O

We return to the Big Island in a couple of days, and will be there and in Honolulu for about a month. Now, reading those words, you may think that our time in Hawaii consists of watching the sunset from our lanai as we sip absurdly sweet drinks with little paper umbrellas in them, or swimming among riotously multicolored fish in an azure tropical lagoon. And you know what? You’re exactly right! HAHAHAHAhahahahahaaheeeeeheeeee…..

Ahem. Sorry. The weather has been miserable in the Washington area for the past few weeks — snow, sleet, and Arctic cold — so I am feeling somewhat uncharitable about the fact that we are able to escape it. Pardon my schadenfreude. I will try and make it up to you with some cool photos. Speaking of which —

I hope that my photo reporting from the islands will have a new flavor this time: an aerial one. In preparation for this trip (and because I succumbed to a spasm of self-indulgence) I have purchased a snazzy drone with which I hope to take a lot of aerial photos and videos. The drone itself, for those of you interested in the details, is a DJi Mavic Pro. You can click the name to see all of its wonderful properties, but two of its most important ones for my purposes are (1) it shoots very high quality, rock-steady 4K video and 12 MP still images; and (2) it weighs only 740 grams (26 ounces) and folds up into a little rectangular brick that fits easily into a backpack. It has a 4-mile (7 km) range and can stay aloft for about 25 minutes.

Here are some shots (4 stills and a video) from its maiden flight, only a few days ago. You can tell at a glance that we are not living in a tropical paradise: this is an area called Kent Narrows, at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay, where the one-word description of the environs is “icy”.

…And here are three minutes of video from the flight:

Cool, huh?

In the sacred tradition of guys anthropomorphizing their favorite toys, I have christened the drone Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan. Cygnus flies along the Milky Way during the northern hemisphere summer months, so it’s kind of apt. (Astronomical Fun Fact: Deneb, a.k.a. Alpha Cygni, is also one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy, roughly 100,000 times as luminous as the Sun. If it has planets, you could get a helluva tan.)

My good friend, travel buddy, and “dronemate” Steve, whose own purchase of an identical model filled me with envy and techno-lust and ultimately inspired my own purchase, has in Yoda-like fashion chided me for my attachment to ephemeral physical objects. This from a guy who named his drone “Icarus” and recently installed  a 10-foot-wide 4K video display in his living room that plays a continuous loop of swimming jellyfish.  Steve is my hero but I may have to slap him around a little. (If I can reach him: he’s about 6″ taller than me.)

I seem to be digressing. The point is, we are very excited about our return to Hawaii, so watch this space for some eye-in-the-sky photos and videos over the next several weeks. Aloha!

Categories: Hawaii, US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

No Relation to Rita Moreno (Oct 13)

Today is our last day in Patagonia before moving on to Iguassu Falls (warm! tropical!) via a day back in Buenos Aires tomorrow. We spent the night in a nice hotel in El Calafate, as I mentioned yesterday, and awoke this morning to cloudless skies and a crisp beginning-of-winter bite in the air, plus dusting of snow on the ground, cars, rooftops, and of course the distant mountains. But it isn’t winter: this is what passes for springtime here. It hardly matters; as I’ve already mentioned, the weather changes dramatically about every 20 minutes.

Our goal today was Perito Moreno glacier, a significantly larger chunk of ice than those we have see so far. (My previous posts  misspelled the name with too many R’s.) It is one of several enormous glaciers that fill a strip roughly 10 miles wide and 100 miles long, running north-south along Argentina’s border with Chile and collectively comprising Glacier National Park.

Julio and our Argentine local guide (a talkative local named Sebastian, stocky, bearded, and jolly) decided to take a slightly indirect road to the park in order to avoid the most heavily traveled tourist route and show us some scenic byways. This was a real good move; we drove past dramatic snowy mountains and cyan lakes, past herds of horses and flocks of sheep on the snow covered, windswept ground. Here is the scene, in two photos a few minutes and miles apart:

Home on the Argentine range


Ditto. Note the color of the lake at the foot of the mountains

The temperature was brisk, probably around 40F, and the wind typically ferocious, blowing so hard that it was very difficult to hold the camera steady enough to take pictures.

The hillsides were dotted with sheep, and this (being spring) is lambing season, with lots of young frolicking around, or at least frolicking as much as one can in weather like this. We were grateful for the sun.

No Greeks around here, so he must be Basque

The animals all come from assorted estancias, or ranch estates, in the area. Some raise horses or cattle, some sheep, and some a combination. (This is actually unusual in our very limited experience: in New Zealand we experienced a lot of hostility between “sheep people” and “cattle people”, and no one raised both. The same was true in the American West in the mid- and late 19th century; in fact, that was part of the impetus for the invention of barbed wire in 1874. That is today’s Fun Factoid.)

We made a brief stop at a small estancia, which had a cozy little restaurant and café. It was owned by a Basque family; for reasons that are not altogether clear to me, Argentina has a significant Basque enclave. But Basque they are, and if you don’t believe me then take a look a look at the portrait at left that I took of one of one of the owners, and tell me that he does not look like everyone’s idea of a Basque.

The house had a couple of nearly newborn lambs running around (inside the house), and the restaurant was heated by a wood burning stove, so the operative word was “rustic”. (The bathrooms were fully modern, happily.) The scene went momentarily crazy when one woman in our group — one of the “Boise girls” — stood too close to the stove while still wearing her quilted down coat. One side of the synthetic coat instantly melted, releasing a large cloud of down feathers that swirled around the room on the air currents from the stove. Chaos erupts! Everyone who didn’t see it happen suddenly wondered why it was snowing tiny feathers indoors. The baby lamb went crazy, chasing after the floating white whisps, apparently under the tragic misapprehension that its mother had exploded.

The owners happily took the disaster in stride, sweeping up the feathers and patching the afflicted coat with — wait for it– duct tape.

We arrived at Perito Moreno at about noon, stopping first at a vantage about 4 miles from the face of the glacier. Simply stepping out of the bus was a challenge: although the sun was still out, a 2 billion ton ice cube sitting at the confluence of two lakes is pretty much guaranteed to create a local microclimate, which in this case meant a freezing monster wind that could practically tear your ears off the side of your head. Our 4 mile distance from the face probably made things worse instead of better, since we were on a high lookout across the lake, which gave the wind plenty of space to pick up speed and energy from the thermal gradient off the ice. And indeed, as we got closer to the glacier the conditions — though still fiercely windy — were not nearly as ablative. (But of course, the sun went away; a completely sunny day is always too much to ask in Patagonia.)

There are a number of metal walkways that define paths of various lengths along the face of the glacier and through the woods on the hillside facing it. This gives you the idea:

One of several walkways that afford views of the glacier face

That is a narrow ice-choked river in front of the glacier, connecting the two lakes at whose junction Perito Moreno sits. As usual, the perspective in the photo gives a deceptive sense of scale, since the walkway is in the foreground, nearly 1000 ft in front of the glacier. The ice wall is 200 ft high, and the full width of the face (you see maybe 1/4 of it here) is about 3 miles. It also extends something like 8 miles into the distance, which means that from the initial distant vantage point at the park entrance you are looking at something like half a cubic mile of ice. And this is just one of the glaciers in the park, the most accessible but not the largest.

The path itself is a relatively recent addition, constructed in the late 1980’s. Prior to then, you could walk all the way down the hillside to the river in front of the glacier, and if the river was frozen you could walk the few hundred feet across it and actually touch the face of the glacier….at which point several tons of ice would fall on top of you, thereby spoiling the fun. Remember how I reported that we saw calving events on all the glaciers we saw? This one is no exception, and after losing about two idiotic tourists per year over a 20 year period starting in the 1960’s, they finally built the walkway. 

And speaking of calving events, here are two that we saw, both accompanied by thunderous echoing reports as hundreds of tons of ice fell perhaps 100 ft into the river; they look rather like waterfalls of ice as the chunks tumble down the face:

Do not be hiking underneath when this happens


I said DON’T WALK ACROSS THE RIV…oh, never mind.


We’re having fun! We’re freezing!

We walked a number of the paths, spending about 2 1/2 hours gawking at the glacier from various vantage points. It was spectacular and a fitting end to our Patagonia sojourn before we move on to warmer climes. Tomorrow is a travel day and unless something exciting happens in Buenos Aires I may not post anything until we get to Iguassu Falls. (Or, being longwinded, I might.) So I will close this entry with the photo of the two of us (right) enjoying the comfort and convenience of the six layers of clothing we are wearing against the wind and cold.

But hey, it’s a GLACIER! Awesomeness quota fulfilled.

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Blue, Blue, My Glacier Is Blue (Oct 9)

In our continuing series of Glaciers of Patagonia, today we bring you Piloto Glacier located at the head of Alacalufe fjord here in not-so-sunny Patagonia. But first, we had to get there.

Late last night we exited the Beagle Passage on the Pacific side of Tierra del Fuego. We were warned at dinner that this would be the windiest part of the passage with the highest waves — this part of the Pacific is anything but pacific (with a lowercase p) — and that for this reason the passage would be made late at night when we were safely tucked into bed. They elaborated that it might be hard to move around the cabin during this time, which turned out to be spectacularly true.

Up to this point the seas have been quite calm, and the motion of the boat correspondingly gentle, even soothing. But I awakened in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and it took me about a minute to get to the bathroom, which is about eight feet from the foot of the bed. I could hear the wind howling outside the window, and even lying in bed felt like a roller coaster ride, with momentary periods of near-weightlessness followed by an abrupt thud and crash as the bow of the ship pitched down from the crest of a wave into the trough. It was remarkable, and after navigating back to bed from the bathroom, a journey that took another minute or so as I weaved around the pitching and rolling floor, I opened the curtains to watch the show outside for a while. (I chose not to wake Alice, who was still sound asleep.) The boat has running lights on the side so it was possible to see the waves from the window, and there was faint moonlight filtering through the heavy clouds, illuminating the island on our starboard side. It was quite the display.

At this point a number of you might be saying, “I’d never make it through the night because I get seasick really easily.” But the powers that be have thought of you, and it is not for nothing that the passage was in the middle of the night: you don’t get seasick in your sleep. In the event, by morning we were back in calm seas at the mouth of the fjord.

Ernest Shackelton, call your office

This excursion would not involve landing the Zodiac; we would remain in it to motor up the glacier and approach as close as we safely could to the face of Piloto while the Australis remained at anchor at the mouth of the fjord. Since we would not be doing much moving around we are advised to layer up as much as we could; the weather would be cold, wet, and raw, and absent any hiking we would not be keeping ourselves warm. So we suited up like brightly colored Michelin Men. The air temperature was about 40 F, and the water temperature about the same. The wind was modest and it was raining lightly but steadily.

Apparently in anticipation of our arrival, Piloto glacier had a major calving event a few hours earlier, and the fjord was choked with ice to the point that it appeared as though you could practically step out of the boat and walk down the channel. (We were advised not to try this.) The Zodiacs struggled against all the ice; you can see two of our four boats in the photo at left, practically locked in the ice. There were, needless to say, the expected Shackelton jokes.

It took about 20 minutes to negotiate the ice floes and make our way up to the glacier. It was spectacular, the most striking one we have seen because of its unearthly opalescent blue color throughout, as you can see below. (I should emphasize that I haven’t done any color enhancement in these shots.)

Piloto Glacier, bringing new meaning to the term “ice blue”

As in yesterday’s photos of Pia Glacier, the perspective in this shot is very deceptive because the boat is much closer to the foreground than the glacier, which is several hundred feet high. We maneuvered around the floating ice to get as close as we could, ignoring the pelting rain and trying to avoid being hemmed in by the floes that completely surrounded us. And while we were ogling the blue giant, it put in another show for us, calving once again with a lightning crack and thunderous explosion, and bringing our calving record to 3-for-3. I caught part of the event on camera; you can see it right in the middle of the picture below, resembling a waterfall on the glacier face. But it is actually a huge “icefall”, a good 100 ft high.

You do not want to be much closer than this when this happens


Nesting crested cormorants, scavenging each other

We lingered for a while longer to see if any more would fall, but only a small amount did so we turned around and made a short stop to admire the bird life: gulls, skuas, and lots and lots of crested cormorants, the latter perched in rows on the cliff sides among their nests and squawking and dancing (mating dances) at each other. Here they are at left.

One peculiarity of their behavior is that they steal building material from each others’ nests in order to improve their own. This tactic works pretty poorly, because while Joe Cormorant is off stealing some sticks from Bob Cormorant’s nest, his nest is in turn being raided by Harpo Cormorant. So when not out hunting for fish these guys basically spend all day either dancing to woo women or picking each others’ pockets.

A very not-tropical waterfall

In part because of the rain and also because the (barely) above freezing temperatures cause a lot of glacial melt, the dark granite walls of the fjord were decorated with a multitude of waterfalls. As we motored back up the channel towards our starting point,mew stopped along the way to get close to a couple of small cataracts (whose waters, were, well, as cold as ice). They ran in rivulets of varying width from all the way at the tops of the cliffs down to the sea.

After returning to the Via Australis we were warmed with a cup of hot chocolate (with optional whiskey added, which we declined). A few minutes later we were offered a tour of the engine room, which of course appealed to the geek in both of us. It was pretty unprepossessing, far from the cavernous space housing rows of diesel behemoths that you would find on a big cruise ship. This was far more modest,mid deafeningly loud; they gave us earmuff-style ear protection while we we in there. And of course they gave us statistics: two 850 horsepower Diesel engines, two 385 kW main generators plus a 120 kW backup, ship is 237 ft in length, etc., etc. It was interesting and enjoyable enough, I suppose, but suffered from comparison to the one-hour adrenaline rush we had just experienced.

Aguila glacier and two wet tourists

Our afternoon shore excursion was to the Aguilar glacier, which unlike either the Pia or Piloto glaciers empties out onto a small alluvial plain, meaning that we could walk nearly right up to it. The Zodiacs dropped us off on the rocky beach, and we hiked along it for about 45 minutes until we came to the mouth of the plain; the glacier was perhaps a quarter mile inland from there. It does not have a recent history of calving and so viewing it was a somewhat more passive experience than the others, but it was nonetheless gratifyingly blue and carved into arches and spires.

The weather for this afternoon excursion was not quite as cooperative as it had been; though the temperature was not horribly cold (low 40s), there was a steady pelting rain that made the Zodiac ride and subsequent hike very wet affairs. We were well equipped with all the requisite layers of clothing that we had brought for the trip, notably our happily waterproof top-to-bottom rain gear. Even so, the hot post-excursion shower in our room was a little slice of heaven. 

And here’s a panorama of Aguila just because. For scale, it’s about 500 ft high.

More ice!

Tonight is our last night aboard ship, with a farewell dinner and some late night activities, notably auctioning off the ship’s official navigation map showing our route and the various waypoints. In the past this has gone for insane amounts of money, the highest that Julio can recall being $800. So we won’t be bidding. We have a morning excursion to a Magdalena Islland, home to a large population of Magellanic penguins. Be on the lookout for excessively cute photos as we then proceed to Punta Arenas to resume the land portion of our journey.

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Nice Ice, Baby (Oct 8)

We are in glacier country now, for real, and today was a two-glacier day. Even more excitingly, it was a two calving glacier day, as we were lucky enough to see both of our target glaciers explosively shed office-building sized chunks of ice sufficient to keep you and all your friends in piña coladas for the rest of your life. (By the way, since we’ve been on the subject for a couple of days now, I highly recommend the documentary “Chasing Ice”, which is about glaciers and has some truly amazing and beautiful photography.)

The weather has been cloudy with some light misting rain all day, the mountaintops shrouded in fog. But the glaciers are down at the sea and our visibility is unimpeded. The Australis is working its way down the Beagle Channel into the ice fields, and as we approach the glaciers the sea around us is densely littered with floating chunks of ice ranging in size from “cantaloupe” to “minivan”. Many of the larger pieces have been sculpted by wind and water into gently curving baroque shapes, and some of them have football-sized chunks of rock embedded in them. We push slowly through them, and since our cabin is on the bottom deck we can hear frequent thumps as the larger pieces brush against the ship’s hull. The water is dark gray and the floes range in color from light gray to sky blue…glacier blue, I suppose, a striking and incongruously cheerful hue against the cold and light drizzle.

The Zodiacs have pretty tough hulls themselves, the inflatable rubber sides being thick enough to repel collisions with small objects. Even so, a scout crew always goes out first to ascertain the safety of the surroundings before we board our own boats. You can see one returning, below. Note that the boat has a rope mesh at the front. This serves two purposes, one being a hand grip for beaching and shoving off, the other being a wave-breaker-upper (for lack of a better term); waves that splash into the front as we motor forward get dissipated on the mesh, which thus minimizes the amount of water splashed into the boat.

“Is it safe?”

We had come in sight of our first destination, Pia Glacier, an hour or two earlier. It’s a massive thing whose scale is difficult to appreciate against the mountains that surround it. Here’s the approach to the glacier from abovedecks. You can also see all the ice “debris” in the water around us.     

Approaching Pia Glacier (just right of center) on the Via Australis

To give you an idea of the scale, the mouth of the glacier is about 3/4 mile wide, and it is about 1000 ft high.

Storming the beaches at Pia Glacier

Today was not quite such an early day, and we set off in the boats at about 9 AM, motoring first directly alongside the  Australis and then powering out into the open channel. The driver steers clear of the larger floes but we run straight over the little ones, feeling the bumps and thumps as they run across the bottom of the craft.

The beach landing is easy once we navigate the ice; the slope of the beach is gentle and the crew is waiting with a little aluminum gangplank that they hoist onto the bow of the Zodiac for us. We exit the craft one-by-one with striking efficiency and then walk up the sloping granite “beach” to an assembly point.

The granite is interesting in itself. Nearly black in color and striated with gray and white, it’s surprisingly skid-proof even when wet; we can walk on it very easily, even on a slope. There are patches covered with white, green, and occasional orange lichen, and there are large exceptionally flat areas maybe 20 ft on a side that are covered with scratches and striations all running parallel to one another — scars on the rock from the glacier’s ancient retreat. 

(While contemplating this I notice Alice ambling slowly across the granite, peering straight down in evident concentration. She sees me observing her and explains, “I am researching kitchen countertops, ” stating it in such a strikingly matter-of-fact tone that it takes me a moment to realize that she is a total loonball. Kitchen countertops, of course! What else would we be doing at the foot of a thousand foot tall glacier, 600 miles from Antarctica?)

We walk along the granite beach to a point that is perhaps a quarter mile from the face of the glacier, so the view looks like this. (The perspective is very deceiving in this image: bear in mind that our cohort in the orange life vests at left are a quarter mile from the ice; the central formations in the middle of the face are 1000 ft high.)

Ice the height of a skyscraper

And there is sound, lots of it. Loud cracks and pops like gunfire, and the occasional small explosion as some unseen mass of ice breaks off and falls somewhere onto a jagged surface, also out of sight. A lot of the cacophony seems to emanate from the cavelike formation that you can see on the left side of the picture. Every now and then we can see and hear a piece fall from the roof of the arch into the water; the smallest of these is about the size of a car and it makes a deep and thunderous >>FOOM!!!<< as it crashes into the sea. These events seem to occur with increasing frequency even as we watch, making us wonder whether there will be a larger calving event later (answer: yes).

“I’d like to buy a vowel and 2 billion tons of ice, Pat.”

There’s a viewpoint at an elevation of a few hundred feet on the hillside, and so we set out along a hiking trail. The weather is holding: heavily overcast and cold but not too raw, with the barely-there drizzle kind of coming and going. The hiking trail is as steep as yesterday’s, but not as long; there are short muddy stretches but tree roots are a bigger impediment, and there are uneven hunks of granite interspersed with the roots and the mud, so we have to pick our way. There are a couple of particularly steep stretches with rope strung along the edge of the path, such as it is; we use the ropes to help haul ourselves up, and we reach the lookout in about 20 minutes. And so here is Alice at the lookout, doing her best Vanna White imitation to present the glacier to you.

Even as we watched from the lookout, the rate of explosive pops and crackles from the left part of the glacier seemed to be increasing. So we waited — I’d like to say patiently, but we were anything but — and were rewarded, as the entire ceiling of the arch came loose with the crackling sound of a dead tree being splintered by a lightning bolt. This was a slab of ice bigger than a football field, and it seemed to fall in slow motion. Perhaps 4 seconds in free fall, it hit the water like an earthquake, sending a tiny tsunami towards the Zodiac and washing dozens of boulder-sized floes up onto the beach. We all clapped and cheered. Alice had been on the ball and caught it on video; we’ll post it upon our return.

Not everyone in our party had made the hike to the lookout, so when we returned to the beach we regaled the unfortunates with what we had witnessed. We were still hopped up on adrenaline by the time the Zodiac came to ferry us back to the Australis, though we had passed the time productively by drinking hot chocolate and variously chewing and licking a hunk of glacier that had washed up onto the beach, and which I had picked up and brought back to the group for inspection. After all, how could you not want to taste a glacier? I can report that it tastes a great deal like a hunk of ice, quite cold and fresh with no chlorine or additives of any kind. It was kind of neat to both hold and behold, though: you could see strata in it from various formative snow depositions over the years, and it had a lot of suspended air bubbles. This particular chunk was not blue, however.

We dodged floating ice all the way back to the ship and enjoyed a buffet lunch (assorted Italian dishes today, quite good) in preparation for the afternoon excursion to our next glacier, called Garibaldi. Most of our group, including ourselves, elected not to go ashore for this one since we were told that the hike was quite arduous and the reward at the top (a waterfall) not altogether commensurate with the effort. This was a wise choice,mat least for us: while the shore party(only 7 people, including the father and daughter from our group) was doing the hike, the captain took the Australis further up the channel nearly up to the face of Garibaldi itself, an enormous ice wall much bluer than Pia though slightly smaller in size. It is about 1500 ft wide and 500 feet high. The channel was practically choked with ice, which we pushed slowly through for a spectacular view. 

Garibaldi is bifurcated by a vertical moraine; it is essentially two glaciers merged together with a visible seam, a jagged brown channel that runs down the face. And while we were observed this, Garibaldi calved too! We had seen some large pieces falling off so in anticipation I was more or less at the ready with my camera set in burst mode (3.6 shots per second for three seconds at a time), and managed to capture a few thousand tons of ice as it hit the water with just a bit of a splash:

Kersplash! Garibaldi Glacier calves. 

That’s the impact billowing at the waterline just to the right of center. You can also see how very blue Garibadi is, and how very clogged the channel is with small ice floes. And of course you can also see the moraine making a dark S-shaped channel through the glacier. 

We spent most of the rest of the day congratulating ourselves on our glaciological luck. At 6 PM there was a knot-tying demonstration at the bar/observation deck, which was a lot more entertaining than it sounds. The lesson was given by the boatswain, a beefy guy with a shaved head who could probably have a second career as a nightclub bouncer. He was a hoot, at least in translation by another crew member since he himself spoke little English. And I am proud to say that for at least the next 24 hours until I forget how, I know how to tie a bowline knot as well as a “novelty” knot called a “devil’s staircase”. This is a sort of a trick whereby with a few economic motions you simultaneously create multiple knots at a time strung along the length of rope like beads on a string. As nearly as I can tell its practical application is for wowing guests at very dull parties. But I am confident that I will be able to amaze the kindergarten crowd at, say, our grandson’s fifth birthday in 2 1/2 years.

 

 

 

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