I really do develop some strange obsessions. When I first arrived in Latin America I loved Latin names so much I collected them – I used to write the most elaborate in an old notebook, that is now filled with random Seraphims and Octavios whom I’ll never see again.
I’ve collected doorknockers in Cartagena – too many photographs of serpents and lions to mention – street sculptures in Bogota and numerous oddities in England (when I was a child I collected castles – well, their pictures on postcards for practical reasons).
But now I’m lurching towards my strangest fascination of all. Glaciers. Or, to put it scientifically, the bodies of ice that form when the accumulation of snow exceeds the speed at which it can melt. (A warning about my science: A chemistry teacher once wrote ‘Bang’ across one of my more hopeless attempts at compounds).
Stick with me, though, because glaciers are cool. They’re massive, they sit looming in huge mountain crevices, glowing with a slightly menacing air, on the edges of glacial lakes where lumps start to fall, one huge tidal-wave inducing splash at a time.
I’d never even seen a real glacier before I arrived in Chile. We were enjoying a bottle of red on the Navimag ferry, when the skipper announced we were approaching a glacier called Pio XI (great name eh?) It was the start of something.
Pio is a thick, apparently endless wall of ice that reared out of the gloom of a cold, rainy day in the Patagonian fjords.
I didn’t realise at the time that Pio is the longest glacier in the southern hemisphere, outside of Antartica and it’s getting bigger. In one 30 year period it managed to sneak forward by three miles – slow, obviously, but scary when you really think about it.
From the ferry we walked into Torres del Paine, which is glacier heaven for someone starting to develop a peculiar interest in ice.
You can stumble across a hanging glacier, which occurs when a bit of glacier becomes stuck on a high rock, not quite managing to fall into the main glacier. Beautiful, yes, but terrifying. Hanging glaciers, when they do finally descend, have caused terrible, fatal, avalanches.
Glacier Grey is the star turn of Torres and, if you hike the whole circuit, you come across it from the top of a mountain – a view that hits you suddenly, as the adrenaline kicks in from summiting a steep, one-hour climb.
What you really see is the ice field, the glacier comes later. An ice field is the flat, white bit that connects all of the valley glaciers – on, ahem, wikipedia they describe ice fields as “larger than alpine glaciers, smaller than ice sheets and similar in area to ice caps,” which, of course, explains everything.
Lots of people who see glaciers become a bit obsessed with them. You can’t help but gaze in awe at the icebergs that fall from them and remain alone and frozen in the lake. Never again will you wonder how a bit of ice managed to sink a ship the size of Titanic.
But the bit people, like me, love most is the blue – the crazy burst of sapphire that nestles in the crevices of every glacier. There’s a scientific explanation for that too, I just don’t understand it. It has something to do with water molecules and red light absorption that goes way over my head. Best just to enjoy it.
For me, the easiest glacier to enjoy in Patagonia is on the Argentine side – because you don’t have to walk anywhere to see it and it is still damned impressive. Hundreds of people stare at Perito Moreno glacier, near el Calafate, every day and wait for the fun to begin. The glacier groans like thunder and when chunks start to fall, the bangs and splashes are worth the wait.
Water eh? It just keeps on giving.