Your Wildest Adventure: Metal & Ice in Patagonia

Posted on March 23, 2010 by

Your Wildest Adventure’ is a series featuring the most thrilling experiences from travel writers jaunting around the world. This week’s edition is an amazing story told by the brilliant medical/travel writer Abigail King who blogs over at Inside the Travel Lab. It’s easy to get hooked to her fascinating tales and articulate writing. With a background in neuroscience, Abigail mixes her love of science and passion for travel, into an interesting concoction.

Parque Nacional Los Glaciales

Metal & Ice in Patagonia

I know before I unzip the tent that I will find ice outside. I know, because there was ice there last night. Ice on the path, ice hanging like swords from the trees and ice, simply ice, forming the glacier.

Patagonia promised me an adventure and Parque Nacional Los Glaciales delivered.

I joined a small group yesterday, plucked from the simple town of El Calafate, with its lines of wooden cabanas and hotchpotch of people from around the globe. Following our education at the park’s entrance (don’t pee in the streams because everyone drinks from the water) we set off at a pace, striding through pebbled boulders, dark pines and slippery paths. Our guide, a lean man wearing a T-shirt, didn’t have time for slackers.

The glaciers of the PatagoniaIt is too cold to stop,” he said, as an American paused to take a photo. Hibernating beneath fleeces, thermal underwear and a surprisingly itchy hat, I wondered about giving tips on outdoor clothing. In the end I decided against it.

Even he layered up, however, when we reached the glacial stream. The water gushed with unsettling ferocity, a young buck of a river looking to make his mark on the world.

I glanced around for a bridge and realised that the adventure would start earlier than expected. Some well-practiced threading of equipment (on the guide’s part, not mine) suspended a cable across this churning gash in the rocks.

Before I knew it, I was in the harness and clipping on. It’s easier to go first, right? My frozen hands clutched the cable, I stepped towards the torrent, flicked my legs up – and missed. Never mind. I’d have to make do without. One, two, one two, hand after hand, keep on going. I must be doing this wrong, though. Where the hell did my legs go?

All I can see is the flat sky above and the domineering line of the cable. One, two, one, two. Don’t look down, don’t listen. That second instruction is impossible. The water drenches my senses, a raging, deafening rampage. I have a strange flashback to swimming backstroke at school: the sensory deprivation, the rhythmic movement. My head thuds into a rock. The pain from not looking where I’m going.

Crossing a river on a cable

I’ve arrived intact, even if my dignity hasn’t. As I watched the others flail across, lungs sharp with the freshness that only cold air provides, I allowed myself to feel a little proud.

The next day, we needed crampons. It wasn’t my first time (I had all of one day’s experience) but it felt as familiar as strapping cheese graters to my wrists and walking down the street on my hands.

Crampon teeth sink into the ice to offer more security, the base straps on to my boot. Many of the ridges are narrower than my foot. If I fall, it won’t be to ground. It’ll be into that crevasse with its death-blue tinge and promise of an icy coffin.

The group of adventure seekersMy bravery at the bridge is soon forgotten. The British policewoman strides along. The American photographer makes great progress. The guide has all but disappeared. If I don’t hurry, I’ll lose the safe path and have to fend for myself.

All I can imagine is falling and I’m shaken, really shaken. I need to focus on something else because this cannot possibly help. By some miracle, I catch up. We must have finished because aside from this lily pad of ice, a solid glacial wall stretches up, up and up for thirty metres or more

Then the ice axes appear.

“I’ll go first,” I hear someone say and then I realise it was me. Some part of the tangled miasma that calls itself my brain has responded without my permission. Shamed after the feeble performance on horizontal ice, it suddenly thinks that vertical would be better.

Abigail climbing on ice I brace myself. Groin-chafing harness – check. Rope – check. Rudimentary instructions and total lack of experience – check.

The technique, as far as I can make out, is to sling each axe into the wall and then kick the foot spears into the ice afterwards. And repeat. Within seconds my lungs burn, my shoulders shriek and my conscious mind tries to concentrate on anything other than the fact that I am clinging to H2O with less than a centimetre of cheap, damaged metal.

This time I really can’t hear anything, except for the crunch, the swish and the slunch of my poorly orchestrated movements.

My toes turn numb and all I can see is the ice. White, sparkling, incandescent ice. But suddenly, my axe finds air, flailing, empty air.

I have arrived. I have climbed the wall.

I look over my shoulder at the insect-like people below, my hands trembling with adrenaline and exertion. I fall slowly, softly down until my feet reach solid ground.

Ground? No, it’s the ice I’m thankful for.

All photos above are courtesy of author Abigail King.


descarga Abigail King is a professional writer with a passion for travel. She left a successful career in medicine to circle the globe, camp in the snows of Kilimanjaro and Patagonia and track down tigers, turtles and panda bears. She then had a hot shower and embraced the city life of New York, Rio, Paris and Tokyo.

Read more about her travels at Inside the Travel Lab, a blog on the art and science of unusual journeys. Warning: you might just get hooked on it.


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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

14 Responses to “Your Wildest Adventure: Metal & Ice in Patagonia”

  1. ciki March 23, 2010 10:43 pm #

    my gosh abi! I didn't know you were so hardcore! yea, I've heard stories from my husband where crampons have saved many a life. great write up abi.. thanks for sharing. i am totally in awe. a fan.

    • Nellie March 24, 2010 4:22 am #

      Yeh I particularly like Abi\’s story-telling skills, makes you grab the edge of your seat. I almost burst into sweat while wondering if she\’d fall or get rescued by a polar bear!

  2. Carrie March 25, 2010 3:56 am #

    Great story, Abigail. You really drew me into your Patagonia experience!

  3. Abi March 26, 2010 9:17 am #

    Thanks for the compliments! Though I have to confess that I haven't yet rushed to climb any more ice walls lately…but given the opportunity I reckon I'd do it all again (she says from the warmth and safety of her computer room!)

  4. Andy Jarosz May 20, 2010 2:11 pm #

    Brilliant story Abi. I was scared for you as I read this. Sounds like you are very brave.
    We had a much more gentle Patagonia experience; I almost feel as though we missed out now!

  5. Melvin May 20, 2010 2:38 pm #

    Great read! I just missed the part with the polar bear. (@Nellie) ;-)

    We've hiked the Fox Glacier in New Zealand & our highlight was that very old man who went first & had much trouble breathing & walking. I was always close behind him to catch him, if he would fall. Also an adventure. lol

  6. @Nick_Walz May 2, 2012 5:28 am #

    Patagonia is amazing


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