Epic Adventures Los Glaciares

Expedition trekking on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

‘We were like buffalo charging straight into the storm,’ was how one of my trekking companions described it. We were halfway through our week-long expedition, roped together as we picked our way across a glacier. Behind us, a black cloud was descending, whipped into menacing swirls by a ferocious wind. Ahead of us the air was thick with snow, in an instant drowning out our tiny party in a deafening white out. We were out on the third largest icefield in the world and Patagonia was sending its wildest weather to test if we were worthy of the adventure. 

Walking into a white out

Tackling Swoop’s South Patagonian Ice Field Expedition had long been at the top of my wish list. It involves crossing remote mountain passes to cross glaciers to skirt Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park and getting about as far out into the wilderness as it’s possible to be. I hike regularly from my backyard in Chile’s Aysen region, but this trip was the one I was looking for to truly test myself against. 

Experience required

The checklist for the trip was irresistible. Anyone signing up needed to be prepared for long days carrying a heavy backpack across difficult terrain. Climbing experience was strongly recommended, as was a mindset that was adaptable to the unexpected. The length of the trip promised as much: eight days in total but with two of those programmed in as reserve days, to allow the itinerary to adapt to bad weather or other circumstances. In the end, we needed both.

Planning our route across the ice field on day one of the expedition

The first day showed us why. What should have been a simple trek following the wide glacial valley of the Eléctrico Valley involved some unexpected backtracking when one of the four trekkers in the group who had booked locally decided after walking for a couple of hours that they weren’t in good enough physical shape for what lay ahead. Our guides Diego and Rafa handled the situation with grace and empathy, but in the days ahead we were glad that the call had been made earlier rather than later. 

After this false start we set out on the second morning with a renewed focus. We forded the Pollone river, taking our boots off to keep them dry but exposing ourselves to some of the coldest water I’ve ever experienced. The river wasn’t deep – but it was fast. It sucked a sandal off one of my feet, never to be seen again. 

Crossing the Eléctrico River by zipline: hold tight!

The next river we crossed by using a zipline. It was quite the experience pulling ourselves to the far bank of the river, especially while wearing a backpack. This was when the wind really started to pick up. It seemed to come at us from every direction, and I could feel it knife its way between me and my backpack. I have been in a lot of Patagonian wind, but this really made me feel like a rag doll being tossed in all directions!

Erecting our tents in these conditions was even wilder. But once the canvas was up, we gorged ourselves on a dinner of polenta with sausages and huddled together as the wind howled outside.

The Valle de los Catorce, home for our third night

For all this, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Having the wind as a common adversary bonded us together as a team, and in the moments when there was a slight lull, one look outside to see the majestic crag of Mount Fitz Roy reminded us why we were all here. 

Ascending to the ice field

That feeling was brought into even sharper focus on day three. This was the day we would climb the Marconi Pass and finally step foot on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. 

Climbing up the Marconi Pass

The ascent was exposed and asked questions of us all. I was glad for my rock-climbing experience but as the temperature dropped and snow blew in, I questioned whether or not I shouldn’t have brought an extra pair of gloves. 

Of course, the wind never let up once! As we were heading over the Marconi Pass it was blowing straight into our faces, barrelling snow right at us. It was one of those situations where you suffer while at the same time the wildness of it all makes you feel strangely alive. It certainly made the achievement of reaching the pass all the sweeter. 

On the far side of the pass: the Southern Patagonian Ice Field at last!

On the other side of the pass, we finally had some peace. The wind died down just a bit so we could take a break and enjoy the scenery. We had finally made it onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the views were just overwhelming. The whole Fitz Roy Massif was laid out before us with only a few lingering clouds and otherwise hidden mountain ranges fringing the ice field. We were miniscule dots on an empty white landscape. It was one of the most remarkable landscapes I’ve ever seen. 

The ice field demanded a different type of trekking. Donning our crampons and harnesses, Diego and Rafa roped us together. We picked our way across the ice towards our reward, a tiny refuge hut at the base of Cerro Gorra Blanca where we would sleep. It was a rustic cabin with a few bunk beds, a table and stove, but to us it felt like a five star hotel. 

Home sweet home: our hut on the ice field

The storm arrived the next day. The weather forecast suggested that our window for crossing the ice was only a small one. The itinerary called for a comfortable ice hike over two days to spend a night at Circo de los Altares, a beautiful wild camp on the ice field surrounded by a granite amphitheatre of mountains. It wasn’t to be. Instead, we’d have to push ourselves to cross the ice field in a single day. 

Any disappointment was quickly replaced by the idea of the challenge. This felt like a true expedition, taking on anything that Mother Nature would throw at us. And a few hours later, she did. 

Dawn on the ice field before the bad weather arrived

Weather extremes

We left the hut just after 6am in fine weather. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and just a few high clouds in a peaceful blue sky. The walking was peaceful and almost meditative, focusing on your steps and the rope playing out to your trekking partner in front of you. The ice was smooth and the crevasses were barely cracks. 

It was a good 15 km to Circo de los Altares, which is where the conditions really began to change. The promised spectacular views were smothered in dark clouds and flying snow. It was truly disorientating. Gusts of snow created momentary white outs, where visibility was reduced to zero. I’m used to hiking in remote areas with no back-up, but this was one instance where I was happy to be roped to some of the best guides in the business. 

Making distance on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

This final section across the roof of the glacier was the most tiring, battling with both the ice and the weather. Those tiny crevasses now felt like part of a freezing labyrinth, and making the smallest distances seemed to take a lifetime. As we finally neared its edge, the icy became dirtier with gravel and theoretically slightly easier to walk on, but any time one of us was tempted to relax someone would slip. The meditation of earlier in the day was replaced by an intense concentration. 

Taking shelter from the weather

When we finally broke for camp and fell into our tents (on solid ground, rather than ice), we were all exhausted. We had been through some of the most inhospitable conditions it was possible to trek in and it was a truly humbling experience. 

The final push across the ice

The next day we walked through a landscape of boulders, the detritus of glacial retreat, hiking for five hours until we were rewarded by the sweet sight of the first greenery in days and made our camp by the shores of Lake Ferrari. 

On day six, we mostly slept. As if to make up for our lost night at Circe de los Altos, we woke up to a fresh snowfall that dusted the landscape white. When we weren’t sleeping, we ate, read and laughed, renaming this reserve day our reward day. It certainly felt like we’d earned it. 

Our beautiful campsite on our rest day

For the last two days of the trek, we joined the Huemul Circuit, one of the classic trails in Los Glaciares National Park that leads past the Viedma Glacier and lakes bobbing with icebergs towards El Chaltén

It was a beautiful hike, but that’s a story for another blog. The ice field is where we were really tested, and I was proud to have met the challenge. The landscapes were truly humbling, and the conditions pushed even the hardiest of our groups to their limits. They certainly pushed me to mine. This was expedition trekking in its truest sense, in a landscape and in conditions that only Patagonia can conjure. 

And I’d do it all again in a flash.


If you’re an experienced hiker looking for a challenge, the South Patagonian Ice Field Expedition might be for you. Visit our website to find out more.

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Sarah Schneider

Swoop Patagonia Specialist

Born and raised in the United States, Sarah came to Chile in 2011 for 'one year'. Almost 10 years later, she has travelled extensively throughout South America and Chile, is now fluent in Spanish and has found her home in Chilean Patagonia.