Hiking: On the rocks to Monte Alvear’s glacier cave

One late night I was invited on next days’ hike – nothing strenuous, but something special – according to my hiking amiga Alejandra who must have hiked every single inch of Ushuaia’s surroundings. Eager to follow in (all) her footsteps, I gathered clothes, stuff and leftovers from the fridge and prepared for the next morning. That morning started in the dark, but at 8 a.m. the day broke in beautiful soft colors on the serene Beagle Channel. Perfect start.

A touch of human kind
A touch of human kind.

Alongside highway 3 I joined Alejandra and her hiking pals and we set off, on our first climb of the day up in the forest. It had been cold that night. Little pools of water lay frozen, fallen trees were covered with a layer of icy snow just as the high pasture. All noise came from our hiking boots touching hard soil. The bit of stretching we did at the side of the road was useful, as our legs were put through the first test right here.

Leaving the forest we leave a blue plastic bag in one of the trees to mark the entrance to the trail on our way back. There’s no trail signs here, and there is more than one way to go. At about 600 meters, the tree-line, we have our first view of the valley along highway 3 below. On the left I see the chairlift going up Mount Castor, Ushuaia’s winter ski resort. Below is a broad view of forest in its late autumn costume, peat bogs and streams in the valley and open patches of destruction caused by beavers.

The trail is two feet wide and slippery because of frost. The vegetation changes from high grasses to steppe-like coirones, small bushes and yareta. We walk on rocky soil and solid snow, which, on a sunny but cold autumn day, hardly melts. Getting closer to the summit wind emerges while we pass beautiful stone formations and steep walls of black rock. Just below in a high valley the dead but still standing trees indicate a high altitude beaver.

Moon-like rock formations
Moon-like rock formations

We hike on the side of the mountain, on a sometimes steep trail with stone markers, easily missed for the not-so experienced mountain goat. Parts of the path consists of frozen ice and snow, which in addition to the high altitude (or better, the low valley) makes my knees shaky. The view is absolutely spectacular. I feel like walking on the moon…. a barren, rocky landscape, big boulders spread around, sparse vegetation, half-frozen streams with icicles, topped by mountains and under a blue sky. We reach a beautiful frozen laguna, white, blue and untouched.

Just around the corner we get a first glimpse of Mount Alvear’s snow-capped summit and the glacier that comes down from it. It’s a true spectacle to the eye. We walk on a trail just under overhanging rock, once again in green pasture. At the laguna below the partly frozen glacial laguna we take our backpacks off and sit down for a well deserved break. Wind climbs over the mountainous side and we find shelter behind a big boulder on the side of the laguna. We share a lunch of sandwiches, empanadas and Christmas cake and a mate – a hot, bitter tea-like drink of herbs – goes round to warm our bones.

We are all anxious to continue our hike. The glacier cave is located on the far end of the laguna hiking on the rocks. Its entrance is partly blocked by meters of snow, which we cross on one side to get into the cave. My eyes have to accustom to the darkness inside, but once they do I can see what I got myself into. I am in a beautiful tunnel of polished ice in grey, white and blue colors with sharp black dirt lines and frozen bubbles. There’s only the sound of melting ice.

A dark tunnel of beautiful layered ice
A dark tunnel of beautiful layered ice.

Realizing where I am, under tons and tons of ice, being pushed forward by the strength of ancient layers of compressed snow flakes, I hold my breath. Every crack in the ice adds to the tension. Only a few months ago part of the cave collapsed, that part which we had to cross, now covered by fresh snow. From within I look outside, to a blue sky, the rocky mountains, the frozen laguna… a spectacular scenery. I go out again, the bright light hurts my eyes for a while.

I feel like I am on top of the world, in wild nature, belonging to the condors high in the sky. I am back on my feet again when a helicopter passes above. Wild nature, unspoiled, but with a human touch. It is close to getting dark when we spot our little blue bag in the tree on our way back to civilization.


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