From the bridge crossing of Rio Manso my goal looks impossibly remote. I plan to climb to Refugio Otto Meiling, a small refuge hut perched just below the snow line of Cerro Tronador (in Nahuel Huapi National Park in the Lakes District of Argentina) where I will spend the night. But from here, it just doesn’t appear attainable; it seems too far, the mountain too high, too steep. I know, in reality, that I can make the distance; it’s not even all that long a hike, a mere 14 kilometres in total to the hut, and just over a thousand metres to ascend. It’ll probably only take four or five to complete. But from this point, it looks a ridiculous task.
The other hikers from the shuttle bus (I had to catch a bus to the trailhead; it’s a three-hour drive from Bariloche) are much slower walkers than I, consequently it does not take long for me to pull so far ahead that I am effectively alone in the woods.
I hike in this fashion for several hours, traipsing beneath the branches of the ancient coihue and lenga beech trees, my footfalls muted by the soft fungi and lime green moss that is too plentiful to avoid.
It is late morning by the time I emerge on the upper slopes of the mountain. Here the few remaining trees are severely stunted by the wind; the tallest plants, just two metres in height, growing at rakish angles, with wickedly gnarled branches and leaves turned bright red from the onset of autumn. One switchback later and I find myself on the crest of a ridgeline, with an unimpeded view of the surrounding mountains.
Castaño Overo Glacier
Cerro Tronador (meaning: Mount Thunderer), its peak coming in at 3,491 metres, rises proudly above the competing ranges. A total of eight glaciers rest upon its uppers flanks. Of these eight glaciers it is the one I am gazing at now, Castaño Overo Glacier, which makes the thunder – a noise that’s generated every time a boulder-sized hunk of ice, having broken away from the glacier’s terminal face (which, I should mention, sits atop a cliff with a fall of three hundred metres or more), implodes on the jagged rocks piled up at the cliff base.
I’ve heard the thunder several times this morning, but an impenetrable layer of vegetation has always obscured my view. Now that I’m above the forest canopy I’m keen to see the phenomenon firsthand. I take a seat on a nearby boulder and fix my gaze on the glacier, ready to witness a wonder of nature.
Twenty minutes later I take my eyes off the glacier, my patient observation fruitless. The glacier sits there, silent, motionless, mocking me. I consider resuming my hike but contain myself as I’ve forged a long lead ahead of the rest of my group, and it would be wise, I feel, to wait for the others to catch up.
Twenty minutes pass. I’m bored, cold, tired. Reneging on my resolution to wait for the others, I pull myself to my feet and continue the ascent of Cerro Tronador alone.
The alpine vegetation, already stunted, becomes increasingly tortured as I gain altitude; shrinking to waist height, then knee height, then giving out completely. Scree slopes and talus deposits dominate the mountainside. Rock fragments of varying size and shape blanket the ground; an occasional tuft of grass the only thing softening the otherwise stark environment. The trail here, if there is one, is indistinguishable amidst the boulder-strewn landscape.
I’m midway across one particularly large boulder, an oyster-shaped rock the size of a backyard swimming pool, when I hear the sound I had been waiting for: thunder ripping through the air. It’s the cannoning report of several tonnes of ice smashing into the ground at terminal velocity. My eyes streak to the glacier, but Castaño Overo has dropped out of sight; a protruding mountain ridge is in the way. I’ve chosen my route poorly. I scan the slopes above me, hoping to identify a route that will allow me to scale Cerro Tronador while keeping the glacier in view. But it’s not possible, not from here; the ridge is too prominent.
I trudge onwards and upwards. Already I am above the terminal face of Castaño Overo Glacier, and am progressively surpassing the peaks of the surrounding mountains. I’m starting to feel pretty high up in the world. The clear, unpolluted skies (the least contaminated in the world, or so I am told), combined with the curvature of the Earth, allow peaks that lie more than a hundred kilometres away to be seen with the naked eye; it sounds extraordinary on paper, yet it all seems quite natural from up here.
Arrival at Refugio Otto Meiling
My route up the mountain brings me upon a series of steep, rocky shelves; a giant’s ladder. Probably not that hard to climb ordinarily, but today the ledges seem unreasonably far apart, and my limbs pathetically weak. I float forwards, stumbling awkwardly over the rocky shelves, taking twice as long as I ought to. At the top I get my first glimpse of Refugio Otto Meiling.
The cabin looks tiny from this distance, a red dot in a vast grey moonscape. The hut remains tantalisingly distant as I labour towards it, never seeming to get any closer, never growing in size, no matter how many footsteps I take in its direction. Then I crest a ridge and suddenly Refugio Otto Meiling is before me; a solitary place of shelter in a desolate, windswept land. It still looks tiny.
The snowline (just above Refugio Otto Meiling)
The snowline appears to be just a few hundred metres beyond Refugio Otto Meiling, yet somehow it takes a frustratingly long time to make my way there. Every step forward in this terrain requires two steps left, three steps right, four steps up, and one step down.
Just above the snowline I find an igloo and an ice bunker, both, I have been told, created by the Argentine army on recent manoeuvres. I enter the igloo first, the walls of which are slowly melting, creating dinner-plate-sized voids through which the alpine vista can be viewed. It is the same view I have been admiring from outside the igloo, but with the scenery contained in a small window, and framed by ice, it takes on the appearance of a faraway land.
I cross to the ice bunker and slide down the entry chute. The ramp turns out to be surprisingly slick, much slicker than expected, and I end up shooting into the chamber much more rapidly than I intended. I react by leaping to my feet as soon as I reach the bottom of the chute. This turns out to be a terrible idea as I end up ramming my head against the ceiling, and ice, I discover, is as tough as steel when treated in this fashion. I spend the next few minutes staggering around drunkenly clutching my aching head. The pain eventually subsides, only to be replaced with a mild dose of claustrophobia – I’m not usually claustrophobic, but I do have an irrational fear of things falling onto my head – prompting my swift exit from the ice chamber.
The glacier (alongside Refugio Otto Meiling)
Back on the surface, I traipse across the slushy snow to a rocky outcrop with a view of the uppermost reaches of Castaño Overo Glacier. The crenelated ice mass is intriguing from this angle, the crevasses and seracs lined up in an orderly yet chaotic fashion; reminding me of a baked Alaska, or some other creamy meringue treat. Large birds with mottled brown plumage soar over the glacier, riding the air currents. I take a seat on the nearest boulder, and let the horizon go orange, then mauve, then indigo, before beating a retreat to my sanctuary for the evening: Refugio Otto Meiling.
Practical information and how to reach Refugio Otto Meiling:
Shuttles to and from Pampa Linda, reservations for Refugio Otto Meiling, and equipment hire can all be organised at the Club Andino office in Bariloche.