Repeat photography in Los Glaciares National Park – El Calafate

Panoramica ghiacciaio UpsalaHere we are again, just about to set off from Puerto Natales in Chile to make our way to El Calafate in Argentina, the glacier capital, where we will be carrying out expedition work in the Parco Nacional Los Glaciares.

The next morning we go straight to the park headquarters to complete the lengthy paperwork and finalize the logistics of getting to the glaciers. Given our shared objectives, the park authorities kindly confirm their backing and invite us to take advantage of their vehicles and park rangers, who are willing to lend us a hand in the field, which is essential as the places we are heading for are in the remotest and most protected areas of the park.

Once we agree on an outline schedule, subject of course to prevailing weather conditions, we come down in favour of the Upsala Glacier, Argentina’s second largest glacier, as our first location. After crossing the Argentino Lake by tourist boat we reach the long-standing Argentinian Glaciological Institute’s refuge and deposit all our equipment. This leaves us free to go immediately in search of the exact point where De Agostini shot a sequence of seven photographic plates in order to piece together one of his most striking panoramic shots. The sight of the glacier simply takes our breath away. The valley is 60km long and 5km wide, and the trim line, i.e. the signs of erosion on either side of the valley left by the glacier in the Little Ice Age, is clearly visible and reaches over 500 metres in some points. After climbing up several hundred metres over loose rock and scree I manage find the exact spot where De Agostini stood and photographed the panorama from a peak to the left of the viewing platform, confirmed as usual by recognising boulders and rocks captured on archive photos. The view from that point is just stunning, and seeing how such an extensive valley (60km long and 5km wide) has lost so much of the glacial ice mass over 80 years is disheartening.

As the day was coming to an end and night about to draw in it was obvious that I would have to come back the next day.

Unfortunately, once back on the peak the next day, the wind was gale force and I could not even manage to mount my tripod, so I took refuge from the blasts of wind in a small valley lower down from the peak and began to wait for the weather to improve to take the shot. As bad luck would have it, the blasts just got stronger in the early afternoon and I lost hope, and was forced to make my way back to the refuge in order to try again the following day. Before making the descent I left my photographic back pack with the heaviest equipment in the gap between two boulders and took a GPS reading that would enable me to retrace my journey by jeep and boat before making my way back to the refuge and something to eat.

I woke up the next day to good weather and light winds and so made my way to the peak for the third time and wait for the appropriate time (about 3pm) to start taking the shots.

Once back in El Calafate we lost no time in getting ready for the new mission to the Ameghino glacier and the next morning we left with four park rangers in a jeep towing a dinghy. When we got to the Perito Moreno glacier, our intended point of departure, we heard a thunderous sound and realized immediately that the ice retaining wall damming the lake had burst, which made us decide to stay and photograph the spectacle of disintegrating ice. The next day we knew we had to move on and, reluctantly, made the decision not to photograph the final collapse of the mass of ice and so made our way to the Ameghino glacier. Once under the mountain peak we continued our ascent along the crest to avoid the dense vegetation as far as possible, reaching the peak after a strenuous three hour trek through pristine and unchartered territory.

I set to work setting up my tripod, which I anchored to the outcrop with large rocks to hold it steady despite being battered by gusts of wind. I then shot the same sequence of photos as the archive image of the panorama I had taken with me. Once again I noticed considerable ice shrinkage, and where there was once a winding white tongue of ice there was a rock-strewn valley ending four kilometres downstream in lake four kilometres in length that reaches the present glacial front.

The favourable weather conditions persisted but the time left was quickly slipping away, which meant I had to move on to carry out more repeat photography in the El Chalten area of the well-known Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains.

Considering the number of repeat photographs I needed to take of the Spegazzini glacier as well as the travel time to cross the Argentino Lake, I decide to dedicate at least two days to this new mission. We reached the Spegazzini fjord after a rough crossing in our dinghy, surrounded by waves three meters high and incredibly strong winds, and we set up base camp in sight of the glacier.

In the afternoon I started the ascent with some nerve-wracking close encounters with rather aggressive wild bulls, but thankfully they turn out to be more frightened than I am. During the ascent there is a moment of real satisfaction when I take two shots repeating De Agostini’s panorama views.

The next day we use the dinghy to go close up to the sheer and enormous mass of ice that is the front of the Spegazzini glacial front, mooring where the vegetation seems less dense.

After a long ascent of 1200 metres across a grassy ledge we begin to compare the surrounding landscape with those of De Agostini’s archive images and I gradually begin to understand where I need to set up my equipment to take the panoramic shot. Everything fits neatly into place, even the boulders and rocks strewn across the surface. Given the shape and structure of the glacier the front has not receded to any notable degree, whereas its depth has been clearly diminished. This is particularly evident in the number of abysses that have opened up, revealing the underlying rock surface where once there was ice.

After setting up my equipment regardless of the high winds the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse and a heavy snowstorm forced us to take shelter close to the rock face. The park rangers increasingly insisted that we return to base camp due to the weather conditions, which were worsening by the minute. I was well aware that it is going to take us two hours to descend to the lake, and then at least three hours to cross it by boat before night sets in, but the burning desire to repeat that photograph was so strong that I managed to convince them to stay.

After 20 minutes the clouds opened and I was able to take a couple of sequential digital photographs with my Nikon D810. Regretfully, we had to start our descent and so I dismounted my Linhof and tripod.

Abandoning a place that had been reached after enormous and painstaking efforts without taking a single shot weighed heavily on my mind – it was, after all, a photograph that I had dreamt about for years. I realised, however, that I could not have stayed on the peak a moment longer. The risk of navigating the lake by night was too high, and there was also the chance of running short of fuel during the crossing…

Below we publish the third video clip of the expedition and a gallery with the some repeat photographies and some backstage photographs:

On the Trail of the Glaciers Ande 2016 dispatch 03 from Fabiano Ventura on Vimeo.

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