Wind ripped across the grounds of our hotel on Friday morning, the mountains behind us shining white with a fresh layer of snow. Our fourth day in Patagonia, this would be our most challenging yet: a seven-hour trek to the French Valley Glacier. If the park rangers agreed to our plan, we’d be the first tourists known to stand on the glacier’s icy surface, to touch it, to hear the way it is shifting and melting.
We’d come to Patagonia for the first leg of Passport to Creativity, a partnership with Adobe Students in which six students and three professional photographers would attempt to document how climate change is affecting some of the world’s most stunning places. Though protected by national governments, these areas are in danger of disappearing in the coming decades. Through the use of Adobe apps, the students would document their experiences traveling through these regions, with all of their work coming together in a joint Earth Day exhibition. They’d bring home creative stories allowing those at home to see, feel, understand the need to act on climate change.
“Art is the next best thing to help [people] realize what is really going on and what we are going to lose before we actually lose it.”
The group preparing to hike the French Valley Glacier on this early morning included photographer Michael George and student creatives Zenzele Ojere and Andrew Ling. The next week Australian photographer/videographer Jarrad Seng would guide students Lidia Gulyas and Rachelle Tan as they captured the effects of climate change on Kenya’s Masai Mara and the work of the Mara Cheetah Project. The final leg would bring photographer/designer Adrienne Pitts and students Hugo and Amelia to Lord Howe Island in Australia, a place known as the cleanest on Earth.
Michael is a freelance photographer, professional adventurer, and member of @thephotosociety. His work has been featured by National Geographic and WIRED.
Zenzele is a video, photo, and mix media artist currently studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Her work is significantly influenced by her travels, which have led her throughout Europe, Western Asia, and the United States.
We were excited to walk on the glacier, but we knew this day came with a caveat. When we first planned the trip to this national park near the southern tip of Chile, we’d been told that we were coming too late in the year to be able to visit the French Valley; that after March 15th temperatures are too low and winds too fierce to safely visit the area. Yet when we arrived, the fall season was still going. As has happened the last four years or so, the weather patterns were unpredictably and unseasonably warm. Our guide explained that this hike was possible only because of the climate change we’d come here to document, as those in the region say the weather was predictable down to the day up until about five years ago, when the differentiation between the seasons became nearly impossible to predict.
We left the hotel at 8:15a.m., drove about 40 minutes, then caught a ferry across one of Torres del Paine’s many imperceptibly-blue lakes. These lakes shift from ice blue to turquoise to deeper hues as clouds pass the sun. The boat dropped us at a campsite nestled into a small valley. The park ranger there gave us the all-clear to hike straight to the glacier. Now we just needed the same from the park ranger located at the next campsite.
“It didn’t seem like it was reality. It seemed like it was some kind of fortress made out of ice. I was just like mind-blown.”
Nearly three hours and many ridges later, we reached the second ranger. He agreed, on the condition that he guide us because the path was now covered by the ever-expanding edges of the river. The river is the runoff from the glacier. As the glacier rapidly retreats – rangers say that it has lost nearly half its size in the last five years – the river keeps taking over the forest that lines its edges. The campground once sat at the edge of the glacier. It’s now at least a half-mile downstream.
About 20 minutes later we scrambled up a shaky rock ridge. It was only then that Zenzele mentioned that she is afraid of heights, and that this is the first hike she’s ever attempted. Just as she said it, we all caught our first glimpse of the glacier. Some of the group ran towards it. Zen walked right up and hugged it.
“I just felt the need to,” she said later. “It didn’t seem like it was reality. It seemed like it was some kind of fortress made out of ice. I was just like mind-blown.” The entire group shared her awe. We had to watch our footing as chunks of ice slid off beneath our feet. Turning back towards the valley we’d just hiked, huge piles of rock and dirt marked the former edges of the glacier. The area is quickly turning into a haunting graveyard, a reminder of what once was.
We’d seen similar loss earlier in the week as we visited Grey Glacier. This glacier had to be viewed from a boat, as the edges sit right in a massive lake. The boat slowed to a crawl as we reached the glacier. Many of its jagged peaks and crevices were a color blue I didn’t know existed in nature, some of them nearly glowing. They seemed enormous to us, but the guides quickly mentioned that just five years ago this glacier stood four times taller. For everyone, the moment was again bittersweet.
“It was a beautiful, beautiful sunny day, but I thought it was raining because there was water getting on my camera,” Andrew later described. “It was actually from the glacier, literally just melting… That is a very specific moment that I won’t forget.” The park runs boat trips past the edges of the glacier each day. The next day’s trip was interrupted as a massive chunk of ice fell off the glacier, creating a wave that rocked the boat so much that it had to retreat from its usual path. As a passenger described it to us, he asked the question on everyone’s mind: How much longer will the glacier possibly be there?
The week in Patagonia was filled with similar questions. How does this place exist? Is this real life? Have we actually died and gone to Heaven? As creatives, we also asked how we can accurately capture the threats posed by climate change, how to bring home the story of melting glaciers as well as changes in overall weather patterns, how glacial retreat impacts the local community as well as the species living on the land. Though none of us have a perfect answer, coming here, cameras in hand, is at least a start.
“Art is one of the strongest forms of informing people of anything,” Zen said. “I had no idea how I was going to try to capture the landscape or even try to integrate the way I capture stuff with also the idea of climate change, but after a couple of days of being here, after getting close up and actually seeing everything that creates these landscapes and how every piece has a kind of importance within the whole, I became interested in creating vignettes.” The vignettes will be shown at an Earth Day exhibition presented by Adobe.
“When people think of a wider landscape and climate change it’s pretty vast, but showing them the tinier pieces that create this landscape I think makes it seem more accessible or easier as an issue to try to understand,” Zen added. She and Andrew have been developing their work with the guidance of mentor Michael George, a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine, the New York Times, AFAR, and many others.
“Every day he tells us something new and every day both of us try to take what we learn and implement it in our work,” Zen said. These daily tips range from technical advice to overall approach.
“Personally I got really focused on what’s popular sometimes, what people like,” Andrew said. “Michael George has really taught me to think of [it] as a story. What about the people that live in the land, what about the people here in Patagonia, what about things besides the beautiful glaciers and the mountains, what else is there?”
The students started to add this human element to their stories on Saturday morning, as they spent a few hours getting to know a group of local baqueanos. Andrew and Zen were welcomed right into the baquanos’ home on the ranch, right within the property at Hotel Las Torres. They saw the soft saddles lined along the wall as a makeshift napping spot. They cooked lunch with them over a fire and drank mate, the local favorite drink. They went out riding with them, racing horses through the hills at the base of the Torres del Paine peaks – another first for Zen.
“I think meeting people here is one of the greatest things because it kind of helps humanize the mountains and the glaciers and the landscapes,” Andrew said later. “I met these warm and welcoming people. I’m going to take that home, try to be a better guy at home, try to spread love, like they did to us.”
Sunday morning the students faced their greatest challenge of all, particularly for Zen. We woke at 2:15am to start a hike to the base of the Torres del Paine. We wove through forests and across numerous wooden bridges as we ascended more than 1,000 meters in the pitch dark. We reached the base of the towers just 10 minutes before sunrise. The remnants of glaciers poked out on the peaks all around us, glaciers that have retreated well beyond areas we could access. Hours later we’d board a flight back to Santiago, this magical week in Patagonia coming to an end. But first, a few final shots of the landscape that has captivated everyone this week. Wind whipped our faces again, wind that should’ve been strong enough to stop us but instead allowed us to visit Patagonia a week after the former end of the tourist season. It’s all bittersweet, being in Torres del Paine in March. It’s bittersweet, knowing the sights we’re seeing and the lives of the people we’re meeting are rapidly changing, that future generations may never have a chance to see the glaciers in anything more than the work created by the artists who visit.
“I’m not really sure that I’m even processing that I got to do everything that I got to do while I was here,” Zen said as we left.
“Art is the next best thing to help [people] realize what is really going on and what we are going to lose before we actually lose it,” said Andrew. “This is a life changing opportunity for Zenzele and I as artists, as students, as professionals in the work force, it’s a life-changing opportunity that I’m really grateful for.” There was little time to reflect on what we’d experienced. Zen and Andrew were back to the U.S. to complete the work they’d share at the exhibition, while the Passion Passport team sped off to Kenya to document the effects of changing climate on an entirely different landscape: the Masai Mara.