The Ice of Pio Once


“Where are they going,” I asked the bartender, a portly man with a round head and arms that, propped up by his belly, stuck out at his sides. When the glacier Pio Once had appeared on the horizon, he had put on his jacket, and then left his post. Now he stood on the second level of the ship, beside a lifeboat containing three men that was being lowered into the channel. He was going to ignore my comment, until he noticed me staring at him from where I stood at the third level’s railing. “To buy the newspaper,” he said, and we both laughed. Around us dark mountains rose into the clouds, while chunks of ice that had fallen from Pio Once speckled the channel’s frigid water. “Adíos,” one of the men solemnly called as the lifeboat disappeared from my sight.

I walked to the front of the ship, where the tourists were crowded, taking pictures of Pio Once, a looming wall of luminous blue ice, broken into jagged segments, like the crooked teeth of a frost giant. It was one of the few glaciers in the world that was still growing, adding about five hundred meters per year. Beginning at the base of a volcano, it was slowly making its way into the channel, which, if its growth continued, it would one day choke in its icy grip. A stern wind blew off the smooth slope of Pio Once, hurling the light rain that was falling against the passengers’ faces and cameras.

Once the cold in my hands and feet became greater than my desire to behold the glacier, I went inside and took a seat in the lounge. The bartender was back, serving beers and pisco sours to the passengers who had also had their fill of natural beauty. After half an hour, one of the men I had seen on the lifeboat appeared. I recognized him by the orange coverall he wore, and the hunk of ice he cradled in his arms. As I watched, he took it behind the bar, and then dropped it in the ice bin, where the bartender immediately set to work chopping it into manageable pieces.

I was amused. When I saw the lifeboat being lowered, I had no idea what the men aboard were doing, but I had assumed that it was important. Perhaps they were going to take measurements or collect samples. The captain had told us that when he was not sailing, he taught a class at Santiago University. I had even momentarily thought they were going to buy a newspaper, though my stark surroundings – the thick forests, broken only by white cascades – quickly persuaded me that the chances of a newsstand being out here were zero. Until I saw that man walk into the bar carrying a translucent piece of ice the size of a small child, it could never have occurred to me that three sailors would brave the freezing waters of this channel for nothing more than so that they could later make drinks with the ice of Pio Once.

John Michael Oró

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