Our planet is full of water, in various forms and shapes. In the places where the temperature drops below freezing, water is in form of ice and snow. Everybody who lives in countries with cold winter has seen ice- a river, a lake, or just a muddy puddle, covered by thin or thick frozen crust. And it looks like this crust is still- it doesn’t move unless it melts. But when the ice accumulates on a mountain or a whole continent, it starts moving, very slowly. Such moving ice is called a glacier, and glaciers have their unique beauty. Let’s make a journey to the 10 largest mountain glaciers in the world!
The nature of the glaciers
The glaciers are born from snow. In the moderate geographical zones, snow falls in winter, but when spring comes, it melts and disappears. But in the colder regions- polar or high mountain areas, snow doesn’t melt (or at least melts partially). It remains until the next winter, but during that time it gradually turns into grains of firn. When the next winter comes, new fresh snow covers the old firn, then it remains winter after winter, creating layers of a thick snow-icy mass.
And this snow-icy mass doesn’t remain stable. It gets denser, and the firn grains in the lowest layers merge into solid ice. When it becomes enough thick, it starts slowly moving. Thus, the glacier is born. If it is in the high mountain, it flows downward on the nearest valley, and while flowing, it gradually reshaping this valley. And if it is on a plain continent, it can become thousands of meters thick, gradually widening to every direction.
Some glaciers move very slowly, but others can move 2-5 m per day. The fastest-moving glacier is Jacobshavn Isbrae in Greenland, which flows 30 m per day. Thus, they can be many kilometers (miles) long and wide. Their movement stops only when they reach lower and warmer areas or the ocean. Due to this movement, glaciers are full of cracks, often mixed with stones in their lowest front, and in general, they can be a dangerous place for walking. But the landscape they create can be fantastic.
Types of glaciers
There are three main types of glaciers- continental glaciers, sea glaciers, and mountain glaciers. And there are two large continental glaciers on the Earth, called also ice sheets. The largest one is the ice sheet of Antarctica, and the second one is the glacier covering Greenland. Besides them, there are many other smaller glaciers on other islands in the polar regions. They are thinner than those in Antarctica and Greenland, and on the mountainous areas of the islands, they are hybrids between continental and mountain glaciers.
Sea glaciers are permanent ice covers on the oceans. They cover a large part of the Arctic Ocean and large parts of the Antarctic coastal seas. Due to the global warming, recently their area decreases.
Finally, the mountain glaciers are located in the highest mountains on the Earth. There are mountain types of glaciers like those I mention above, that are in fact extensions of larger continental glaciers in the polar regions. But now we will not talk about them, because their source is not exactly ice caps that cover the high mountain peaks. Instead, we will focus on the high mountains located outside of the polar zones of the Earth.
Mountain glaciers outside of the polar zones
We can find them on almost every continent of the Earth. In Europe and Asia, we can see them mainly on the Greater Ranges (the Roof of the World)– Himalayas, Tibet, Pamir, Karakoram, Tianshan, and the neighboring mountain ranges, as well as on the Alps, Caucasus, and several other mountains. In Africa, they can be found on Kilimanjaro. If we look at North and South America, we can see them in the Cordilleras and the Andes. And in Australia- they are not on the mainland of the continent, but on the island of New Guinea.
These glaciers descend from the ice caps covering the summits and flow on the side valleys. The larger of them descend further down, merging where the valleys merge. They create various rock formations, such as cirques, U-shape valleys, moraines, etc. And since they flow on valleys, they are usually long and thin. But they still can be measured by area, not only by length, so let’s find the 10 largest of them.
The 10 largest mountain glaciers in the world
When we talk about the largest mountain glaciers, due to their nature, we usually mean the longest glaciers, because their length is their most obvious feature. It is how they grow- they become longer and longer. However, the valleys that they flow can be narrow or wide. So, a glacier can be long but too thin, while another glacier can be shorter, but much wider. Thus, the second one can be larger in area. Anyway, length still remains their most important thing to measure.
So, let’s start with our mountain glacier journey.
Fedchenko Glacier in Pamir, Tajikistan
Area: over 700 sq km (270 sq mi)
Length: 77 km (48 mi)
Fedchenko is the largest glacier in the Pamir Mountains, and one of the largest mountain glaciers in the world. It flows from Azgulem Range, gathering its ice mass from multiple valleys, east of the highest peak in Western Pamir- Mt.Ismail Somoni. The glacier starts descending from around 6200 m (20,300 ft), where the snow starts turning into firn and ice, and currently reaches 2909 m (9,544 ft), where Fedchenko Valley merges with Kaindy River Valley.
All these numbers are approximate, as with all other glaciers. This glacier has been growing until 1960, and after that, it started retreating. Currently, its maximum width reaches 2 km, and on average is between 1.2 to 1.8 m. Its lower section is strongly mixed with rocks, which is related to the glacier’s reshaping effect on the valley.
How to reach and explore Fedchenko Glacier
Fedchenko Glacier is located in a highly remote and wild area. Only the fact that it has been discovered in 1878 tells us that even the local people were not familiar with it. So, a visit and exploration of Fedchenko require a well-organized expedition. The glacier is far from villages and other settlements, and such an expedition has to start with a long trek from Karakul (from the east), or from Mok and Devsiar (from the west).
Such an expedition would require not only trekking but also mountaineering skills, especially skills for walking on the rough and sometimes dangerous surface of the glacier. At least the guide of the expedition must be professional. Today, there are some local Tajik companies that organize such expeditions. You can take a look at Pamir Trips and what they offer.
Baltoro Glacier in Karakoram, Pakistan
Area: 660 sq km (255 sq mi)
Length: 63 km (39 mi)
This is one of the most famous glaciers. Its popularity comes from the second-highest peak on the Earth- K2, which is located on one of the summits that surround the glacier. There are even mountain equipment accessories with the brand “Baltoro”. It ascends from these summits, where four 8000-ers are located, and reaches about 3500 m altitude at its lowest point. Baltoro gives birth to Braldo River.
Baltoro Glacier is fed by many side glaciers that merge into the main glacier. Among them, I can mention Godwin Austen that comes from K2, also Abruzzi, Vigne, and Yermandendu glaciers. The main glacier reaches a width of 1800 to 2200 m. It has formed small depressions with amazing glacial lakes. And the most spectacular and popular part of it is called Concordia, where Baltoro and Godwin Austen glaciers merge.
How to reach and explore Baltoro Glacier
Today, Baltoro Glacier is a popular destination for adventurous trekkers and a traditional route for the K2 and the other high peaks climbers. The base camp for reaching K2 is located on Baltoro. There are dozens of travel companies that organize trekking to the K2 base camp, which inevitably includes the glacier.
Baltoro Glacier and the whole area is located in a restricted border area, so you need a permit to go there. But since you would go by joining an organized trek, the company that arranges it obtain these permits. The starting point for K2 base camp trekking is traditionally the city of Skardu. From there, you would walk beside the Shigar and Braldo rivers until you reach the glacial area. Then, you will enjoy a lot of breathtaking views, including the fantastic Trango Towers, the peaks of Gasherbrum and Masherbrum ranges, Concordia, and many other places, eventually crowned by the majestic K2.
Now, let’s remain in the Karakoram. Since this is the most heavily glaciated mountain range on the Earth, we can find there not one, but several of the longest mountain glaciers in the world.
Siachen Glacier in Karakoram, India
Area: 2500 sq km (970 sq mi)
Length: 76 km (47 mi)
Siachen is a neighbor of Baltoro, in the region of Kashmir, disputed between Pakistan and India. Officially, it is located in India. The glacier gives birth to the Nubra River. It descends from about 6000 m altitude and reaches its lowest point at 3620 m. Many sub-glaciers feed the main body of Siachen, descending mainly from the nearby Saltoro Ridge.
This glacier is really huge, with a width reaching more than 4000 m. It flows from the most glaciated area on the Earth, outside of the polar regions, called “the Third Pole”. Unfortunately, since the whole region is in a state of war, the local military presence caused pollution and melting of the glacier. Anyway, it still provides stunning views and alpine landscapes worth visiting and explore.
How to reach and explore Siachen Glacier
Siachen Glacier was closed until recently, and as you can guess, it is not due to its natural conditions, and not due to its remoteness. This time, the main issue is human- the political situation between India and Pakistan, so the glacier was called “the Highest Battlefield in the World”. Fortunately, now the area around the glacier is opened for tourism, as a part of a program by the Indian government to promote Ladakh to the tourists, since Siachen is included in the Ladakh region.
So, the Indian army has ensured safety from military actions and accidents, and now tourists can explore the glacier. In general, there are two options. The first is just to reach the lowest part of the glacier, to the Siachen Base Camp. There are travel companies like Discover Ladakh Adventure Tours & Travel that arrange tours to the base camp.
The higher level option is to proceed further to Kumar Post, or even to the highest Bana Post (7010 m, 23,000 ft!), but you must obtain a permit, and of course, to prepare properly for the harsh conditions there. And to do it, you have to contact the Indian Army Office from their website.
Let’s remain in the Karakoram.
Biafo and Hispar glaciers in Karakoram, Pakistan
Total area: around 1400 sq km (540 sq mi)
Total length: 100 km (62 mi)
Now there are two glaciers that are born from the same high mountain snow-capped area, at Hispar Pass. From Hispar Pass (5128 m, 16,824 ft), these two tongues of ice depart in opposite directions- Hispar Glacier goes westward, and Biafo- southeastward. Thus they form the longest glacial traverse on the Earth, with a total length of 100 km (62 mi).
Biafo Glacier reaches Braldo River at 3050 m (10,000 ft) at Askole, around 28 km west of the lowest point of Baltoro, and Hispar Glacier reaches 3050 m (10,000 ft) too, where its front melts into Hispar River at Hispar Nager. From there, Braldo and Hispar rivers flow further downward and eventually meet again united by the Indus River.
How to reach and explore Biafo and Hispar glaciers
The most popular way to explore this glacial system is by trekking on the Biafo-Hispar route. Usually, it starts from Askole at Braldu River (3020 m altitude) and ascends into Biafo Glacier. The most spectacular part of the route is the Snow Lake- the largest continental type of glacier outside of the polar regions- in fact, this is still a part of Biafo, but with continental glacier features.
From there, the route crosses Hispar Pass and starts descending to Hispar Nager. From there, following the Hispar River, trekkers reach Karakoram Highway at Karimabad. The whole trek is normally passed for 12 to 14 days and offers breathtaking views to the wildest parts of the Karakoram Range. Normally, you should join an organized trek that can obtain permits for the area, since it is close to the Chinese border. One of the best trekking companies is Adventure Peaks (https://www.adventurepeaks.com/shop/biafo-hispar-snow-lake-karakoram-trekking/).
Batura Glacier in Karakoram, Pakistan
Area: around 550 sq km (212 sq mi)
Length: 57 km (35 mi)
Now, we move to one of the Karakoram’s westernmost ridges, sometimes considered as a part of the Hindukush Range. Here we can find another one of the largest mountain glaciers in the world- Batura (called also Baltura by the locals). The glacier forms from three ice tongues, descending from Kampire Dior (7142 m) and Kuk Sar (6934 m) peaks and flows eastward. It reaches Hunza Valley and Karakoram Highway at Janabad, 2680 m altitude. Batura Sar, the highest peak in the ridge (7795 m) rises south of the glacier. Its maximum width reaches 3800-4000 m.
Since Batura Glacier is located in the western ridges of the Karakoram, not far from the Hindukush Range, it is an area where Wakhi people live. They come here with their herds in summer and live in temporary villages in the lower sections of the glacier. In the higher sections, there are stunning alpine landscapes, created by the surrounding ridges. All of this makes Batura a paradise for adventure trekkers.
How to reach and explore Batura Glacier
Batura Glacier is not too remote- its lowest end reaches Karakoram Highway, so if you travel on this famous road by car or by other vehicle and you can stop at Janabad, you can easily make a short trek on the glacier. However, if you want to fully explore its beauty, you need a longer trek that ascends to its sources, and it would require at least 14-15 days.
Again, the best way to do it is to join an organized trekking expedition. There are several Pakistani companies that arrange such treks, like Karakoram Expeditions, Trekking in Pakistan, or Hunza Explorers. In general, this is the easiest to access large glacier in Pakistan and you can explore it independently (at least parts of it, depending on your experience, skills, equipment, and good preparation), however, joining an organized trek is highly recommended.
Now it’s time to leave the Karakoram and look at other high mountain ranges. The next one is Tianshan.
Engilchek Glaciers in Tianshan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan
Area: about 690 sq km (266 sq mi)
Length: 60.5 km (38 mi)
This is a system of two large and many other smaller glaciers that merge into one. The main large glaciers are South and North Engilchek (called also Inylchek), of which South is one of the longest and largest mountain glaciers in the world. Concerning its area, you can see the number of 17.5 sq km (I don’t know where it comes from), but obviously, it can’t be true, so the total area is much more. The glacier’s maximum width reaches 3500 m, and it is in the South Engilchek.
Engilchek Glacier descends from the highest parts of Tianshan, from the ridge connecting the mountain’s highest peaks- Jengish Chokusu (7439 m) on the south, and Han Tengri (6995 m) on the north. A small part of it is located in China since the connecting ridge is a bit in the Chinese territory. North Engilchek starts its flow north of Han Tengri, in Kazakhstan territory. From there, it flows westward into Kyrgyzstan, North and South Engilchek merge and the glacier reaches its lowest point at 3005 m altitude, north of Nansen Peak.
How to reach and explore Engilchek Glaciers
Engilchek Glaciers (particularly- South Engilchek) is the most famous glacier in Kyrgyzstan, mainly because it is on the route to the base camp for Han Tengri and Jengish Chokusu peaks. The base camp is located between those two peaks, at the point of merging of two initial glacier branches.
The trek to the base camp usually starts from the town of Inyilchek (Engilchek) and follows the Engilchek River to the lowest point of the glacier. From there, it proceeds on the glacial terrain to the base camp. And if you are a climber, there are expeditions to the two highest peaks in Tianshan.
Again, the best way to explore Engilchek is by joining a trek. There are treks to the base camp arranged by several Kyrgyz travel companies. Since this is a border area, you need a permit to access it, and these travel companies can arrange it too. However, if you are more adventurous, skilled, and well-prepared, you still can do it independently.
Now, let’s leave the Greater Ranges in Asia and move to South America. Here we can see a very different type of mountain glacier.
Bruggen Glacier in the Patagonic Andes, Chile
Area: 1265 sq km (488 sq mi)
Length: 66 km (41 mi)
Bruggen Glacier, called also Pio XI is flowing out of one of the largest ice fields in the world, covering an area of 16,800 sq km- South Patagonian Ice Field. It feeds many glaciers, and Bruggen is the largest one. The highest point that ice feeds Bruggen from is Mt.Punta Brava (3260 m), and the lowest point of the glacier is the ocean. Due to this fact, Bruggen is a tidewater type of glacier.
This glacier is much wider than the glaciers in Karakoram, Pamir, and Tianshan, reaching a width of 9000 m. It descends to the ocean, but not directly. Instead, it flows into Eyre Fjord, pushing its western coast and cutting its northern part into a lake- Greve Lake. Although Bruggen is not located even close to the polar regions, and temperatures never drop as low as on the Karakoram, its average altitude is much lower due to the much higher precipitation. This is what feeds the ice field and its glaciers.
How to reach and explore Bruggen Glacier
This is different than the “normal” mountain glaciers. Since it reaches the ocean, the most popular way to visit Bruggen Glacier is by cruise. Today, there are many cruise tours arranged by several Chilean companies that include the most beautiful fjords, islands, glaciers, and other natural seaside landscapes of Patagonia, and they often include Bruggen in their itineraries.
Of course, such a touristic visit can’t give you too much- the ship stops at the southern front of the glacier, and boats sail around it, allowing the tourist to enjoy and take the best photos from various points, observing the high front glacial wall reaching the water, and rising to 70-75 m in height.
But if you want to walk on the glacier and penetrate further, ascending to its source, you need to join an organized expedition, and it is difficult. Yes, there are organized treks on the South Patagonian Ice Field, but they draw their routes in its eastern side, in Argentina, including the spectacular Mount Fitz Roy. But in Chile, currently, there are no organized treks. Only private or scientific expeditions go trekking on Bruggen Glacier and the whole western part of the ice field.
Bering Glacier in Alaska, USA
Area with Bagley Ice Field: 5175 sq km (1998 sq mi)
Total length: 190 km (118 mi)
Bering Glacier is similar to Bruggen in nature. Again, its source is a giant ice field- Bagley Ice Field, which gives birth to many glaciers in various directions, fed by the high snow precipitation of the area. And Bering Glacier is the largest and the longest one. Its length is difficult to determine because it is merged with the other glaciers by the ice field but can be calculated approximately as 80-90 km. Combined with the neighboring glaciers like Columbus and Tana, its total length reaches 190 km.
The highest point connected to Bagley Ice Field is Mt. Logan (5959 m), and the main part of the field (which is in fact Columbus Glacier), directly feeding Bering Glacier lies between 1200 and 1800 m. From this altitude, it flows southwestward, reaching 10 m altitude at Vitus Lake. Thus, it can’t reach the ocean, and Vitus Lake is its lowest point. Its maximum width reaches 15 km, not far from the lake.
How to reach and explore Bering Glacier
There are a lot of glaciers in Alaska. Although they are smaller than Bering Glacier (the largest mountain glacier in North America), many of them look much more attractive than Bering, and the tour companies arrange tours to them- such as Mendenhall, Alaska Bay, etc. Not because Bering Glacier is less beautiful and spectacular, but probably because it ends in a lake, and its most beautiful parts are more difficult to reach.
So, currently, like Bruggen in Chile, there are only private and scientific tours to Bering Glacier. A popular way to explore it is by helicopter- needless to say, the views from above are fantastic! They also arrange treks on the glacier, reaching the higher parts of Bagley Ice Field. And only when you penetrate deep into the glacier and the ice field, you can enjoy its real beauty.
Let’s back to the old continent. Here is Scandinavia- much lower than the Roof of the World, but with its own unique beauty.
Jostedal Glacier in the Scandinavian mountains, Norway
Area: 487 sq km (188 sq mi)
Length: 60 km (37 mi)
This glacier is different. In fact, it is an ice field or a small ice cap with many branches descending into the valleys in various directions. The ice arms are short, but their total length with the whole ice field reaches 60 km. Its highest point is Hogste Breakulen (1957 m), and the lowest points of its arms reach only 60 m above sea level. Its maximum width reaches 28 km, and its depth- 600 m. Yet it can’t be considered a continental glacier, at least because it is outside of the polar regions, in the southern part of Norway.
Like the other glaciers in lower altitude, here the temperature doesn’t drop too much, but the precipitation is quite high. This is what feeds the glacier. As a result, Jostedal is a place with high melting, combined with high snowfalls. Unfortunately, due to the global warming, melting gets more intensive than snowfalls, and the glacier starts retreating. Today, it is included in Jostedalsbreen National Park.
How to reach and explore Jostedal Glacier
Being a part of a national park, this glacier is easy to reach and explore. There are public buses traveling to some of the starting points of the glacier, and there are plenty of starting points, usually from the valleys that the ice arms flow into. Or, you can reach them by private car, by bike or another vehicle. So, you can go there and enjoy the spectacular beauty of the ice formations, combined with forests, meadows, and other kinds of mountain scenery.
However, if you want to walk on the glacier, you have to hire an authorized guide- at least this is the regulation in Norway. And it makes sense- this glacier can be even more dangerous than the normal ice tongue types of glaciers in the Karakoram because it is an ice cap. And you can find such a guide by contacting the Jostedalsbreen National Park office.
Liushi Shan Ice Cap in Kunlun Mountains, China
Area: around 3800 sq km (1467 sq mi)
Total length: around 160 km (99 mi)
This is one of the most remote and difficult to access places on Earth. If you want to feel what is “in the middle of nowhere” or “at the end of the world”- this is one of the best places on our planet! Liushi Shan (7167 m) is the highest peak of the Kunlun Mountains- the northern edge of the Great Tibetan Plateau. And it is covered by a massive ice cap with more than 50 descending ice tongues into the valleys around it. The lowest point that these tongues reach is 4720 m.
Liushi Shan area is so remote, that its population is totally zero, not only in or around the ice cap but hundreds of kilometers far from it. In fact, it is located at the western edge of the third largest uninhabited zone on the Earth (after Antarctica and Greenland). This area is extremely harsh, with temperatures that regularly drop below -60°C in winter. It is also dry as a desert, with very low precipitation. However, the severe cold not only preserves the ice but also makes it grow and flow.
How to reach and explore Liushi Shan
Again, it is extremely difficult. There are no travel companies arranging tours to this glacier system, not even private groups, nothing. The nearest sign of civilization is the road, connecting Kashgar with Lhasa, and from its nearest point, you can proceed to the foot of the mountain just off-road (a more than 60 km long trek) on very inhospitable terrain. From there, only well-equipped and highly skilled adventure explorers and mountaineers can proceed on the glacier, until they reach the highest summit.
But that’s not all. Liushi Shan is located on the border between Xinjiang Uyghur and Tibetan autonomous regions. And currently, both places are highly restricted, especially at places like this. They are restricted for two reasons- political (both Xinjiang and Tibet are politically sensitive places), and ecological (Liushi Shan is located in natural reserve zones).
So, if you want to climb Liushi Shan, you have to obtain a lot of permits that are extremely difficult to get, and very expensive (if you can get them at all)! When adding to this all the logistic problems that you have to resolve, the challenge is huge. But anyway, if you are enough adventurous, it is 100% worth it!
The beautiful adventurous challenge
These are the 10 largest mountain glaciers in the world, outside the polar regions (Bering and Jostedal glaciers are near the polar line, but still outside it). As you can see, most of them are located on the Roof of the World- the Greater Ranges, and Karakoram Range is the richest area with this type of glaciers.
I didn’t arrange them in some order or in a chart, because this is quite difficult- their area and length are usually hard to determine, and also it is constantly changing. But the most important here is the landscape that they create with their huge size- fantastic, majestic, spectacular, a whole world, looking like another planet! They not only present a specific area of the geography, but with their harsh beauty, they challenge every adventurous explorer, trekker, and mountaineer.
Check some travel books about the mountain glaciers:
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