Winter hiking around Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten, Argentina

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe final stop of our summer in  South America was the town of El Chalten.  Just to the north of El Calafate, it is the logical next stop off. The town is surrounded by some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world. The famous peaks of Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre rise vertically to huge heights from the flat steppe behind the town. “Chaltén” is a tehuelche word meaning smoking mountain, as they believed it was a volcano because the peak is covered by cloud most of the time . The cloud has an interesting action of whipping in from the Pacific in the west and swirling around the peaks like wisps of candy floss before just evaporating and disappearing into clear blue skies in the east.

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To get to town we caught a bus up from El Calafate it was a double decker coach, yet it had just 7 or 8 people. I  think the bus served as a good metaphor regarding El Chalten, this town is growing and changing. The infrastructure is being built here to support mass tourism.  Initially it was an old sheep ranch that was sold up and developed as an access point to the mountains, it was  slapped together quickly  in 1989 by Argentina to ensure  they have a land claim in a contentious area. The Chilean border zig zags about, spliting Mt Fitzroy in half during the process. The Patagonia border has almost led to war in the past.

We had left about 11 days to explore the area which felt about right, and allowed for at least one decent weather window. Our plans were for a loop around the front of Mt Fitzroy starting from town to Lago Torre, to Lago de los tres, then to rio and lago Electrico and hitchhike back to town. We then planned a wilder adventure to the southern icefield that was a ‘guide only’ route and it was spectaculer, but I will describe it in a separate post.  Of course the area is huge and there are more options to the north that would be fun, but I think these two routes capture the beauty and wilderness well.

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The first hike was overnight to Lago Torre, we left the town in sunshine hoping to get a view of Cerro Torre on the route. Cerro Torre is famous as it is notoriously hard to climb, there is a controversial history for the early attempts to summit, whereby some climbers deem other climbers to have cheated. One group had a tragic end and the survivor claimed to have summited when he clearly didn’t and then the same guy goes back and puts bolts or anchor points all the way up making it much easier. Next a Swiss guy went up and ripped them all out while climbing it just to prove it was a pure ascent and that he was hardcore. Still to this day few people have made it to the true summit. A combination of the vicious Patagonian weather and precarious ice mushroom that caps the summit conspire against even the modern Alpinist.

The below map is the parkwarden’s official one and gives you a great overview of the easier trails that we followed on this hike. The hike is deemed low risk and as such doesn’t require you to sign out at the park admin centre.

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The walk to Lago Torre is pretty quick and can be done as a long day trip. However we wanted to camp and see sunrise/sunset and hope for a break in the cloud, so we could see the summit of Cerro Torre. As we headed west along the path it was soon clear that the trademark cloud was swirling about the peaks, the further we headed the worse the weather got. We were not going to see the mountains in full glory today. The conditions did however set up some stunning rainbows as the wind whistled the rain into the sunshine.  We camped entirely alone near the lake. At about 8.30am the sun was just in the right spot to create a rainbow sprouting out of the glacier. The picture below shows the phenomenon, within minutes it had moved away and the spectacle was gone.

We passed a windy but pleasant night alone in the campspot, we climbed trees and balanced on narrow fallen trees to pass the time. The next day we saw the rainbow above and started walking along to the next campspot. The weather again improved as we headedback towards town a bit. We even detoured through the woods to get a view from the ridge up to Loma de las Pizarras.  I love walking through Patagonian forest, the wind stunted trees twist like bonsai trees and make me feel like a giant!

The next spot was the Poincenot campsite, this time we had to share with one other tent, it felt rather overcrowded! The cloud was still blanketing the tops but every now and then a stunning back lit vista appeared from the murk. The shot below is not sepia or any other funny effect it was just  an eerie light. I think the sun is just on the top of the Poincenot peak.

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Camping at the Poincenot campsite was pretty wild feeling. This was one of the few spots where signs indicate the water in the streams is good to drink straight and it tasted great. We saw quite a few birds wandering the around the site from a chicken looking Crested Caracara to the Sierra Finch in the picture below. The picture of the tent directly below looks a bit like an advert for MSR stoves, which I would happily advertise as the Dragonfly one we have used for last 6 years is great!

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The shot below shows the stunted trees and the dramatic setting, with the clouds and just the lower foot hills.

A wind swept view

One of the birds that stalked us around the campsite, a Sierra Finch.

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The next hike was from the campsite up to the simply stunning Lago de los  Tres. On a clear day the view of Fitzroy is stunning. Even with snatched glimpses the view was breathtaking. The glacier at the back provided ski touring options. If the lake was harder frozen we would have returned with skis to explore, however I think July is the month to tour here. The steep path up to the lakes still had patches of slippery snow, but the Argentinians with there canvas trainers and little else managed it fine. Some of the day trippers we encountered we amazingly under prepared. Few had back packs or waterproof jackets. One chap had decided to bring his packed lunch in just a paper bag, given the rain this failed dramatically. He was grasping and clutching apples, crisps, sandwiches draped in wet paper against his chest, as his wife walked on ahead. That is another characteristic of Argentinians, they are very shiverous, the man always carrys a huge backpack while the lady walks carefree. I believe in equality and fair play, so does Marion 🙂  but I felt a little less a man with our roughly equal sized bags!

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After walking back down to camp, the weather was still the same. Cloud and eerie light. We spent a second night at the campsite with whistling wind and snapping branches. I do enjoy the weather beating in against a snug tent but this was third night of it now. The next morning we walked along to Lago Piedras Blanco, the lake has a huge hanging glacier feeding into it. The path is a dotted line on the map meaning it is a tad harder to follow and a few scrambling sections. The end section was however quite interesting. Huge boulders rolling down from the moraines lie across the stream in the valley, and it looked like a continuing overhead danger of more rocks, that were precariously balanced.  The picture below is Marion ‘bouldering’ . The gaps between boulders fell away to the water in the stream below, a slip was not a good option.

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On the walk back down we decided to pass Lago Electrico as the weather showed no sign of improvement. This meant a detour straight back to town. As we arrived to the main street the clouds cleared and the sun set behind  Mt Fitzroy in all its finest glory.  The picture below is what greeted us above the town. We then detoured to the great bakery for some small pastries or facturas as they call them in Argentina.  To celebrate we headed to a great little restaurant to have a local sheep stew.

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The picture below is of Jenny pouring some red wine from the local penguin jugs in the restaurant mentioned. Looks a bit like they’re throwing up but pretty unusual! It was fun meeting up with Jenny again who we knew from Fernie, BC and then Chamonix,  we also saw her in the spectacular Refugio Frey, Bariloche a few weeks earlier.

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