Easter in El Chalten & trekking Fitz Roy

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We were excited about our next adventure and it was a good start to our four-hour bus journey from El Calafate to El Chaltén. Although we had to wait for eons for the armed police to painstakingly check everyone onboard’s ID, we were able to enjoy the most vivid of sunrises so far on our travels. For the rest of our journey, as with all our overland journeys through Patagonia, the landscape was weathered, wild and completely captivating. Our mid-way break coffee-shop-come-campsite, Luz Divina, was so ‘in the middle of nowhere’ that even the coffee shop cat tried insistently to escape onto our bus. 

Nearing El Chaltén we drove into the thick of a weather front and the rain lashed down, obscuring that view of the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massif that everyone drools over. A man on the bus had brought his girlfriend especially to see the view that he'd fallen in love with 10 years back and he was devastated. Just before entering the town everyone was ushered into the National Park office for a quick presentation by the park wardens (provided in English too) and we were impressed with this active engagement with tourists. We then ran from the bus stop through town to our lodgings in El Chaltén, the delightfully comfortable Nothofagus B&B, arriving cold and wet to find a warm welcome.  

A local duathlon was taking place that the whole town seemed to be involved in in some way or other. As we gorged on pizza in Patagonicus alongside lots of laughing, cheering locals we watched the competitors, drenched and muddy, leaning into the wind and rain and staggering down the street to the finish line. The vibe was lively and we were happy to witness a part of local life in this little Patagonian town and to know this kind of madness is a world-wide phenomenon.

We chilled out in El Chaltén for a few days waiting for an end to the bad weather and planning our trek, and we celebrated Easter....by eating loads of chocolate! El Chaltén is Argentina’s newest town, first settled in 1985 during the Chile-Argentina rush for land-claim, and with the masses of new buildings spring up it was clearly booming  thanks to a successful trekking and climbing tourism economy. On one calm day the air was filled with sounds of hammering and sawing (and the usual barking dogs) and concrete was being laid for new roads to currently nowhere. There was still a stark difference though between poor and rich. Some one-up-one down houses had exterior walls of unprotected roofing board while big concrete hotels were springing up next door. Even in low season the little town had a nice feel - wooden clad, colourful single-story houses, B&Bs, hostels, restaurants and cafes, and sociable dogs running wild. 

Trek Day 1: Unusually flash for us we took a taxi to the start of our trek, Hosteria El Pilar for a hefty AR$90 / £15, but it was a beautiful drive in; the unpaved puddle-strewn road followed the Rio del Bosque and the striking flat-topped Cordon de Los Condores (although if there had been any condors circling we wouldn’t have seen them for the low cloud). Our plan had been to trek an ‘E’ (but backwards) route up and down three valleys around the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massif, but just before the taxi pulled in our B&B owner advised us to not bother with the first valley and to camp at different campsites, which meant shorter days trekking and more time to explore the more scenic valleys. It was sound advice from a keen local hiker, I was feeling pretty groggy with a cold and not up to doing too much, so spur of the moment we decided to go with this new plan.

Despite the rain and my snotty cold, as the taxi did a U-turn and headed off back to El Chaltén we were excited to be heading out into this northern region of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We climbed the gate and set off up the drive to the homely looking, but closed Hosteria El Pilar, following the Rio Blanco. From an elevation up on the valley-side we looked out across the floodplain of the Rio Blanco and Rio Electrico, across a massive expanse of stunted Nothofagus to the dramatic ‘U’ shaped valley formed by the snow-capped peaks of Cerro 30 Aniversario (2029m) and Cerro Electrico (2257m). Under the grey sky it was a monochrome landscape but for the incredible autumn display from the beech covering the valley bottom. The path climbed gently through tall beech woodland and within ten minutes the rain stopped and the cloud started to lift and break up. The path was littered with fallen branches and trunks from yesterday’s violent winds. Tiny orange and red beech leaves floated in the puddles along the path reminding me of natural sculptor Andy Goldsworthy - wow, he’d have tons of material here to work with! At a gap in the trees we stared across the Rio Blanco valley to see the elevated Laguna Piedras Blancas and above that the Glaciar Piedras Blancas. A waterfall, a delicate white thread from where we were stood, linked the two. The peaks AG Guillamet (2547m), AG Mermoz (2732m), AG Val de Vois (2653m) stood sentry behind the glacier and we could just make out the formidable Mt. Fitz Roy (3405m) through the lifting clouds.

A noisy carancho perched atop a tree next to the path throwing its head back and squawking in an interesting display (the meaning of which was completely lost on us). There was snow in the air, a bitter wind, and not a soul around so we decided to head past the trekkers’ campsite at Poincenot, which lacked a cook shelter, and we pitched up further along the trail at the CB Rio Blanco, which is designated for escaladores only - climbers. There we utilised the shelter, a solid wooden hut lined with polythene with dry flooring, benches and tables and crude windows, for brewing up and cooking our dinner. On the outside wall someone had written ‘no trekkers’ and someone else, ‘no women’. I was happy to be able to flout both rules that night. We debated what to do with our food versus mice - I’d only just repaired the seven gnawed holes in our inner tent from the Torres del Paine! We persuaded ourselves that mice wouldn’t be a problem what with the campsite being deserted at this time of year and the weather being so cold. Gusts blasted through the forest canopy high above us all night but we were so well sheltered the tent didn’t move. The temperature inside our tent dropped to 5’C. We listened to the gentle rustling of snow falling on the tent, but then came a slightly louder rustling - the sound of a small creature gnawing at our food bag in the tent porch! For a few hours we half dozed and half listened for noises of mouse, straining to differentiate between snow and mouse, but it was a persistent little critter and in the end we sacrificed our biscuits to save the rest of our food, and we managed to get some decent sleep once it had had its fill.

Trek Day 2: We woke at first light, 9am!, inwardly wished my Dad a happy birthday, made a brew and watched the sun rise while eating hot-milk museli and marvelling at the changes the fresh coating of snow had brought. The forecast for today was clear blue skies and we’d had high hopes of climbing to the mirador above our camp to see Mt Fitz Roy and Laguna Los Tres, but instead snow showers were blowing in hard from the south-east and the peaks were completely obscured. A male Magellanic woodpecker appeared and started pecking for grubs on the tree right next to the hut cheering us up considerably. These large red and black woodpeckers might be really common in Patagonia, but it was a first for us and we were thrilled. Around 10:30am we packed up, salvaging a few Orios, and headed out into the snowy landscape, passing a number of day-walkers intent on climbing to the midaror despite the visibility. It was fun plodding through the snow. We backtracked to Poincenot and then took the right fork to CB Agostini, passing Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija with its black shale beach, on our right. As we wound down through a lovely beech woodland dense with standing deadwood two pairs of Magellanic woodpeckers - black and red males, all black females - moved through the trees chipping away at tree trunks and calling to each other. It was a fabulous sight but too cold to spend too long watching them. We passed golden grass meadows and descended 200m through a tall woodland before turning west to follow the roaring Rio Fitz Roy to Camp. Agostini.

The sunny high we’d hoped for this morning arrived mid-afternoon with a strong, fresh wind. We made ourselves at home at the camp and spent a lovely afternoon and evening exploring the wooded riverbank, the high banks of glacial moraine, Laguna Torre and the view points immediately around the camp. Phil had already spotted a mouse scampering about in broad daylight so without question we strung our food and rubbish up a nearby tree. 

On a midnight trip to the portaloo two large golden eyes, a good height up off the ground, caught my head torch light. Adrenaline shot through my body and my instinct had me backing away back to the tent, bladder unrelieved, to send Phil out to have a look! We both agreed those eyes definitely belonged to something a fair bit larger than a fox. The possible presence of a puma puts a different perspective on sleeping ‘under canvas’ that’s for sure!

Trek Day 3: Our third day in the park dawned beautifully clear with only a wisp of wind. Not only had we survived the night, but we’d slept amazingly well, except today I felt really grotty with cold. We had a leisurely morning (again!) and took stroll over the moraines and around the east side of Laguna Torre to the mirador above the snout of Glaciar Grande, which certainly lived up to its name. A few clouds were gathered over the peak of Cerro Torre, breaking now and again to give us glimpses of the top, and cloud poured down the west side of the tower. Dramatic stuff. Once again we were completely alone and with no wind the only sound (above my sniffing) was the rumble of avalanches. We sat in the sunshine and chatted about coming back one day to do the Paso Marconi-Paso del Viento Circut - a tough 8 day trek (guided only and backpacks of up to 30kgs!!) that takes you onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the Viedma Glacier just west of where we were. Another one for the ’top treks to do’ list.  Returning to camp we had lunch and a hot chocolate, packed up and were soon on the trail again, heading down to El Chaltén just 2 ½ hours away. We chatted to a National Park warden who stopped herself short of asking us not to use our poles (because they cause path erosion) when she saw we’d attached rubber stoppers on ours, saying, ’you are the first people I’ve ever seen in the park using the stoppers. Thank you, thank you!’

On our descent to El Chaltén we amused ourselves by talking about all the things we were looking forward to seeing, doing and buying on our return to the UK. After nearly a year of living out a bag, on a tight budget and bouncing from lodgings to lodgings, we could think of nothing better than the warmth and comfort of a home, cooking great food, getting stocked up with delicious wine and beer, partying with family and friends, being creative and buying lots of stuff!!…..and then planning the next adventure!!

Best wishes
P & N (now in a warm place)
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Mike C on

Stunning! And once again the photos are amazing.

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