Monte Cerro Grande

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

After seeing the spectacular glacier of Perito Moreno, and the wild mountainous scenery of Torres del Paine, we decide on another fix of the same stuff in El Chalten, Argentina. The huge continental ice sheet on the Chile-Argentina border extends for hundreds of kilometres from Perito Moreno, which we visted previously, to Monte Fitz Roy further north.

From the town of El Chalten, it is easy to hike to the base of Monte Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park. Fitz Roy is a 3400m tall granite column that was once considered an impossible climb, but was eventually conquered in 1952. Adjacent to Fitz Roy and equally impressive is Monte Cerro Grande, an impossibly tall thin 3100m spire that remains one of moutaineeringīs most prized challenges. Some hurriedly photocopied sheets from the Lonely planetīs īHiking in Patagoniaī give us some ideas about how to hike in and around these two famous mountains.

And so we find ourselves on the expensive gringo bus from El Calafate in Argentina to El Chalten. It seems to be a fairly well defined tourist trail and we bump into many others who we have camped next to, or chatted to in the previous weeks. It is very easy to meet fellow travellers in this part of the world, especially if you are camping.

During the drive we gaze out of the window dreaming far off thoughts whilst watching the endless Patagonian landscape drift by. Today is a beautiful clear day and I see sparse yellow and tan coloured grasses which are fighting to grow on the arid brown earth. As we approach El Chalten the mountain scenery opens up and we catch views of the snow covered Fitz Roy with striking blue lakes in the foreground.

Soon we are pulling into the small dusty town of El Chalten which looks a bit frontier-like. A cowboy gallops down the road confidently on a stallion with four more fiesty horses in tow.

We have reserved a room in a hostel called Rancho Grande for 25 Argentinian Pesos per night each (about GBP4.00). The place is surprisingly huge, clean and well equipped, but since the staff have to deal with so many customers they seem unfriendly and uncaring. We take a walk down town to fetch some supplies for dinner and the next couple of nights camping. Rachel feels the bitterly cold wind and starts to feel uncomfortable with the place.

After dinner its quite late and we spend the rest of the evening packing up all our equipment for the two nights out in the park camping. We say hello to a friendly Argentinian couple who are sharing the 4 bed dorm with us. I donīt get much sleep that night because the windows donīt open and the room is very stuffy and hot. I canīt open the door either because of the loud foot traffic in the corridor. To top it all off the Argentinian boy snores loudly and grinds his teeth all night (too loudly for earplugs to be effective).

In the morning we get up, glad to be getting out of the hostel, and start the walk with Jeremie, a Californian we met in Hostel Jorgito in El Calafate. At the start of the walk we canīt see much of the view as we are hiking up through forest for a good hour. Soon the track levels off and the views of Fitzroy open up. As we stop by Laguna Capri for a short break its obvious that the weather is worsening as the summit of the mountain keeps disappearing behind increasingly thick clouds.

After about four hours we get to our campsite at Poincenot. We pitch our tent in a spot at the edge amongst the tall trees. The wind seems to be increasingly strong and Rachel complains about being cold. We eat a hot but disgusting lunch of angel hair pasta with some sort of sauce. We only eat it because weīre hungry and need the calories. We decide in the afternoon not to continue to hike up to the base of Fitzroy as its completely clouded over.

Instead we keep warm by hiking over to a the bottom a huge blue glacier that looks quite close to the camp. After an hour spent mainly walking beside Rio Blanco we get to the end of the valley where the glacier is and scramble over huge boulders to reach a small lake which the glacier is calving into. From a vantage point on the side of the lake we gaze in awe at the cascade of frozen ice that flows down the front of the towering snowy mountain.

Returning to the camp we cook up dinner which is another pasta dish that is marginally tastier than lunch. We find four more friendly faces in the camp: Andrew, Julie, Ann, and Rachel from the camping Jorgito in El Calafate. They are busy making cinammon buns (from scratch), and are cooking with fresh vegetables which seems quite sophisticated and mouthwatering compared to to our camp cooking technique.

Back at our tent we find we are surrounded by a group of nearly twenty loud Israeli backbackers. They seem to be oblivious to the other campers and the noise they are making. Locally the people resent their sometimes aggressive and gregarious behaviour. For the most part, when backpacking in South America they donīt seem to mix with any other nationalities. They should try harder.

In much the same way I think the 95% of Americans who donīt hold a passport should spend 3 months travelling away from the USA. Incidentally, you never meet a travelling American who is in favour of the current president, Mr Bush.

Its a cold night and Rachel sleeps with all her layers on (5!) and a hot water bottle prepared by pouring a litre of boiling water into her drinking flask. Despite this she is still cold, and tells me in the morning that if weīre going to stay out camping the next night then she wants my new sleeping bag. I reluctantly agree.

I poke my nose out of the tent at 7am and seeing that its still cloudy I go back to sleep. At about 9am we get up after a long, but cold night, and cook breakfast whilst surveying Mount Fitz Roy to see if the cloud will clear.

At about 10.30am, we can catch glimpses of the summit, so we decide to hike up one more hour to the viewpoint at Laguna Los Tres to stand underneath Fitz Roy and view its splendour. The hike is a slow one as the path is steep, but at least we donīt have the big backpacks with us. We reach the lake and take a few snaps as the clouds shift malevolently around the summit. Someone tells me that its more than 2000m straight up the cliff face to get to the top. Sounds like a tough challenge.

Back at the camp we eat crackers and cheese for lunch, and pack the tent to hike down to the campsite at Agostini. The afternoon hike is a relaxing one through strands of Nire and Lenga draped thickly in lichen and swishing gently in the wind. We reach the next valley and hike up to our campsite, bumping into another friend Ali whoīs just returned from an ice climbing expedition. She looks a little dissapointed and tired as she only spent 1.5 hrs on the ice but had to walk over three hours to get there and three hours back.

In the campsite a Dutchman next to us points into the mist to where Cerro Torre the 3100 metre needle of Granite should be. He tells us confidently that the weather will be better in the morning, so Rachel sets our alarm for 6.30am in time for the sunrise.

At 6am in the morning I poke my head out of the tent and for a moment I canīt really work out what Iīm seeing. Rachel joins me at the tent door and exclaims louldy that she can see the mountains. The scene looks like a huge stage set where someone has painted the perfect nightime mountain backdrop. White snow glistens from the sides of the mountains and the sky is a dark navy blue sprinkled with stars.

We get up quickly and climb the moraine pile for a better view. Behind us the sky is starting to transform into shades of red and orange and the mountains in front are becoming clearer. The sun progressively lights up the high cloud and it suddenly strikes the top of Cerro Torre lighting it up like a pink beacon. The glow gradually washes down the sides of the mountains as the sky turns to a bright blue. This is a sunrise to remember.

We walk around the lakeside for a better veiw of the glacier. I canīt keep my eyes off Cerro Tore though. Apparently there were two Swiss climbers in our camp and after a 3 week wait in bad weather, today is the day they will attempt the summit. I wonder where they are as I gaze out at the Cerro Torre, consumed by its scale and beauty.

Back at camp we cook up breakfast, clear up camp, and start hiking back to town. Its a rather frustrating business as we keep stopping and looking behind us at the mountains. Now I know what it feels like to be Lotīs wife.

After three hours weīre back in town and checked back into the big hostel again. We meet a shy but amorous French couple in our 4 bed dorm who keep whispering to each other and kissing all the time. Apparently they just got married - shame they couldnīt afford a private room.

In the evening we go out to eat in a little restaurant where we enjoy some more of that excellent Argentinian steak. The cooking seems fairly basic, but the beef certainly makes it memorable.

In the morning we jump on board a bus heading north on the famous Routa 40, which goes all the way to Los Antiguos. After our 3-day hike it seems like the perfect way to spend the day lazing on the bus for a 14-hour journey whilst gazing out indolently at the Patagonian landscape.

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