Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten, Argentina (4 days)

The book `Enduring Patagonia` had got me excited about the mountains around El Chalten in Argentina. The author recounts climbing Cerro Torre, one of the peaks in the area. It describes waiting for months for the weather to clear long enough to get to the top, and the long boring days at base camp, as well as how difficult it is technically to climb, and the elation and view at the top. So Alison and I prepared for our second hike of the trip to go see Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy up close.

El Chalten is a relatively new village, being only around 20 years old. The resurgence of the Argentine economy is very clear here with many buildings under construction. At the moment there are only a few streets, all dirt, email is by satellite (mucho dineros), and not a lot of shops. It´s great! But it is not hard to imagine that in the near future it will be unrecognizable with development. At each end of the street are trails out to the granite mountains for why this town is here. The trails here are not very long. You can stay out and camp in the area at three different campsites, but you can just as easily get to all the hiking destinations in day trips from town. This information will prove helpful later on...

The night that we arrived in town was after a long bus ride on dirt road from El Calafate, 5 hours south. Got off the bus and into the front doors of the hostel to a friendly face- dutch Guido who we had hung out with in Punta Arenas. So we dropped our bags and off to one of the best pubs I´ve gotten to enjoy. El Chalten has this tiny cute pub selling its very own microbrew (choice of dark or light) with homemade pizzas and popcorn. All the locals started piling in after 11pm. It´s all warm and friendly inside, everyone´s dogs hang out outside in the chill wind that characterizes this town. Very cool.

So next morning we set off for a 3-day hike. Weather is gorgeous. Guido has been hiking here for days and says he has yet to see clear views of the peaks due to poor weather. So he hikes halfway with us to a great lookout for lunch. Mt. Fitz Roy and its sister peak, Cerro Poincenot are our view for a great lunch break. We wonder at the ´flying saucer`clouds in the sky which are formed by fierce winds up high. Little did we know at the time that those are a sure sign of a storm approaching (!)

At camp we meet americans Mikayla and George from Long Island, NY. Weather still beautiful, so we decide on an evening hike to the Piedras Blancas Glacier, about an hour from camp. Access to it is through a giant boulder field (see photo) of fun rock-hopping and exploration. The base of the glacier has a lake complete with out-of-the-blue gales of wind that rip across the lake prepared to remove anyone in their path. Mikayla and I were hanging out on a rock when one pretty much knocked us right over.

The rain started when we were in the tent for the night. The wind also. We were camped at Camp Poincenot which is under a grove of tall trees. As we were lying in the tent, we would hear the wind far off in the distance with the sound of leaves rustling. Like a giant wave, the wind would make its way closer and closer to us until it sounded like a jet engine over our tent. This happened all night long. The rain was heavy and constant. Like so many of the granite faces and peaks in the mountains of Patagonia, the thing to do is to get up in the dark and make your way to a viewpoint for a view of the rising sun hitting the rock, which makes it glow various shades of red. So when my alarm went off at 6am, the heavy rain outside sent me back to sleep. When we woke later and looked outside, many tents in the camp were now in small lakes and all was saturated. We decided that camping in hard-core rain isn´t really much fun, so we packed up and hiked back to town with the mind to come out to the area again as a day hike the next day.

Mikayla and George hiked back to town too. The four of us, Silvia from Italy, and Jean from France, all headed back to our favourite pub for the evening. A clear view of the stars on the walk back to the hostel hatched a plan to wake up early and hike to see the sunrise, this time from the other side of town. Next morning there was hushed scuttling around the hostel and we were on our way. Won´t bore you with details, but we essentially got lost (best to figure out the route in daylight I would say). But it just made for a fun story and early morning workout as we walked past the lookout by a good hour´s hustle up a hillside. Still got to see the whole sunrise deal, but not as impressive as it would have been had we stopped at the bottom of the hill! Highlight was a glimpse of Cerro Torre, the tall slender peak, which is most often covered in cloud. I felt very fortunate to get to see it, and to understand more clearly the accomplishment of those who climb it.

The clouds and then rain set in later that morning. El Chalten has very terrible weather. I had yet to see any of the peaks up close yet, so was determined to get to the Laguna Los Tres lookout close to the bottom of Fitz Roy. Mikayla and Silvia agreed, so the three of us packed a sandwich and headed off at a fast pace back to Camp Poincenot. Just past that camp we passed the climbers camp (where the author of `Enduring Patagonia` would have hung out for 2 months). Then, up steeply to a high moutain lake which is at the bottom of a glacier and supposedly the peaks of Mt. Fitz Roy and Poincenot. No view, we were socked in with clouds. Kudos to the girls for our dedication in the rain. It felt great just to get to our destination. We did not get back until it was getting dark. With the morning sunrise hike and our afternoon rainy one, we hiked a very long distance this day!

Back at the hostel, Alison was preparing a yummy curry dish with irish Aisling, whom we had met in El Calafate. She had cleared a spot on the steamy kitchen window to look out for our safe return. Great evening of wine and curry and drying out. Met Laura from the UK over dinner and she decided to join us for our upcoming adventure on the Carretera Austral road in Chile. So now we were four: Laura, Aisling, Ali and I, all headed north the next morning.


At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Jason (your brother) said...

Hi Elaine-- awesome photos! Wow must be great...judging by your clothing the temp is not too cold up in the mountains? (It is summer down there right?)
Are you guys tenting or staying in cabanas (maybe I should read further down the page...)
Keep on trekkin'


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