the Fitz Roy Range
...on the approach to El Chalten
When staying on the fringes of Los Glaciares National Park and contemplating a 4-day trek the next week, you can do one of two things: rest up, or warm up. Jo did the former; I did the latter. On my own. For a blissful and fantastically scenic, and gratifyingly energetic, eight hours.
Welcome to El Chalten, gateway to the northern side of this dramatic national park in Argentine Patagonia.
We had been driving across eastern Patagonia for several days, and, before that, the Pampas. We had just about had our fill of endless flatness, whether cultivated and lush, or increasingly barren and wind-blasted, so we were childishly excited to see the first hints of Andean peaks. The approach to El Chalten is very dramatic, the rocky pinnacles of the Fitz Roy Range fairytale-like in their snowy loftiness, contrasting with the aquamarine glacial waters of Lago Viedma and the distant snow-cliff of the eponymous glacier.
Our first day in El Chalten had not been without its excitements: trekking on the Viedma Glacier. For me, this was my first experience of using crampons and I found it remarkably easy to adapt to this new form of locomotion, delighted with the
way they allowed me to walk straight up – or straight down – the slopes of the glacier. It was immensely reassuring, and I was only too sorry when our half-day here came to an end, albeit in suitably decadent fashion: with a glass of Baileys “on glacier”, the guides having chipped some ice off the landscape for our drinks. I was sorely tempted to sign up for the ice-climbing the next day, but decided that that would be just too decadent financially and that my trekking muscles needed exercise instead.
The next day, I packed a lunch and my usual stash of chocolate and cereal bars and headed off for Lago de los Tres. There are several well-marked day hikes that are easily accessible from El Chalten, and I’d wanted to “do the triangle”, a route that links the Lago de los Tres trek with the Lago Torre one, but other people had been warned this would take the best part of twelve hours. Yes, I wanted a warm-up, but I didn’t want to overdo it, not after spending the last week on the truck, and with Torres del Paine’s ‘W’ trek in prospect the following week. So
I decided to go for the first leg and take it from there.
The sun rises late here, the clocks giving me-friendly daylight hours of approximately 8 am to 8 pm, so I tramped up the road out of town in the dusky light of post-dawn, the sun yet to reach down into the valleys. The track quickly wound up and over the first ridge, rewarding me with a fabulous view of a cloud-veiled Cerro Fitz Roy and her spiky neighbours. Through the binoculars, I could see the crevasses and waterfalls of their glacial shawls. Beyond the lookout, the track took me through my first taste of the glorious autumnal colours of the ñire which would continue to enchant me for the next few weeks in Patagonia. I began to overtake some of my co-Dragomaners who had set out earlier. I felt alive, surprisingly mobile and energised despite the long truck days of the previous week. Maybe I would go just a little further after all. I glanced down at my watch. If I could get to the top of the Lago de los Tres by 11.30 am and still felt this good, maybe, just maybe…
leg of the track is the toughest, winding more and more steeply uphill on a narrow rocky track. Yellow arrows on fence-post markers kept me going in the right direction, up the face of the moraine and onto its peak. When Kat had trekked here two days’ earlier, the wind had been so strong, she’d literally had to crawl onto the top on her hands and knees. Now conditions were kinder, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I crested the moraine. Below me was the clear blue of the Lago de los Tres; beyond, the peaks of the Fitz Roy Range and the Glacier de los Tres oozing down to the lake like icing off a cake.
I was now resolved to complete the ‘triangle’. I had time in hand even against my own timeframe, and the weather was perfect for trekking, a light wind and mostly veiled sunshine with high cloud. I allowed myself half a cereal bar and a mouthful of chocolate as I absorbed my surroundings, and then picked myself up and beetled down the hillside again.
The second limb of the triangle, the track that joins the Lago de los Tres track
on the old road between El Calafate and Los Glaciares National Park
with the Lago Torre one, was almost empty of people. For the most part, it is only those heading for the climbers’ camp at Campamento Poincenot and those intent on trekking for several days through the national park who walk this section. I kept glancing behind me. The Fitz Roy Range continued to flirt with me, the cloud never quite fully lifting. (I was reminded of Everest, and the way she had kept us hanging on until 8 pm when we stayed at base camp on the Tibetan side. Only when dusk began to fall was she prepared to reveal herself fully.) To my right, were the quaintly named Lagos Madre and Hija, the “mother” lake twice the size of the “daughter” and at a slightly lower level. The trees on the far side, on the lower slopes of Loma de las Pizarras, must now be wonderful in their colours: then, they were still almost uniformly green, no hint of the performance yet to come. I’d refilled my water bottle from one of the streams that crossed the track just before I’d turned onto the new path. It was sweet and delicious, as crystal clear as the water of the
lakes beside me.
By the time I reached the intersection with the Lago Torre track, I was starting to become aware of my limitations, however superhuman I had felt earlier. Reluctantly, I decided not to walk the extra hour or so down to the lake itself, and turned onto the third leg of the triangle which led back to El Chalten itself. Errol had urged me to “keep looking back” if I did get this far. He was right. The towering trio of Cerros Solo and Grande, and the Loma de las Pizarras, with Glacier Grande, gave a claustrophobic feel to the end of the valley behind me, towering over the vegetation leading down to Lago Torre, the impact exaggerated by cloud cover which darkened the valley and sunlight which brightened the mountains and their snow cover. Yet I was not without a view in front of me as well. The Río Fitz Roy wiggled down the valley below like a discarded ribbon, and soon the mountains on the other side of the valley from El Chalten came into view. Although below the snow-line, their sharp wrinkles are un-softened by vegetation, and were then being exacerbated by sunshine and
Now it seemed as if the town would never appear. I paused beside one of the numerous map-boards. “Usted está aquí,” it assured me in a bubble pointing to a solid triangle marked with the words “El Chalten”. I looked around me. No sign of any town from here. “No usted bloody well isn’t aquí,” I grumbled out loud. Where was this wretched town? Quarter of an hour later, it duly hove into view, and I trudged my way down onto the main street and along to the welcome homey surroundings of the now aptly-named Hostel Los Pioneros del Valle.
“I knew you’d do it,” Ross greeted me without preamble. “They told me you’d decided to do only los Tres, but I didn’t believe them. I saw the way you were looking at that map at breakfast…”
I grinned happily and tiredly. He already knew me too well. A shower awaited, and then maybe a cold beer…
Twelve days later, we had looped south through Chilean Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and made our way back up to the other side of Los Glaciares National Park. Here a unique feature lay in wait for us:
the only glacier in this part of the world which is considered to be, if not advancing, at least stable, unlike its fellows which are retreating. Meet the Perito Moreno Glacier which debauches into Lago Argentina, the largest body of fresh water in Argentina. It is gratifyingly convenient to visit, just inside the park and therefore less than two hours from nearby El Calafate.
The effect of the Andes’ rain shadow here is very evident. El Calafate’s average annual rainfall is approximately 200mm (we should therefore count ourselves lucky to have been rained upon the night before, we were told); yet nearer the glacier, it is 1,000mm. The change in vegetation is commensurately impressive. In order to catch up with myself, I’d spend a day longer in Ushuaia and flown up to El Calafate to rejoin the truck the previous day. Flying across southern Patagonia on a clear day is an experience not to be missed. Even more dramatic than seeing the endless flatness from ground level is seeing it from above, the plains below grey-brown and empty as far as you can see. Yet as we approached the park, bushes and trees started making an appearance, and the
“balconies” from which we would watch the glacier thread their way through lush if now autumnal forest.
Looking back at my photographs now as I type in the corner of a Santiago coffee shop, it seems extraordinary that I was really there, that the glacier really is that close, that high, that blue; yes, even that dynamic. The hour or two during which I meandered along the wooden balconies which weave down the hillside near the now-fallen ice bridge was punctuated by rumbles and gunshot-like cracks as ice splintered and crumbled off the glacier. The Perito Moreno is advancing at an incredible two metres a day. From time to time it reaches right across the Canal de los Témpanos, temporarily damming the southern branch of Lago Argentina. Over the next few years, water gradually eats away at the dam, and an archway of ice develops across the Canal. Every few years, the arch finally gives in to gravity. The last time this had happened was in the wee sma’ hours of early March this year, but it is the break in 2004 which is famous, happening as it did at about 6.30 pm and captured on camera by dozens
the Perito Moreno Glacier
of thrilled tourists. Now we could see the remaining pillar of the ice-bridge on this side of the canal, and the remains of the crumbled arch in the water below. After looking at the glacier from the balconies, it was time to get a little closer, by boat this time. Not surprisingly, boats keep a good 400m away from the face of the glacier, but it is still extraordinary to look up at this massive face of ice above and around us. The varying shades of blues in the ice, the patterns of peaks and crevasses and moraine lines… I could have watched it for hours. But it was cold up on deck, even in the entertaining company of a Punjabi-parented young lad from Hammersmith, with whom, incongruously for our surroundings, I’d chatted India and curry-yearnings, and the captain was slowly turning the boat around. Time to return to town.
This would be our last encounter with snow and ice. The Swiss-like cutesiness and tranquillity of Argentina’s Lakes District would be our next port of call and, more practically, we were all looking forward to shedding our thermals for a few weeks.
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