El Chalten to Ushuaia

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January 5th 2008
Published: January 5th 2008
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Weeks 9-10

The route to El Chalten was spectacular and we were awed by the scenery as we drove down through Patagonia, we saw our first glaciers - Piedras Blancas and Rio Blanca and glacial lakes that were milky green due to the suspended sediments. We finally drove into El Chalten, a small village at the northern entrance to the National Park Les Glaciares which incorporates the Fitzroy range, arguably one of the most majestic mountain areas in the Andes and now a famous spot for trekking and mountaineering. The town is quite exposed as the winds whip down the Rio de las Vueltas floodplain - and is one of Argentina´s youngest towns created in 1985 to claim the land before Chile could. It´s winter population is only 140 which grows to 400 in summer to cater for the 20,000 hikers, mountaineers and climbers that descend on the town to tackle the surrounding mountains. El Chalten actually means peak of fire or smoking mountain and refers to the Cerro Fitz Roy´s Teheulche name. It was later named Fitz Roy after the Beagle´s captain who navigated Darwín´s expedition up the Rio Santa Cruz in 1834 although Fitz Roy never saw the town named after him. Our base was Hostal del Condors, a small backpackers lodge with six to a dorm. A fellow traveller Gatsha and myself went out the first night for tasty pizza and steak but given the inevitably high prices in this part of the world, decided to cook in the hostal for the remaining two evenings.

Given that hiking solo is discouraged in the park, I joined several others to do a 7.5 hour circular hike passing various lakes )Capri, Madre and Hija) - with views across to Glacier del Torre and Glacier Grande. The weather that day was extremely unstable ranging from hot sunchine to sleet and snow but we still enjoyed the exercise and walks through beech forests, past small lakes and skirting boggy terrain. We had lunch in Pincenot wood, named after a french mountaineer who died here in 1952. On our return journey, the cloud lifted and we were rewarded with views of the 3405m Cerro Fitz Roy. I remain amazed at the amount of daylight in this part of the world with sunrise at 4.30am and sunset around 10.00pm giving plenty of time for trekking etc.

The following day was an early start with Fitz Roy Expeditions to do some glacier trekking. We set off from our hostal at 6.30am trekking several hours to a campsite where we were fitted with crampons and a harness. Then onto the terminal and lateral moraines, hauling ourselves across a glacial river and then ascending steeply to finally set foot on the glacier itself. Some safety instructions and with crampons fitted, we were soon trekking over the glacier, negotiating narrow crevasses and steep ice walls. What an experience - and great views of the surrounding peacks. We even tried climbing an ice wall with several ice axes - pretty difficult with the various overhangs and lack of obvious crevices for footholds. Then a long trek back along the same route reaching El Chalten at 7.30pm - many of the group has blistered feet due to the need to hire boots but thankfully I had been able to use my own.

Our next destination was El Calafate, 220km from El Chalten along both paved and unpaved roads. El Calafate is probably one of the few places that can claim a livelihood from a single tourist attraction some 80km away - the Moreno Glacier. We stayed at Albergue del Glacier a sociable and active hostal which wasn´t necessarily conductive to a good night´s sleep -but that is not a priority for most of my travellers! El Calafate´s main street is tree lined and strewn with rolling stones from previous glacial activity - and also stuffed with sourvenir shops, restaurants and tourists. Prices were again high so we chose to eat at the hostal using their small but adequate kitchen facilities. One thing I did manage to sort out was a Skype account which will now permit cheaper and longer calls to friends and family in the UK. The operation took longer than expected due to a slow connection (256kbps) and frequently broken connections which seemed to affect every Internet cafe in the town.

The hostal had organised a tour to Perito Moreno (Periot means master) - one of the earth´s few advancing glaciers. A low gap in the Andes allows moisture laden Pacific storms to drop their loads east of the divide where they accumulate as snow, which over time has recrystallised as ice and flowed slowly eastwards. Fifteen times between 1917 and 1988 as the 60m high glacier (same size as a 10 storey building) has advanced, it has damned the Brazo Rico de Lago Argentina the country´s single largest body of water. Visiting the magnificent Moreno Glacier is as much an auditory as a visual experience as huge ice bergs on the glacier face calve and collapse into the Canal de los Tempanas (Iceberg Channel). We were able to walk along a series of catwalks and vantage points along the Peninsular de Magallanes to see, hear and photograph the glacier numerous times as the light changes. We also took a boat trip to sense the enormity of the glacier walls although the boats kept an extremely safe distance. I was struck by the size and beauty of this enormous mass of ice and determine to buy a book on Patagonia to remind me of the spectacle. I have always wondered what makes a glacier blue - it is apparently due to areas of the glacier that are not compacted and have air bubbles into which the long wavelengths of white light are absorbed. These are simply white - but where the ice becomes more compact due to the weight on the top pushing ice particles together, the blue light (short wavelengths) is transmitted. The more compact the ice, the longer the path the light has to travel and the bluer the ice appears. When the glacier melts, it dumps with it the glacial ´flour´of ground-up rock which is what gives these glacial lakes their milky grey colour. It was definitely one of those red letter days as we headed back to El Calafate enjoying our final glimpses of the Moreno glacier as we drove along the shores of Lake Argentina.

The next day was Christmas Eve although it certainly doesn´t feel like Christmas without all the commercialism, Christmas Carols , fairy lights, snow and other accoutrements one associates with the season. This was certainly going to be a different Christmas away from friends and family! We had a short drive to the town of Puerto Natales to pick up final supplies for Christmas. Puerto Natales is on the shores of Last Hope Sound and the southern teminus for the Navimag ferry through the Chilean Fjords and into the Torres Del Paine National Park. We bought provisions for 3-4 days and then set off to spend Christmas in this beautiful national park - considered one of the best parks and hiking circuits in the
Climbing the ice wallClimbing the ice wallClimbing the ice wall

Almost did myself an injury - soft tissue strain on my left arm!
Americas. It is 181,000 hectares with a well developed network of refugios and campsites and a panorama of peaks the most famous of which are the granite pillars of Torres del Paines which soar almost 2800m above the Patagonian steppe. Other peaks include Paine Grande (3050m) and Los Cuernos (the Horns at 2200-2600m) with trails meandering through nire forests, alongside rivers and past glaciers. Our guides suggested various trails including one to Gray´s Glacier, the Valle Frances, both of which involved taking a ferry across Lake Pehoe, and the famous walk of Torres itself after which the park is named.

Christmas day dawned beautiful and sunny as I awoke to hear various enthusiastic members of the group singing Christmas songs. Breakfast was great - pancakes with fruit and cream and washed down with champagne. Dinner arrived early in the shape of a lamb which was then crucifixed to a spit and left to cook slowly until evening. This is the traditional Argentinian asada or BBQ. The group had all invested in secret santa presents and mine was a tasteful pair of silver earrings. The rest of the day was spent relaxing around the camps and admiring the perfect picture postcard scenery. I took a short hike up to Condor Point, a nearby hill to watch several condors soaring on the thermals and enjoyed lunch with spectacular views over lakes, forests and lower peaks. I appreciated the solitude and time for reflection which has been in short supply. Then back to the camp to share a bottle of wine on the shores of the nearby lake and to enjoy the roasted lamb and apple crumble.

The following morning, most of the group were recovering but I set off with four others to join another truck party (Danish group called Topaz) who had planned to walk up to the Towers of Paine. We went on their bus and then another smaller minibus to a distant part of the park to start the walk from the Refugio Los Torres to Mirador Los Torres. This was a four hour hike one way following the river up the valley and a final scramble on glacial moranic boulders to get a close-up view of the towers and tarn with waterfalls sliding down the granitic mass. It was an impressive sight but unfortunately the peaks of the towers remained hidden under a km of cloud. We found a sheltered spot to have some lunch out of the wind and then headed back down the same route to get our lift home. As it turned out however, the Topaz truck had developed some problems and we paid a commercial rate to get another bus back to our campsite.

The next day, some of us took a catamaran across Lake Pehoe where several walks were possible - to Gray´s Glacier or up the Frances Valle. I opted for the latter which was a challenging walk- not least because it was a 9.5 hour walk which needed to be done in 7.5 hours in order to be able to catch the ferry back across the lake. I set off with five others from the group and Georg from the Topaz truck to try and reach the Mirador Los Torres. The scenery varied with every turn - from lakes, through forests (including dead forest), across swamps, alongside raging torrents and several campgrounds until we finally emerged into an amphitheatre of stiff peaks including the Cerro Paine Grande (3050m), the Cerro Paine Media (2450m) and Torres Del Paine (2800m). I was elated to have reached that goal (only two of us did) before one of the most rapid walks/runs back down the mountain to catch the last ferry home.

The next day we started our journey to Ushuaia but I was sad to leave this national park having made the most of the trails for three days but been unable to complete the famous circuit (takes one week) and only part of the ´W´ trek.

We drove through Puerto Natales (for more camping provisions) and then onto Punto Arenas to catch the ferry over to Porvenir and continue by truck to the border crossing (Chile into Argentina) where we camped in the grounds of a small motel. Then the final drive to Ushuaia across Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and through the town of Rio Grande which played an important role in the Falkland/Malvinas war. There were plenty of memorials and plaques paying tribute to the fallen soldiers but with a truck sporting a webiste.co.uk, it was thought too sensitive to stop and take pictures of what is clearly an unhealed national scar.


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