The big one

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South America » Argentina » Santa Cruz » El Chaltén
November 11th 2019
Published: March 29th 2020
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R: It feels a bit odd to be writing this during the coronavirus lockdown, but it makes me glad that I've been able to do this trip, and to think about all the things I may be able to do after it all ends.

Anyway. This was the big one - the last full day of the organised part of the trip. This was the longest walk of the trip - 20km in total over steep ground in places - some of us had been looking forward to it, some had been dreading it. We had been told the night before to go and find sustenance for the day which I should really have done the day before, but I was on a long walk, so I didn't get time! I headed to a small supermarket which literally had nothing useful in it all. My little wooden shack of yesterday was closed. So I headed off down the street in search of a bakery. I found a little place selling Croissants, Sandwiches and Empanadas for pennies each. That's lucky for me as there were no prices for anything. I brought out the best Spanish I could muster and managed to
On the way upOn the way upOn the way up

Rio Blanco river
ask how much they were, but also understood the quick-fire explanation I was given in return, picking the various numbers out of the explanation, and then providing the correct change. I was quite proud of myself.

We started off the day with a fairly mediocre breakfast and then we were bundled into a minibus. We headed out over dirt roads towards the north, where we were heading to a car park by a hotel called El Pilar. The walk started easy, with a gentle walk along the river up through some woodland. This time, the whole group was here so it was nice to speak to some different people, talking about stories, with one Canadian asking me to tell her the story of almost all of our world trip - she was planning on herself. It was a nice amble up with several stops to look at birds - Patagonian woodpeckers and Caracara (large chicken sized birds) in trees. As we were walking along there was a sudden rumbling, a bit like thunder. The skies were clear so it couldn't be that - it turned out to be the Piedras Blancas glacier, crumbing away and falling into the valley. Cue more glacier watching! As we stood there, large pieces fell down into the valley below and again, if you heard it first, you had already missed seeing it tumble into the valley.

We headed upward. We came to a campsite and a river crossing at Poincenot where we took a break - this was also a great place to pick up water. It was deliciously cold on what was quite a hot day. This was done by simply dipping our bottles into the glacial stream running off the mountain. I had a filtration device in my bottle, but I don't think you needed this at all - it was beautifully clear water. This was where it got interesting. The path from here was a steep single track with almost steps up. We split the group here, with those of us who were used to mountain walking taking the lead, and the others taking it more easily. There was also a drop toilet here, which some of the group tried - but failed - to use without retching! The path was steep with many switch backs, and it took about an hour of continuous climbing to reach a saddle where we could see out. We were now just in the snowline. The view was incredible ; this is the Fitz Roy massive, named after the climber who first conquered the mountain at 3405m. The view point is at a small hill over the Laguna de los Tres, behind which are Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Exupery. It was frozen over the day we visited due to the harsh winter but apparently it would melt in the next few days.

We headed down to the lake - there was a large rock just off the shore which had a queue - the Instagrammers amongst us, and others were queuing up to get the perfect shot! We had to wait about 20 minutes while some members of the group queued, and amused ourselves watching the poses and number of shots it took them to get the perfect social media shot. I didn't join in. From here it was downhill slightly as you could see down to a lake (Laguna Sucia) at a slightly lower altitude which was thawed. Being south America, there was no safety here, and there was a very sharp drop down the mountain to the lake. I kept my distance. After taking in the views for a good half an hour, and catching up with some lunch, we then trekked back up into the snowline, and back to the trail head to head down.

What was noticeable was, despite it being relatively cold in temperature higher up, the sun was strong and I was going through sun cream at a hefty rate. Oh well. Not much I could have done about this. The way down was somewhat easier, but some in my group found it hard, so we took it slow. As we descended, the second half of our group were still going up, and they had lost a few people on the way, who felt like they couldn't make the steep climb - they had headed straight back down to the town. You do get pretty good view from the lower path so it wasn't totally wasted. One of the best things about going down this path was the wide sweeping views of the national park, which had numerous lakes and mountains on the other sides of the valley ahead. Some of this was close to the walk I had done yesterday, so it was great to feel I had seen so much of the national park in such a short time.

We paused on the way down by a very still lake, called Laguna Capri, which was nice to have quick water break and think about the isolation of Patagonia one last time before we headed down for the town. There were some excellent views to be had down the valley as the sun was beginning to set and the evening light set in. We arrived back at town around 6:30pm (we had started at 8am) so it had been a pretty long day, and everyone's legs were aching. Thankfully there was a pool, and sauna at the hostel for those that wanted them.

The only thing left to do was end of trip beers. After a quick shower, we went to craft beer place at the end of the street which did some local beers and had time to mull over the trip. Some of us went up the street and grabbed some food at a strange Italian place, while others headed for a local Vegan restaurant - definitely not for me. I had a delicious "local lamb" dish with sweet potato mash. The restaurant itself was weird - we were the only people in there and we seemed to be served by the only staff member, who told us it was her first day. No one had even shown her how to use the card machine, so we had to show her ourselves - she was very trusting! We trundled home and tried to find the others who had been to the vegan place for maybe another drink, but people were tired after the long day and we wandered home to pack. It was now freezing cold outside so it was good to get back in the overly warm hotel. I had quite a good view from my bedroom window out over the mountains with a cloudless and starry sky. What an ending.

The next day the organised part of the tour ended and I began my solo trip back to London via Buenos Aires, which started with a certain element of chaos...

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