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Published: April 1st 2008
The ride to El Chalten passed through more Patagonian steppe and alongside enormous windswept lakes, with this time the animal life consisting mainly of guanacos, one of several similar creatures residing on the continent (also llama, vicuna, and alpaca) that are sufficiently indistinguishable to my eye that I'll just pick a name at random if I have further cause to mention one. The sullen grey of the Fitz Roy massif, its peaks specked with snow and partially obscured by patchy cloud cover, loomed closer. Nestled in a valley beneath its forbidding bulk was our destination.
The first impression I had of El Chalten as I alighted from the bus was of its windiness. Strong gusts either propelled one along or forced a walking angle closer to the vertical than usual. The combination of the gale, umpteen building sites (the town was established barely 20 years ago and is growing rapidly), and unsealed roads with regular traffic, meant a contact lens-unfriendly dust storm assault.
My carefully-planned arrival just after Easter proved to be a miscalculation, as the first 3 hostels on my list were all full. My eventual abode was owned by a jovial gent who complimented me on the
excellent Spanish pronunciation of my canned dorm bed request phrase, a compliment which I initially missed because my pronunciation of a 7-word sentence might be great but my understanding of most of the rest of the language is minimal. The dorm's furniture was uniformly creaky which, added to the howling wind outside, gave the place the air of a haunted house. A laundry was attached to the dorm, which caused the whole room to vibrate whenever any of the industrial-strength washing machines kicked in. The fact that there was no lock on the door was counterbalanced by the presence of a mother cat and 3 kittens living under the building - the ferocity of their playfights left me in no doubt that they could cope with any intruders.
I'd heard a lot of positive things about one of the hostels that had originally had to turn me away so, after a couple of days and with a great deal of reluctance to abandon the kittens, I moved there. The fact that they had a couple of llamas mowing the lawn was intriguing, bringing back as it did memories of the sheep that keep Saltburn's parish church grounds neatly trimmed.
Sadly, the clientele were rather patchier than the grass turned out to be, and I was forced to move dorms when I realised the 3 Argentine women I was rooming with thought nothing of returning from a bar crawl at 3AM and chatting as though there was no-one in the dorm trying to sleep.
El Chalten was much smaller than El Calafate yet shared some of its characteristics. The number of stray dogs was lower but of a wider variety - I'm pretty sure I saw a St Bernard as well as an Old English Sheepdog loping around the streets. There were also many examples of ostensibly unroadworthy vehicles - cracked windscreens, detached bumpers, dangling exhausts, etc - that had been kept alive due to the pointlessness of bringing any new vehicles to a region of such bad roads. Oozing pink and red sunsets were thankfully also something the two places had in common.
With so much trekking custom, I was astonished at how few stores sold sliced bread/sliced meat/sliced cheese/etc and chocolate bars - surely I'm not the only hiker in the world that likes this stuff? Similarly the lack of ATMs - though suggesting a possible
twinning opportunity with almost anywhere in Laos - can't be economically sensible. I heard several people in my hostel saying they were going to have to leave town because they'd run out of cash and had no way of getting hold of more.
The town is the gateway to the Fitz Roy massif, a dramatic series of peaks whose sheer granite walls provide a stern technical climbing challenge - the second highest, Cerro Torre, was only conquered more than 20 years after the first summiting of Everest, despite being a good deal less than half the height (though probably a lot less than half as well-known to the lay person). There are multi-day trekking opportunities but one source of appeal for fair weather walkers like myself is the day hikes providing impressive views of the range without the need for camping.
The hike to Laguna Torre is the shorter and easier of the two decent day hikes available, and offers views of Cerro Torre. I did it twice. First time around, 30 minutes into the hike, my camera batteries gave out. Not a problem, as I had a back-up set - unfortunately they were also flat, despite the
fact I'd charged them only days ago. My second back-up, a set of non-rechargeables, also chose this moment to run out of juice. I spent a good few minutes venting my frustration at Energizer (for their rubbish recharger), Canon (for the moron who decided the only battery power indicator required in their cameras was a warning just before power runs out), and myself (for knowing about these two flaws for months and doing nothing about them). However I decided to continue, as I figured the novelty of not being able to take any pictures might make me appreciate the scenery more.
Sadly, the weather conditions on that first visit were nigh on perfect, with only wisps of cloud around Cerro Torre - my second visit was pretty much a total cloud-out. However what's in my memory if not in my SD card is a panorama of craggy rock fortresses standing aloof against a deep blue sky.
The meatiest day hike, though, is to Laguna de Los Tres, giving views of Cerro Fitz Roy itself. For my attempt at this, I was blessed with a totally cloudless day, literally not a single cloud, as though Cerro Fitz Roy was
doffing its usual cap in apology for my Torre photographic disappointment (El Chalten is Cerro Fitz Roy's name in the local language and means "smoking mountain" due to the almost perpetual cloud wreathing its summit) . Of course a bit of cloud would have added some character to the scene, but as it was I was rewarded with views that had a pristine clarity and starkness to them.
This hike took up half as much time again as the Torre one. The gruesome last hour was spent labouring up a 500m change in elevation on a slope exposed to the surprising strength of the late-morning sun. Apart from aching leg muscles, this stretch also gifted me a bright pink nose. For much of the slope, the massif was hidden from view but once you'd crested that and negotiated another smaller incline, your eyes could then marvel at what must be one of the greatest sights in South America.
Below, just a short scramble away over loose rock, the limpid blue of Laguna de Los Tres. Like all the lakes and rivers in this national park, its water is potable - after the stiff ascent to reach this point,
The road to El (Chalten)
With the Fitz Roy massif looming
it tasted like an earthbound approximation of ambrosia. To the right and curving up past the snowline is a glacier, suffering by comparison with Perito Moreno but enhanced by the fact that it's draped over the lower slopes of such fearsome mountains. And rising up above it all is the massif itself, the tower of Cerro Poincenot and the solid block of Cerro Fitz Roy dominating the heights. With a uniform deep blue backdrop, there was a savage beauty to the scene, a breathtaking quality belying the fact that 1 successful ascent of Cerro Fitz Roy occurs for every 100 of Everest. The experience was completed for me when, lying in the sun on a large rock, I saw a condor pass low overhead, its piercing cry celebrating the desolation of the surroundings.
Following a trail a couple of hundred metres round the left hand side of the lake, I came to another viewpoint that was unmarked on my map. Far below in an adjacent valley was another lake, half in shadow and fed by several stream-cum-waterfalls issuing from under a distant glacier. An unexpected bonus, and an unnecessary addition to a scene that had already left me in
Lo de Tomy hostel
In the silence of the massif, it was surprising how easily you could hear conversations occurring hundreds of metres away - not the detail, just the fact that people were in the vicinity. A few avalanches, unseen yet heard, added the mountains' voice to this chit-chat. I could only imagine what camping here would have felt like in the dead of night.
Mountains and glaciers aside, there were other features of the landscape to enjoy. The foliage on the trees was just turning, inserting reds and yellows into nature's palette. I saw woodpeckers, hares, and condors as I trudged through this autumnal scenery, the latter an especial thrill as these birds are one of the defining fauna of South America. Pumas also live in the area and the entry signs to the park warn that, if encountered, the appropriate course of action is to appear as large as you possibly can and aggressively throw stones. With the advice for dealing with brown bears, black bears, grizzly bears, and crocodiles already randomly mixed in my memory, this puma policy was only going to cause further confusion. Fortunately nothing appeared that necessitated evasive manoeuvres.
With the sun out
but the wind chilling the air, I found myself in the unusual position of sweating due to my hiking exertions but my hands were so numbed that, on my first Torre trek, I couldn't open the sachet of mayonnaise needed to turn my ham and cheese sandwiches into something worth eating. Trekking etiquette seemed a little different here, as "Hola"s were only grudgingly given in return to my own cheery greetings.
I was tempted by the prospect of staying longer in El Chalten in order to rehike the Torre trail, but I'd already heard tales of intermittent snow in both Ushuaia and Torres del Paine, hence figured I needed to keep moving before the weather conditions in my intended next couple of destinations exceeded the capability of the gear I had to cope with them.
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