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Published: March 20th 2013
After the short side trip back to Chile I returned across the border into Argentina to take a look at two memorable destinations in the Los Glaciares National Park. First stop was the town of El Calafate, gateway to some of the lakes and glaciers in the area. The most well-known glacier is the Perito Moreno and is currently one of the few advancing glaciers. Its tongue juts across the Lago Argentino lake towards land and it actually makes contact approximately every 4-5 years. This causes a unique phenomenon where a section of the lake becomes blocked by the glacier. With no outlet, the water level on the blocked side can incredibly rise 30m above the level of the main side, causing a massive pressure buildup. When it becomes too much the wall of ice explodes in spectacular fashion. There are photos capturing this moment out on the interweb. This was not one of those times unfortunately, with the last event occurring in June 2012. I could still see some remnants of the glacier when it was attached to land.
The glacier is simply huge, stretching for 30km into the distance, and the reason it is so popular is because
you can get so close to it. Some companies run tours for you to hike out on top of it – for a price.
Even after Antarctica this was still a highlight. I also did a boat cruise which allows you to glide right up to the face and appreciate the colossal 80 metre high wall of ice in depth. We were lucky enough to see some big chunks calve off, including one entire section of wall. It was amazing to see an 80m slab of ice just crashing into the water. It made a spectacular sound. The boat tour also took in some other glaciers, passing by yet more icebergs (yawn).
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the clouds in Patagonia. I’ve seen the most weird and crazy shapes. The most noticeable are the ones that look like huge flat smears, like someone took a normal fluffy cloud, crushed it flat in a vice, then smudged it across the sky – sometimes with a little twist at the end like a long French moustache. Or the long cylindrical ones like squeezed toothpaste from a tube. You still get the big fluffy clouds, but the others I’ve
seen nowhere else on earth.
After a few days appreciating all that is ice, I bussed up to the small town of El Chalten. The town is actually located inside a national park at the base of the Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountain range. It was created out of nothing in 1985 - partially to help define the border between Argentina and Chile, and partly due to the area's increasing popularity for hikers, climbers and tourists. It has one main street, a small supermarket and number of restaurants/accommodation. The vibe is great and you really get a sense of isolation here.
These mountains were in my opinion even more spectacular than Torres del Paine. The sheer granite spires are impossibly high. In fact, these mountains are considered very technical for climbers and were only first scaled in 1952. Also interesting is that while 100 climbers may summit Everest in a single day, Fitz Roy may only be summited once a year! Pretty cool fact, and gives an idea of what makes this place special.
Another cool feature about this place is that all the hikes to the mountains start from town. Most of the major
sights can be done in a day which also means not having to worry about camping and gear. No need to pay fees, or catch a bus, or go on a tour - you simply walk out your door with a day pack and start walking. At the end of the day you go home, have a beer and if you’re like me – eat a huge pizza.
The hikes themselves are memorable. Mostly you are walking through rolling hills and forest, sometimes up steep rock, or alongside bubbling rivers which are of course glacier-fed - the best and freshest water in the world. Such a convenience when you’re working up a sweat to simply dip your bottle in the river.
The jewel in the crown is the Fitz Roy mountain, named after Robert FitzRoy – captain of Darwin’s Beagle and who charted large parts of the Patagonian coast. I’d given myself 5 days in El Chalten to hike to this and the surrounding mountains. The hostel had the forecasted winds and cloud cover for each day as either one would negatively impact the hikes. Clouds simply obscure the views, but the winds can make things dangerous higher
The first 3 days were cloudy or windy so I put off the Fitz Roy hike in favour of others, one of which took me up to Cerro Torre which is another impressive peak. Unfortunately the clouds ruined it a little but it was still an enjoyable hike and view. I also encountered terribly strong winds along the ridge near the top – so strong I had to crouch into a ball at times to avoid being blown away. The Japanese tour groups didn’t climb the ridge that day… This generated some impressive dust clouds as the wind literally ripped the dirt from the ground. Later on I discovered they recorded winds over 60 km/h – and that was just in town, let alone on the peaks!
Day 4 was again cloudy so I was pinning all my hopes on my last day being clear to see Fitz Roy. I had a flight to Buenos Aires so I couldn’t stay any longer. The forecast was neither here nor there and as I set off in the morning I was greeted with clouds. But I decided to keep going regardless and hope for the best. Just after half
way it seemed to clear a little but I tried to keep my hopes in check. The last 40 minutes of the hike were an oxygen-sapping near-vertical rock scramble, with the peaks out of sight. By the time I reached the top I feared to look as I rounded the cliff... and peered up at a mostly clear sky. The peaks were unobscured! They were right there in front of me and I felt instantly rejuvenated, like someone dumped a bucket of cold water on my head. I felt so lucky as a sudden wave of happiness came over me. I couldn’t hide my grin. The view was just unbelievable. It almost annoys me to look at the photos now because no matter how good they are they just pale in comparison to being there. Old cliche I know.
I sat up there for some hours just taking it in, and by the time I was finally able to bring myself to leave, the clouds had returned. Many people were still venturing up as I made my way back down and I did genuinely feel bad for their impending disappointment.
So even though I missed out on some
of the other views I still left El Chalten a very happy camper. After nearly a month my time in Patagonia was at an end (for now I dare say) and I’d be heading up to Iguazu Falls and into Brazil. Patagonia, you will be missed.
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