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Published: March 29th 2014
Simply immense and stunning
From El Calafate I caught a bus three and half hours and 220 kilometres north to El Chalten. Perched on the edge as the same national park as Perito Moreno (Los Glaciaros) El Chalten is the heart of Argentinean walking country in Patagonia. There are only two reasons why people come to El Chalten - to walk or climb Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. (Just to confirm for reasons I hope the photos will make all too clear the latter was never an option for me!)
The similarities between El Chalten and Puerto Natales/Torres Del Paine are striking but so too are the differences. El Chalten is close enough to its attractions that you can walk directly from the town. As a result, whilst it is certainly possible to rent a tent and walk a circuit there is neither really the need or the infrastructure.
The town itself has something of a wild west feel. It sits in the mouth of a steep gorge at the point where the plains and sandstone cliffs give way to mountains. The road to the north quickly becomes a gravel track. To the west the only way out is by footpath. The houses
have an unfinished air, as if thrown together in great haste, until money or motivation were exhausted leaving many unfinished. Dwarfed by its landscape, the buildings seem to huddle together for company and protection from the wind, which like everywhere else I´d been to in Patagonia moderated between a gust and a gale.
My plan was to stay in El Chaten for 5 nights and with luck to get in 4 days good walking before heading out of Southern Patagonia to Bariloche and the Argentinean Lake District. However, on arrival the omens weren't good. The rain lashed down and I spent an uncomfortable half hour wandering the unmarked streets trying to find my hostel or someone of whom to ask directions. As I trudged through the rain-soaked streets it occurred to me that El Chalten would not be the easiest place in which to come up with a plan B. However, things looked up when I eventually located my hostel and my hosts confirmed a better forecast for the coming days.
On the basis that it was rumoured to be the toughest walk and I would be at my freshest I decided to start with Mount Fitzroy. Of
On the trail back to town
I love the seams in the rock in the distance
all the peaks this is probably the most well-known and hopefully would provide plenty of opportunities for great views. Rather than do this as a there and back from El Chalten (there is only one path out to the mountain from the town) I arranged for a pick-up to take me north of Mount Fitzroy. I would then walk down the valley seeing a different view of the mountain before reaching its base and climbing to the viewpoint in front of the glacial lake at its foot, returning to El Chalten by retracing my steps from the climb to the viewpoint and carrying on south, down onto El Chalten (in theory a good 8 hour walk). The weather was fine and sunny and the walk began with spectacular views of Fitzroy and its surrounding peaks. The walk to the mountain's base was deceptively easy. Almost literally a walk in the park. The path wound through a wooded valley, mostly flat, with regular breaks in the treeline to show off the imposing view of the mountains across the valley. Glaciers sparkled in the sun and the mountain itself stood out against the mostly blue sky, alternately pink and orange, a rime
of ice on the sheer looking face providing an additional sparkle. Fitzroy is often a cathedral and in this light it was easy to see why.
And then came the climb. I knew it was coming of course but somehow foreknowledge doesn't help. You stand at the bottom of a very steep path which you see zig-zagging up the mountain before disappearing into the distance. It's an 800 metre ascent in just over a kilometre. A long, hard hour-long slog. Several years ago on another walk I was advised that the secret to a long ascent is to take short steps and walk slowly. Advice I had no trouble complying with on this occasion. Of course if the walk is popular enough there will always be someone younger and fitter who thinks it would be rather fun to run up the mountain. I wish I could report a case of the tortoise and the hare, but on this occasion the tortoise was just happy to eventually arrive at the top, hot, breathless and in pain but all made worthwhile by the view. The early start and long hard grind up the hill was all rewarded many times over; to
get to the natural amphitheatre at the mountain's base with just a handful of other people was a spectacular and humbling experience.
It´s a subjective call and maybe even an unnecessary one but for me Fitzroy was the most impressive of all the mountains I'd seen. The towers of Torres Del Paine had been impressive and iconic but for majesty and aesthetics it is hard to imagine Mount Fitzroy´s equal. The epic size, the sheerness of the face, the necklace of shark-toothed minor peaks, the mantle of snow and glacier all make for an awe-inspiring, mind-expanding experience.
I returned down the long but thankfully mostly downhill path to El Chalten, eat well and felt very pleased with myself. Indeed I felt positively smug when I set out for day 2's walk - Cerro Torre, by reputation a much more straightforward walk, with a more gradual ascent. "Day 1" I thought to myself as I made my way up the trail, "had been hard but not that hard". It was another warm (well wamish), sunny autumn day. After climbing up out of the valley the path opened up into a series of wide vistas with lots autumn colours just
beginning to break out amongst the greenery. Cerro Torre was often ahead, looking distant but achievable. I made good time and crested the moraine at the end of the large glacial lake at Torre´s base.
Torre stands between two glaciers that are in retreat but still sweep down on either side of the mountain and converge before ending in the lake at its base in a similar fashion to Perito Moreno. As a result the lake is thick with glacial deposits and many mini-icebergs. The terminal and lateral moraines on the three open sides of the lake are in places hundreds of metres high, testimony to what not so long ago must have been a truly enormous piece of ice. I clambered around the moraine up and round to get a closer look up into the valley towards Cerro Torre. It was a stiff clamber but bore no comparison to yesterday's climb.
Cerro Torre is neither as high or as imposing as Mount Fitzroy but in its setting, with its mantle of glaciers, it´s still pretty breathtaking. If Fitzroy is a cathedral Torre is a shard, thin and angular, a 3,000 metre, gravity-defying knife of rock. I took
my photos, explored and rested before starting to make my way back expecting a fairly straightforward stroll but then the miles in my legs from the walk up and the day before took their toll and thinking bitterly of my earlier complacency, I limped back into El Chalten, very tired after a second day of tough 8 hours walking. Footsore and in need of a beer at least I would not be making the mistake of anticipating any more easy days.
I'd been lucky with the weather and as result done the two big ticket walks on the first two days. Everything else would be a bonus. Luckily the weather remained good and I was able to spend days 3 and 4 walking quieter trails. These were still tough walks, often involving significant climbs and would often take in viewpoints to either Torre or more often Fitzroy but they were significantly less busy. The paths around El Chalten as a whole did not feel quite as busy as those of Torres Del Paine and of course when pushed for time most visitors will plump for walking the big two, and rightly so. They are great walks taking in fantastic,
iconic mountains but it was days 3 and 4 that I enjoyed the most, when you could walk in solitude by tranquil lakes, soak up the Autumn colours and turn corners or crest ridges to find new perspectives on the mountains.
It had been a great and very memorable few days. El Chalten is yet another place that despite my research and high level of anticipation has exceeded my expectations, and really you can't ask for much more from your travels than that.
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