A trekker’s paradise – El Chalten

19 May

“The pink and purple sunset was quickly being engulfed by darkness as I raced along the path, my back soaked in sweat and my breathing becoming heavy. I cursed as I tripped over yet another tree root and went flying forward. I was now completely alone on the trail. All of the other day walkers, including Dan, had long gone and were probably tucking into good food and sipping cold beers back in the village of El Chalten. Not having a torch meant that I’d soon find it difficult to see my own hand in front of my face. The full moon would occasionally reveal itself through the trees above, showing me the faint outline of the path, however it would also cast eery shadows through the valley and cause my imagination to run wild, picturing ravenous beasts and mad men around every turn!”

You may be reading this thinking it’s the first chapter from the latest Stephen King horror, however this was actually my diary entry for our last day in El Chalten. On day 3 we trekked to Laguna de los Tres but on arriving at the summit the heavens opened obscuring our views and soaking us to the skin.

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Gale force gusts threatened to push us off the mountain and as we hid behind a large rock for shelter we felt mixed emotions – pride for making it to the top but despondent that the weather had been so cruel to us.

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The following day we trekked to Glacier Piedras Blancas. On the way back, the skies cleared offering excellent views of the Fitz Roy massif and in a split second I decided to take advantage of the near perfect conditions and climb to the summit again.

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Not surprisingly (!) Dan didn’t fancy the climb for a second time so as I was happy to climb alone we agreed that I’d meet Dan back in the village for a beer at 7.30pm. It was 4.00pm so I had plenty of time to make the climb and get back for our rendezvous. The climb went well and Laguna de los Tres was simply magnificent – a world away from the previous day.

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After taking many photos I started my descent at 6.00pm and passed through Camp Poicenot at around 6.30pm – still in reasonably good time for the planned beer with Dan – however that’s when things started to go horribly wrong. In my hurry to get back to the village, I took a wrong turn and ended up on a back-country route linking the park’s two main peaks – Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. By the time I realised I had taken the wrong path, I’d gone so far my stubbourness prevented me form turning around and it took me 3 stressful hours to find my way back and I was very aware that if anything were to happen on the trail, something as minor as a sprained ankle, I might lay there all evening as nobody knew I was in this section of the park. As I eventually neared the village, I saw the lights of a helicopter flying above me in the darkness and I wondered if the rescue teams were out looking for me already. It was nearly 9.30pm when I reached the bar where Dan still sat waiting and a huge feeling of relief washed over me. Dan was a little tipsy and hugely worried but greeted me with a big hug and a large beer which soon helped my heart beat return to normal.

Would I do it all again knowing that I’d take the wrong trail and end up helplessly lost in the dark?? Without a doubt! The views across Laguna de los Tres and up to Cerro Fitz Roy that day were more than worth it!

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El Chalten was founded in 1985 on the Northern edge of Los Glaciers National Park following a border dispute with Chile, and has grown slowly with a permanent population of around 2,000, which almost doubles in Summer. Declared Argentina’s trekking capital, the area combines mountains, lakes, woodlands and glaciers and is blessed with spectacular scenery.

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Climbers from all corners of the globe come here to climb the world-famous peaks and in particular the highest and most iconic Cerro Fitz Roy at 3,441 metres high. The village also offers a range of activities such as hiking, camping, mountain biking and horse riding. The village is nearly 5 hours drive from its nearest neighbour and this remoteness has meant El Chalten has looked from within for creativity and locals have used their entrepreneurial nature to fill their village with excellent amenities like artesan boutiques, bakeries, restaurants, a micro-brewery and a wine tasting shop.

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It is possible to complete a 3 or 4 day semi-circular trek from El Pilar to El Chalten taking in Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre by camping in the designated free sites. However, we decided to base ourselves in the village and see the same sights by completing day hikes and returning each evening to take advantage of the facilities offered in the village – namely the beer and wine!

Day 1 – Mirador de los Condores and Mirador de las Aguilas

We decided to take a smaller hike on the first day to give our legs a chance to warm up. The 1 hour climb to Mirador de los Condores starts at the entrance to the village, just behind the park headquarters. The steep climb rewarded us with immense views of the mountains and put into perspective the sheer size of the range. We were really excited to take a closer look.

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Mirador de las Aguilas is a further 30 minute walk along an undulating path and offers equally as spectacular views away from the mountains and across the vast expanse of desert.

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The drive to reach El Chalten is across a dry and barren landscape. Dusty orange coloured sand stretches out in every direction and vehicles leave a dust storm in their path. Huge Lago Viedma is a blue oasis in the surrounding desert.

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Day 2 – Laguna Torre

The initial steep climb from the village eventually flattens out into an easy walk across open park land and gorgeous vistas.

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Twisted and scorched trees framed the immense mountains as we approached.

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The final part of the trail follows the curve of pretty Rio Fitz Roy and up a small rocky incline to the lagoon.

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As we arrived the wind was blowing hard and cold across the glacier face, ruffling the lagoon and making it look like an unmade bed of water. Mini icebergs bobbed up and down and particles of ice made whirlwinds in the air above the glacier. We pulled our fleeces on and zipped them up around our necks, admiring the scene before us.

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Cerro Torre looked like giant fingers of rock stretching to the heavens with a mushroom of snow and ice precariously balanced at the peak. White clouds hung around the highest towers jostling for position like groupies of a famous ‘rock’ (pardon the pun) band. A young German couple passed a giant ice-cube between them which they had fished out from the side of the lagoon. Their lips turned bright pink as they took pictures of each other sucking on the ice. After 20 minutes, the wind dropped suddenly and a feeling of calmness descended all around.

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We hiked around the tall scree banks of the lagoon to Mirador Maestri where we had an excellent close up panorama of the glacier.

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We were fascinated to read that just a year earlier, two young American climbers, Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruck had successfully reached the summit of Cerro Torre in an impressive 13 hours but when they returned to the village they were promptly arrested and the news of their actions whilst on mountain caused shock waves in the climbing community.

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The story unfolded that in 1970 an Italian climber called Cesare Maestri made his second attempt to climb Cerro Torre and on his way up he carried a petrol driven compressed air drill and placed 400 bolts into the mountain. Many purist climbers believed that Maestri had ruined the mountain, taking away the challenge of scaling it naturally. This viewpoint was also held by the two Americans and after climbing the mountain using a different route they descended on the Compressor Route and painstakingly removed 125 bolts and carried them off the mountain. Many argued that these actions would prevent lesser climbers from reaching the summit of Cerro Torre whilst others praised them for returning the mountain to its virgin state. It was certainly a bold course of action by the American climbers and demonstrated the power of their beliefs! All we really wanted as we left the mountain was a glass of wine and a large pizza so the thought of having to face the police for our convictions was certainly too much for us!!

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Day 3 & 4 – Glacier Piedras Blancas and Laguna de los Tres

The path from the village meanders gently up through gorgeous woodland and on the initial part of the climb we were rewarded with excellent views over the Rio de las Vueltas riverbed.

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After an hour of walking the path splits in two with the first route offering the first spectacular view of Fitz Roy massif and the second route skirting around Luguna Capri whose clear, calm waters reflect the towering peaks. As we were completing this trek in a day we were able to walk one way and return the other.

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Once we cleared the lower level forest, the path continued through flatter shrubland and across small streams and boggy patches until Campamento Poicenot, where many trekkers choose to base themselves to make the climb to Laguna de los Tres for sunrise.

We made an excellent side trip from here to Glacier Piedras Blancas which added about an hour to our walk. On the way to the glacier through pretty woodland we came across two woodpeckers with distinctive black and red feathers. The noise of their beaks hammering against the trees echoed around the woodland and we thought that they must have headaches by the end of the day.

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The glacier hung from the base of a mountain and cascaded down into a chalky blue lagoon. A small waterfall gushed from the side of the glacier and hit the rocks below with a dramatic plume of water spray.

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It was at this point on the fourth day that the weather suddenly cleared and I made the decision to climb to the summit of Laguna de Los Tres for a second time. After retracing our steps to Campamento Poicenot, we said our goodbyes, Dan headed back to the village and I took the bridge across pretty Rio Blanco. From there the steep one hour-long uphill slog commenced. A ridge obscured the views as I climbed so I quietly prayed that the clouds hadn’t rolled in at the top but I wasn’t disappointed – second time lucky the views were simply amazing!!

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Laguna de los Tres means ‘Lake of Three’ in Spanish and surrounding the turquoise lake stood Fitz Roy, the Poincenot and the Torre. As I stood in the bowl at the base of the mountains the sun was shining and the air was calm.

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Apart from a couple of other trekkers I had the summit to myself and I reflected that we had indeed experienced a little piece of trekking paradise.

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