Sunday, December 2, 2007

Hiking in El Chaltén

After our two long days of bus trips (and mishaps), we arrived in the small and remote village of El Chaltén, which is at the northern edge of Los Glaciares National Park and sits at the base of Mount Fitz Roy, approximately 12,000 feet. The Fitz Roy area is an amazing (and highly photographed) series of tall point peaks that tower about glaciers and lakes. The town itself was an odd mix of having little to offer besides spectacular scenery and amazing hiking and being extremely touristy at the same time. This is the area where we pretty much stopped posting blogs since there wasn't a decent internet connection anywhere.

On our first day trek, we hiked up to Laguna Torre at the foot of Cerro Torre, which is about a 10,000 foot peak that is situated just underneath Fitz Roy . This was a really nice and scenic hike that followed along next to the Rio Fitz Roy. Before we left for our hike, we asked at our hostel about the weather forcast. The lady working at the desk told us, somewhat ominously that there is never really a forecast and no one ever knows what the weather will be. After looking at these peaks, it was clear that they pretty much make their own weather patterns. Everything we read said to "dress like an onion" and be prepared for the weather to change dramatically within a matter of minutes. So, we set off for our hike with a wide variety of clothes and layers. The weather was quite nice for the first part of the hike, so we felt like we way overestimated the elements and stopped quickly to shed a few layers. The hike ends up at a small lake (Laguna Torre) situated at the bottom of Glacier Torre. By the time we reached the lake, the weather had changed dramatically and was insanely windy, blowing between 50 and 60 mph...seriously! Actually, "windy" really doesn't do that justice. We were working hard to just to remain standing, and at several points we both felt like the wind was about to pick us up and toss us around. The lake had big icebergs floating around it, and the wind was blowing the icy water around like crazy. Supposedly, this spot has really nice views of Mount Fitz Roy on a clear day, but Fitz Roy was conspicuously hiding behind a cloud. We had planned to spend some time here and enjoy the serene glacial lake, but we made a beeline back to the trail and the shelter of the woods. Round trip, this was about a 14-mile hike (3 hours each way), so we were quite tired by the end.

The next morning, we set off to do an even longer and notoriously challenging hike to Laguna de los Tres. This hike seemed to be THE trek to do in the area and was supposed to give the most spectacular views of Fitz Roy. Round trip, it is about a 16-mile hike (4-5 hours each way) and climbs 2500 feet. Fortunately for our legs, the trail has an initial climb of 1200, is virtually flat for a while and then turns brutal and climbs another 1250 feet in only 1 km. We were pretty excited about this, but also prepared to feel like whipped puppies by the end. The hike was absolutely beautiful, and the weather seemed like it was just about perfect. The trail seemed like it was climbing at about 89 degrees, over a loose surface of sand and rocks. For every foot we gained, it seemed like we were sliding back 6 inches.

Finally, however, we reached the top. The "Laguna de los Tres" refers to the laguna at the bottom of the three main peaks in the cluster, which are Fitz Roy, Poincenot, and Saint-Exupéry. Fitz Roy, the tallest of the three, towers about 7000 feet above the lake, and yet seems like it´s close enough to touch. It´s certainly no wonder that everyone and their mothers seemed to be out on the trail to see this mountain!

On the way down, we wished we could have put on a pair of skis, gotten about 6 feet of snow, and skied down, as it would have been quite a bit easier on the knees. Instead, we labored down, and while obviously easier than going up, we had to go fairly slowly so we didn´t fall and end up a few hundred feet down the switchbacked trail. We then made great time on the rest of the walk and arrived back at the lodge around 8 pm, in plenty of time to beat the sunset, which wasn´t until 9:30 or 10.

Our last day in El Chaltén was a relatively low-key day. We had planned on doing a couple of shorter hikes to kill some time before our late afternoon bus to El Calafate, but by the time we were about to leave the ranger station for the nearby national park, the heavens opened up and the infamously rapidly changing weather struck, with torrential downpours and heavy winds. We said a quick prayer of thanks for the great weather the previous two days, and ran over to a little chocolate shop/café for some hot chocolate and lunch, where we sat and read until the weather calmed down, nearly in time for us to get to our bus in windy though dry conditions.

We boarded our bus toward El Calafate, bade farewell to El Chaltén, and 3.5 hours later, we arrived, ready to tackle the glaciers the next day. About the only thing of note on the bus trip was that we stopped at Hotel Leona, which is this little outpost that really does seem like something out of an old Western. The hotel sits in a scenic, though very isolated spot on Lago Viedma, and was apparently a hideout for Butch Cassidy in the early 1900´s. According to local legend, the gang hid out from various South American authorities for a month while waiting for things to cool down. Whether it´s true or not, who knows?

Erin and Rob, Contributing Editors.+


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