El Chaltén, Argentina
Traveling on the shoulder of the season was a great way to save money and avoid crowds, but what was most striking about traveling in Patagonia at the end of winter were the cold winter landscapes. Dead trees brought a sense of sadness to forests, while hints of spring popped up in the most unexpected places.
After traveling from the Argentina to Chile and then back to Argentina, I reached what I considered to be the highlight of my travels in Patagonia. El Chaltén, Argentina, is a tiny mountain village nestled at the base of the Cerro Fitz Roy mountains. With fewer than 1000 residents, El Chaltén depends completely on the trekkers and tourists who come to explore and see Fitz Roy. Founded in 1985, El Chaltén felt brand new and totally rural at the same time. Somehow, I wasn't surprised to find a cat hanging out in the dairy section of one of the village's two miniature grocery stores.
Chorillo del Salto
Weeks of paid excursions, buses, and boats left me starving for independence. I was aching to hike on my own schedule and photograph a sunrise and a sunset. Thankfully, El Chaltén was the perfect place for that. All of the hiking trails in Los Glaciares National Park were free and about a 20 minute walk from my little cabin. I arrived in El Chaltén by bus around midday, leaving about 5-6 hours for hiking that day.
One of the easier hikes listed on my map was the hike to Chorillo del Salto waterfall. My heavy camera backpack made every hike a little harder than it should be, but it was totally worth it.
After spending some time at the base of the waterfall, I noticed the silhouette of a hiker at the waterfall's mouth. It looked impossibly high, dangerous, and totally fun. The trail to the top of the waterfall was not official, nor was it marked, but that couldn't stop me. I spent most of the climb on all fours, leaning my weight into the mountain to keep from toppling backwards. I made it to the top, and the height made my stomach turn. It was difficult to see over the rounded edge of the cliff, so I got down on my stomach and scooted to the edge.
Mirador de los Cóndores
The natives originally named elusive Fitz Roy the "smoking mountain," thanks to the clouds that perpetually hover around its peak. I read dozens of accounts from tourists traveling across the world to see this incredible mountain, only to spend days battling rain and thick cloud cover. Many had to leave El Chaltén hoping the see the mountain, just once, from the plane. As with the rest of the trip, I prepared for the worst. After weeks of unbelievably good weather, I was sure that my luck would run out in El Chaltén. Thankfully I was wrong, so I hurried back to town to take the trail to the Mirador de los Cóndores to see my first Patagonian sunset. Even on this crystal clear evening, the mountain hid behind puffy clouds. The first day's hike totaled at 12 kilometers and ended with a quiet sunset.
Tales of a 30 Km Hike
Determined to catch a sunrise, I set my alarm for 5am and went to sleep early. My goal was to hike to Laguna Capri, a "two hour hike uphill" according to my map. Taking only the most important camera gear and snacks, I hit the trails in pitch darkness around 6am. My flashlight was pitiful, but managed to keep me on the dusty trail up the mountain. With no moon and dim starlight, it was impossible to see more than 2-3 feet ahead of me. The night air was freezing cold, but layers of clothing and the effort of the hike kept me warm. I was surrounded by shadows of dead trees and total silence, there weren't even any bugs. After about an hour of hiking in the dead of night, the sky grew pink, birds started chirping, and I could sort of see the trail without my flashlight. Relieved, I put my flashlight away and picked up the pace. The sun was far from peeking above the horizon, but I had a feeling that this hike was going to be much longer than I expected.
The water in the park is safe to drink, there are even signs warning against washing dishes or yourself in the rivers. The park officials take great care to make sure the water stays clean and safe, so for the first time in my life I knelt at the edge of fast moving stream and took a sip. The icy water tasted so fresh and perfect, it was like being in a fairytale.
I caught a glimpse of the tip of Fitz Roy through the trees, it was already pink! I looked at my map and identified the stream I just passed and discovered I was only halfway to my destination. I charged up the mountain. After 3 hours of hiking up 1200 feet in elevation, I finally made it to the first lookout point, soaked in sweat. My body was warm, so I didn't realize how cold it was until I tried to use my lip balm and discovered it was frozen solid. The fierce orange changed to an icy stone color as I hiked from the lookout point to the lagoon.
The absolutely perfect sky was free of clouds and the air started to get warmer. I removed a couple of layers and looked at a map. After 3 and a half hours of hiking it was only 9:30am. The trails were completely empty and I had an entire day ahead of me. I calculated that I could hike until about 2pm before I would need to turn around and hike back to town and arrive before dark. Over the next 3 hours I pushed forward on the trails surrounded by haunting silver trees.
I had been hiking for 5 hours without seeing a soul, so when a young couple came hiking up the path we struck up conversation. They started their hike about 3 hours after I did and they had already caught up to me. Talking helped distract me from my tired feet and their pace was so much faster than mine that they helped me cover much more ground without even realizing it. Time sped by and I realized we were at the end of the safe, relatively flat trail.
From there was a path marked with exclamation points, danger signs, and strong recommendations to not continue. My new friends looked up at the trail to Laguna de los Tres and said it was no big deal; they were just going to go to the top and come back. The map indicated the trail would take them from 1200 in elevation to 2500 feet. They went ahead and I plodded along at my own pace. I only had an hour left before I absolutely had to turn back and I had no idea how far I would make it. There were more warning signs: 'for experienced trekkers only' 'very dangerous when windy or rainy.' I was not an experienced trekker, but it wasn't windy or rainy either. After only 10 minutes, I hid my camera backpack and tripod in the woods and continued with just my camera, a banana and a water bottle.
Free of the extra weight, I felt refreshed...for about 10 minutes. The trail had about a 45 degree incline and was not fun. The rocks were huge and uneven and no matter how far I climbed, the top didn't seem to get any closer. I took a couple of breaks, cursing exhaustion and the height of the mountain. I played in the snow for a bit and then came to a place in the trail that actually showed the rest of the path.
I looked up..."Absolutely not."
Eventually my pleasant 45 degree incline would be replaced by a 60+ degree incline for the rest of the snow covered trail. There was no sign of my friends, apparently they had already passed over the top of the mountain like super heroes. The top of the mountain stood there, teasing me. It looked like a reasonable height, but that incline...I only had half an hour left to get to the top before I had to turn back.
I spent several minutes trying to convince myself to give up and turn around. Finally, I decided to sprint up the mountain for half an hour and give up if I hadn't gotten to the top by then. I had a renewed sense of power, drive, energy. It was steep and rocky, but not too bad. Things got complicated when I got to the first huge patch of snow. There were no rocky places to get stable footing, so I followed the footprints from previous trekkers. I was ok until I noticed an enormous hole where a trekker's foot fell 3 feet deep into the snow. I proceeded carefully.
The path got much steeper, I used both hands and feet to hold onto rocks and scramble up the mountain. Patches of thick snow alternated with insanely steep slopes made of unstable rocks and muddy silt. I was crawling, grabbing onto the snow with my bare hands. I was so pumped with fear and determination that I couldn't even feel the sting of the ice. The top of the ridge looked so close, I took photos every couple of minutes to check the time on my camera.
To my dismay, it was an illusion. The 'top of the ridge' was just an overhang that hid the real top. I stood there, exhausted. I wanted that panoramic photo and it was so close! It wasn't as close as I had thought, but I could do this. I checked the time...15 minutes. I was encouraged with how far I got in 15 minutes and calculated that I could probably reach the top within my time limit and kept climbing.
The path started getting really scary. By "path" I mean "row of yellow sticks poking out of abnormally high piles of snow and sharp rocks." I repeated mantras aloud: "You can do this" turned into "you are insane" to "SO close!" I was out of breath, completely and utterly terrified, and totally determined to get to the top. My water bottle and banana fell out of my sweater pocket over and over. Eventually, I lost the banana completely and when my water bottle fell for a 7th time, I left it behind.
I'm not even sure how to describe the last 5-10 minutes of the climb. I couldn't look down without getting sick from the height, and I couldn't look up without getting aggravated at the top of the mountain. I stared ahead of me at each rock and patch of snow I grabbed. It was so steep that I had to kick the wall of snow to make a place for me to put my weight before taking another step. Rocks slipped out from under me and holes in the snow made me terrified to continue trying my luck. All I wanted was to get to the top and go home.
I made it. Finally I could see Fitz Roy, closer than I ever hoped it could be. The rush of finally arriving was washed away by the realization that the path still wasn't over. Ahead of me was a valley that, to my exhausted and terrified eyes, looked miles wide. On the edge of the next ridge I saw two tiny dots, my new friends.
I was out of time and couldn't go one more step. I turned back towards the path and immediately burst into tears. All I wanted was to get down from there. I sat on a pile of snow and slid my way down most of the mountain. It wasn't a perfect solution, but I was able to collect my water bottle and banana on the way down. My hands were red and numb.
I finally stopped sobbing and collected myself. My jeans were soaked, but I was too pumped with adrenaline to care. I reached the place in the trail where I left my dry ski pants and changed. After a couple of minutes I saw my friends coming down the mountain. They called out, thanking me for my "butt trails." They had apparently used them as guides for sliding down the mountain in their waterproof trousers. I asked them how they got so far and they replied "Oh, it was only five minutes from the first ridge." When I asked them how the trip up the mountain was they replied "nice, fun."
We walked together down the mountain. It was so much faster, especially with them chatting. I picked up my backpack and tripod on the way down, and we hiked together all the way back to the first lake where I took pictures in the morning. On the way back, some hikers asked if the trail was really as bad as the park rangers said, my friends answered "Oh no it's really fine! Just be careful, there is snow and sometimes you have to go off the path. It's very beautiful."
Apparently, running up a dangerous trail alone, with no trekking experience and with a strict time limit distorts the experience....a lot. The entire hike totaled at about 30 kilometers, the longest hike I've ever done in one day. I would do it again in a heartbeat.