What's it like to trek in Patagonia's backcountry, well away from the regular trails? One of our most experienced trekkers tells her tale.
When you step off the bus in the tiny Argentinean town of El Chalten, you know you’ve arrived at a special place. The snow-capped Patagonian Andes tower above you and, on a clear day, the nearby Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are unmistakeable – standing like sentinels watching over the town.
There’s a distinct mountain vibe on El Chalten's main street as we stroll past shops selling outdoor gear, family-run restaurants, cafes, bars and a couple of bakeries specializing in empanadas. The drawcard for all of us is, of course, the magnificent Los Glaciers National Park. It’s the launch place for skiers, climbers, and, of course, trekkers visiting this small town with only 1,500 permanent residents.
El Chalten is a three hour drive on a sealed road from El Calafate, which is the main gateway to this part of Argentinian Patagonia. You get some idea of the scale of the mountains on the flight to El Calafate, which offers staggering views of the South Patagonia Ice Cap and glacial lakes, including Lago Argentino, South America's third largest lake after Lakes Titicaca and Buenos Aires.
I’m part of a group of trekkers who have come together to share a Patagonian backcountry hiking trip and, as we congregate at our meeting point at the designated time, I’m excited at the adventure to come. Introductions are made by the diverse group from the USA, Peru, Canada, Spain, and Australia, along with our two native Argentinean guides, unusually named Merlin and Martin. A gear check confirms we are oddly deficient of one or two items that are quickly provided by the guides, and it’s then down to the serious business of our trek briefing over a glass of some delicious Argentinean red wine.
We awake to a stunning day – cloudless and windless – atypical of Patagonia’s wild and windswept reputation. After a short drive from El Chalten, we shoulder our packs and set off on our five-day hike. We ascend through beech forest – on mossy paths strewn with twisted deadwood branches, alpine groundcover flowers, small birds and the constant glimpses of the commanding Fitz Roy spire piercing the blue sky.
With packs down and camp set, we hike to Laguna de Los Tres, smiles on all seven of our faces at the magical scene before us. The long days mean an extended period of beautiful soft late afternoon light that stretches into the late evening. The deep shadows and the soft back-lit glow give Monte Fitz Roy a surreal look, and we’re mesmerized as we watch the early evening skiers gliding effortlessly down the eastern slope, creating perfect curves in their wake. Unlike the vast majority of trekkers who have to return before dark descends fully, we have the luxury of remaining to savour the slowly fading light.
A cold night gives way to a second perfect weather day – and the site of the first rays of sun hitting the granite and snow peaks is unforgettable. With breakfast done and packs on, we’re on our way meandering along the trail between Laguna Madre (mother) and Laguna Hija (daughter) on tracks through the ancient forest. Wild ducks on the lakes are startled by our approach and flap noisily away from us in protest. As we fall into our walking rhythm, the trail banter continues, and we learn a little of each other’s lives, with our shared love for adventure and the outdoors forming the basis for developing camaraderie.
Around a corner, the Cerro Torre pinnacle comes into view and beckons us to our base camp for the night. A hasty set up of the camp, and we’re off with light loads to nearby Lake Agostin. We skirt the high ridge above its milky waters to the glacier’s edge, with its spectacular display of multicoloured ice. As wispy clouds swirl around Cerro Torre, Merlin tells us only one or two climbers succeed in reaching its summit in a season due to the extreme technical difficulty as well as the extreme weather.
On our return to camp, over hot soup, Martin briefs us on the following day’s hike, involving crossing the Rio Fitz Roy on a fixed rope followed by a 700-metre ascent to cross the pass of Agachonas (named after a type of bird endemic to Patagonia that lives only above the tree line and while not flightless prefers to walk).
The river crossing automatically separates day hikers from Patagonia's backcountry trekkers, and we’re excited to cross this frontier into the more remote region. Our guides produce pulleys and a harness they fix to the set rope, and although it’s not difficult, it is a challenge and a thrill for each of us to pull ourselves over on the line. The climb that follows is steep, and we’re walking on snow and scree, but we revel in the challenge.
Ascending the final saddle reveals a surreal panorama of our last two days walk - with expansive views of the Lago Torre, the spires of Cerro Torre, the glaciated mountain of Cero Solo and the Fitz Roy summit rising high above the ridgeline of the Techado Negro. We watch as a small avalanche tumbles down the face of Cero Solo. Lina and Dave from the US unfurl their ‘top adventure’ banner to snap a shot for their top 100 adventures quest, and we nod in agreement. Two condors simultaneously appear overhead, intently monitor our presence before disappearing, not to be seen again. Chilly gusts of wind see us huddle in behind our packs, but nothing can spoil these moments high above the tree line. We boot ski down the other side, encountering menacing loose scree to arrive at the valley floor, a wide-open meadow defined by a winding milky-coloured river streaming from the Tunnel Glacier at the head of the valley. It would be easy to assume that it derived its name from the voracious wind that blasts through the valley, but the truth is the canyon above it creates a funnel-like effect that feeds the glacier.
This wild environment will be our playground the following day when we plan to skirt the glacier and cross the Tunnel River via another high rope crossing and ascend the scree slopes and glacier leading to Windy Pass (1600m approx). All that effort will give us the sweeping view of the southern Patagonian ice field – stretching for 250 km North to South and 60 km East to West. It is to be the coveted trophy of our walk.
At evening camp, Merlin breaks the news that a weather report he’s reviewed from a porter who’s carried in fresh supplies states that the forecast for tomorrow is for winds of up to 100km p/h and some rain. It’s not surprising in this environment, but we’re all disappointed – and determined to follow his advice to stay positive.
During the night, the report proves to be true, with gale winds slamming into our relatively well-protected camp. In the morning, many of us linger in our cozy sleeping bags, understanding there’s simply no way we can undertake the day trip to Windy Pass. After a later breakfast, we don our wind and waterproof gear to take a short hike to the nearby Lake Toro. The relentless wind gusts are so strong they lift surface water from the lake and hurl it at us, drenching us as we struggle to walk forward into the wind. If you’ve ever wondered what it really feels like to be alive, it’s moments like this, with all the elements in full force. We love it!
“Welcome to the real Patagonia,” Merlin’s voice cuts across the wind. We all knew about Patagonia’s reputation for extreme weather, yet our first three days of hiking in Patagonia's backcountry had left us with an illusion of something different. Although we’re disappointed not to reach Windy Pass, we concur that a day in camp has its benefits. It means we get a more ‘theoretical education’ about Argentinean Patagonia.
We debate why the national park on this side of the Andes is devoid of mountain lodges and refugios, with rustic camping the only option for multi-day trekkers. Whatever the reason, we agree that this lack of infrastructure could well become Argentina’s unique selling point. We also come to know much more about the delicate wildlife of the region, including mountain pumas, the huemui (the native Andean deer), skunks, foxes and guanacos. We lament the erosion of the glaciers and glean knowledge about the array of rocks and the eras in which they were formed. The history of climbing in the area is also fascinating.
The wind has dropped to around 50 km p/h as we strike camp for the last time and turn our backs on Windy Pass for the walk back to El Chalten. Although we didn’t complete the loop as planned, the experience has been exhilarating, and we’ve all been touched by the beauty and quintessential wildness of the southern Patagonian region. We wouldn’t have it any other way!
Thanks to our guides Merlin and Marin for showing us your beautiful slice of nature.
Sue Badyari hiked the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre Backcountry trek in early October 2017.
Have you travelled to Patagonia? Share your experiences below.