El Chaltén

Posted by on Mar 10, 2014

El Chaltén
Coodinates:  49°19’44” South   72°55’48” West


C haltén is this little hamlet 90km off the famous Ruta 40 that traverses western Argentina, crossing thousands of kilometres of bleak and windswept Patagonia in its southern reaches. For seven months of the year Chaltén is locked in snow and idles with a skeleton crew off the tourist map lying frozen and forgotten beyond the boundaries of mobile phone coverage. For five months each year this world of moraines and glaciers opens to the droves to tourists – mainly Israelis – who plough the standard route from Torres del Paine in Chile through El Calafate to Chaltén and the north. It is a world renowned destination for mountain climbers who wait weeks for windows of clement weather in which to pit their spikes against the rock faces and challenging summits which abound in the area. But El Chaltén’s primary attraction is the spectacular Mount Fitz Roy, a truly breath taking series of rock towers which surge to over 3,000 meters which, when not covered in cloud, can be seen from numerous different angles for many kilometres around.


 The morning light on the sand coloured stone etched the rugged and weathered face of the rock into sharp relief against the blue sky while the bank of cloud behind the Torres glowed a brilliant white sending tongues of white fire lapping at the base of the Torres.


To save money, I hitch-hiked from El Calafate to El Chaltén, a distance of some 220km and waited only 10 minutes in total before a family en route to Río Gallegos took me from El Calafate to the crossroads of the Ruta 40 where after just five minutes I was again picked up by a group of three people doing a day trip to El Chaltén who took me the rest of the way. It was faster than a bus and less than one 170th of the price! I arrived at a hostel that had been completely overrun by Israelis who would talk in large groups, or take over the kitchen for hours at a time as they cooked endless rounds of sausages and chips and yelled amongst themselves in dull roar. Individually they are polite and mildly interesting but in groups which seems to be their preferred modality its something like an unapproachable rabble of geese at feeding time.


I hiked to the Fitz Roy with a guy from Germany who I’d met at the hostel in El Calafate. On the first day we visited the Laguna Torre but didn’t see the mountain itself due to cloud cover. We moved on to the camp ground of Poincenot at the base of the mirador of the Fitz Roy and once again the mountain alluded us. As we walked into the valley we saw were it should be, but there was only white nothingness which soon brought flecks of snow to accompany the ever present cold wind. Having set up camp, cooked and eaten by about 7:30 we went to bed to escape the cold! Whoohoo,  7:30pm! I was equipped but the conditions pushed what I had to the limit. My sleeping bag is not amazing and I was renting a tent – mercifully there was little wind but even so I wore everything I had! Like everything, just imagine.


We were rewarded the next morning with a spectacular view of Mount Fitz Roy, resplendent in the morning sun and wrapped mysteriously – as these rocky towers so often are – in a mantle of cloud which wound its way through the Torres before dissipating as though the Torres themselves were the boundary between two weather systems. Throughout the morning a large bank of cloud could be seen behind the Torres threatening to envelope them at any moment only to dissipate as it crossed the ‘threshold’. The morning light on the sand coloured stone etched the rugged and weathered face of the rock into sharp relief against the blue sky while the bank of cloud behind the Torres glowed a brilliant white sending tongues of white fire lapping at the base of the Torres. We climbed the steep rocky path to the laguna at the base of the Torres at marvelled at the moraines, the small glaciers and a panorama of the valley looking back towards Chaltén.



As we descended the hoards began to arrive from Chaltén making me glad we had seen the Fitz Roy in a rare sunny window without much wind and before the crowds. Clouds began looming as the day progressed and in an attempt to push our luck we decided to retrace our steps from the day before and camp near Cerro Torre which we had not been able to see but by the time we arrived the clouds had once again claimed the view and we resigned ourselves to rice and lentils and a windy early night. The wind brought the rain and by next morning the temperature had dropped and the campsite was wet. We left in a hurry and walked the last 2.5 hours in the freezing wind and rain at which point I appreciated my windproof, water-resistant breathable thermal jacket although by the time we arrived back in El Chaltén water was beginning to get through the membrane. Bliss is a hot shower and a bed in a heated dorm! Despite the diabolical weather on the last day, I count myself lucky to have seen the Fitz Roy in all its glory in a brief window of clement weather having heard tales of those who waited more than a week without luck to see the remarkable landmark.

Our luck ran out in El Chaltén when we found out that all busses north were booked out for four days meaning we had to stay in a rainy and cold Chaltén for three more days but at leat this gave us the opportunity to write for our respective blogs and rest. There are worse place to be stuck for a few days!