El Chaltén – Hiking to Mt. Fitz Roy

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This was, hands down, one of our favorite days of the trip. And it was a day that almost didn’t happen.

The question mark about this day began upon our arrival in El Calafate. We rented our car through Localiza…which probably should have been our first clue they would speak no English. I’ve never been so thankful to speak even a small amount of Spanish. My feeble Spanish enabled me to get us through all of their explanations of the paperwork, credit card holds…routine stuff…until we came to this part of the conversation that went something like this:

Me: We can drive to El Chaltén from here?

Her: Yes, it is possible but there is no gas in El Calafate or in El Chaltén right now.

Me: No gas? At all?

Her: Well, there are two gas stations in El Calafate and there is one gas pump in El Chaltén but there is no gas. Also, you should return the tank full. If you don’t, we will charge your card to fill it but it will be much more expensive than if you do it yourself.

Uh. Huh.

We later learned that they had been out of gas for five days. The night of our arrival, much to our relief, gas did arrive in El Calafate. Rumor had it that gas lines were three hours long. Thankfully, by the time we had ended our day of hiking on Perito Moreno Glacier and returned to town that second night, the line was only about a 20 minute wait.

However, the concierge at our hotel was able to inform us that El Chaltén had still not received any gas. In theory, the 416 km round trip between the two cities should have been easily doable on one tank of gas. But we had an amazingly craptastic rental car and had no idea what the gas mileage was like. Andy tried to look it up online but only managed to learn that this was pretty much the worst car ever made. A paraphrase of the safety reviews might go something like this, “Don’t buy this car. Don’t drive this car. Ever. Don’t even sit in this car. In fact, it might be best that you not even LOOK at this car and remain 100 meters away from it at all times.”

Is this a really bad idea? Should we not be attempting this trip? Are we going to get stuck in El Chaltén for who-knows-how-long until gas reserves show up, causing us to miss our return flight back to Ushuaia…or even our return flight HOME? I’m really good at spiraling to worst case scenarios and thinking of all the people we would inconvenience (by way of making sure our kids are taken care of) should we get stuck somewhere.

Our plan was this: Buy a gas can in El Calafate to bring extra gas along. If we get into the middle of our drive and it REALLY looks like we won’t make it, we’ll turn around and head back. The whole thing will be an adventure. As for the car’s safety? We’ll just try to avoid hitting any guanaco, or rabbits, or bumps of any kind.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the song that came on our playlist as we began our drive the next morning was “We Don’t Know” by the Strumbellas; “We don’t know the roads that we’re heading down…we don’t know if we leave will we make it home”

Actually, with the extra gas can we were feeling pretty confident that we had nothing to worry about. Or maybe it was the fumes that made us high…whatever the reason, we were able to relax and enjoy the beauty of the drive:

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The most impressive peaks of the region remained cloaked in clouds but we enjoyed the rainbows and intrigue that the clouds provided as the winds drove them away from us unveiling the landscape by increments.

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Our goal was originally to do the Laguna de Los Tres hike. Estimates of the time it takes to hike  it were 5 hours each way. Concerned about whether a ten hour hike made sense in the time frame we had, we revised our plans to hike to Laguna Capri (estimated two hours each way). We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew.

The rain started just as we set out on the trail. We didn’t realize quite how quickly we were ascending until the trail opened up to views of the valley below:

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The trail soon transitioned from sweeping, open hillside to ancient forest:elchaltenforesttrail

The rain picked up intensity shortly after this. It was a steady rain but we were largely protected from the winds by the forest. We moved at a pretty good clip and the ‘two hour’ hike took us only one hour. We found ourselves facing a decision. It was grey and raining and the view of the lake was spectacularly…boring. It was boring. Well…see for yourself. I took an obligatory photo:

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Our feelings were about as muted as the color of the lake in the rain.  And this was the crossroads at which our favorite day of the trip almost didn’t take place. We weighed our options over a lengthy snack break. With all the rain, should we just head back? Are we setting ourselves up to be miserable all day? But if this only took us an hour, then maybe the estimated 5 hour hike to Laguna de Los Tres was also grossly overestimated.  And what else have we got to do? Head back down and do some lame little excuse for a “hike” like the one kilometer walk to Andean Condor Lookout in town? I didn’t want a lame-o hike, I wanted to do a real hike. The longer we stood talking over our options the colder we got. We decided, at the very least, to take the loop from Laguna Capri to the Mt. Fitz Roy Lookout. At that point the trail splits into two options, hiking back to town or continuing on to Laguna de Los Tres. We could re-evaluate when we got there.

However, once we rounded the corner where this came into view I think we both knew there was no going back. Our imaginations had been captured and we wanted to press on regardless of the rain:

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Thus far we had really lucked out with weather on our trip but today Patagonia decided to live up to all of its legendary unpredictability. The weather was as much a character in our experience as the landscape. It was as if we could watch two weather forces battling it out high above our heads. Just when we thought sunshine and blue skies were going to overtake the formidable storm clouds, wind directions would change and we would again be enveloped in the storm system. But by this point in the hike, all dampened spirits were forgotten. Perhaps the whipping winds carried them off and far away. We were caught up in the thrill of simply being there. In all of it. This was Patagonia, in all of its wonderful wildness.

We watched the kilometer markers fly by as we pushed on through ever increasing winds and rain. We had been told this trail was typically packed with people but there were precious few others braving this weather. In some of the worst of it, about 8 kilometers in, my water resistant hiking pants gave up their resistance. I began to feel water streaming down the inside of my legs and into my waterproof hiking boots from the top (a process I was defenseless to stop as I felt my formerly warm and dry feet become waterlogged from the inside.) We pressed on buffeted by high winds and horizontal rain. It was about this time that we came across an Argentine father and adult son whom we hiked with for a short while. The son commented, “They say God laughs at our plans. I think he is laughing too hard today.”  Indeed.

You might be thinking this sounds like anything but fun but it was, in fact, tremendous amounts of fun. As you can imagine, we did not take many photos. Though we passed through some stunning scenery we drank it in to our own personal memory banks…all the while I had a big, stupid grin on my face. We arrived at a refugio (a wooden shack with a table and corrugated metal roof) and took shelter from the weather. My hiking buddy from Colorado had sent a very special chocolate bar with us to be enjoyed whenever we deemed it appropriate. Taking a rest allowed our bodies to register how fatigued they had become from fighting the winds. Now seemed the time for the bacon laced chocolate bar. It was magical.

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There was one other couple in the refugio. We had seen them earlier in the day. They were Dutch and had just finished a two week trip summiting the highest peak in South America. We were somewhat shocked to hear they would not be finishing the hike. There was only 1 km left but it is very steep. They said a local guide had been there not long before we arrived who had told them the weather was supposed to get worse. Despite the fact that we were SO close to Laguna de Los Tres, they were turning back. A large part of me hated to come so close to finishing the hike and turn back, but we ultimately decided that safety had to come first. If both a local guide AND a couple highly experienced in mountaineering deemed it unsafe to continue, we would be unwise to ignore it. One consolation was knowing that, regardless of whether or not we continued, Mt. Fitz Roy had no plans of revealing itself that day. If there was going to be a huge pay off in terms of views, we might have been more tempted to take the risk in continuing. As it was, we finished our snacks, layered up, dug our gaiters out of backpacks to put on under our pants (to prevent further water drainage into boots – Andy’s brilliant idea),  and headed back out for the return trek.

elchaltenrefugio

Throughout the hike back we left the worst of the rain behind and the prevailing winds proved to be useful in quickly drying our previously water-logged pants. The battle between storms and sun returned and we had moments of sun shining down on us before it was chased away yet again. We had twinges of wondering if we just should have finished the hike but there was no way of knowing what the weather would do, or even what conditions were like farther up the mountain. We rested in our original “safety first” decision and enjoyed the views that the occasional bouts of sunshine afforded:

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Unlike Laguna Esmerelda, this trail went around the bogs rather than through:

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Somewhere in the middle of all of this I remember turning to Andy and saying, “Thank you for loving me so well. And for going on grand adventures with me.” To this he replied, “You’re welcome…and part of loving you well is making sure you have adventure in your life.”   Seriously. He’s the best.

All told, according to Strava, we hiked over 12.5 miles in 6 1/2 hours. That includes our lengthy stop by Laguna Capri, refugio stop, and photo breaks on the hike back. Not bad, especially considering I took a rather good beating when an unexpected wind gust knocked me clear off my feet. I had been standing facing the above view and enjoying a brief moment of total windless tranquility when it hit. You know in Harry Potter when someone gets hit by a “stupefy” spell and is thrown backwards? In my imagination of my fall that is what I looked like. It would have been really funny if it hadn’t hurt so badly. The return hike was significantly slower.

I can’t really think of a better ending to this incredible day than what followed. In our research of the region I read about a Wafleria in El Chaltén and that is where we feasted on some hard-earned treats. With an entire menu of savory and sweet waffle options to choose from, we ordered one savory and one sweet and shared both. I wouldn’t call these photographic genius but the food WAS genius. There is something especially good about straight up simple, hearty food after a day of physical exertion.

Steak and grilled veggies with balsamic reduction sauce:elchaltenwaffles

Dulce de Leche and Coconut:elchaltendulcedeleche

With that, we headed back to El Calafate enjoying views of Lago Argentina along the way. I love this lake of unreal blue in the middle of the desert. It looks as fake in real life as it does in the picture:elchaltenlagoargentina

Back safe and sound in El Calafate:

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