A trek in Patagonia: walking in the shadow of Fitz Roy
I didn’t come to Patagonia in Argentina to summit Fitz Roy’s crags. Far from it. That is the beauty of Patagonia’s Santa Cruz province and its spectacular mountains and hills. There are hikes, treks, simple walks, backpacking and camping options to suit all tastes and experience. I was here for a trek that would take us on a walk in the shadow of Fitz Roy’s magnificent 11,020-foot summit.
To get to many of these hikes, you base out of El Chaltén, a tiny village that was only founded in 1985 and then just to secure the disputed border with Chile. With the dispute now over, the town has become the proclaimed “National Capital of Trekking,” allowing today’s some 1,700 residents to make their living from adventure travelers, trekking and other outdoor adventures. From this town, you can access treks and hikes on well-signed trails that are often the highlight of a trip to trek in Patagonia. Read our story, “A guide to the best of Patagonia” for more area tips.
Prior to my planned two-day backpack in Patagonia, the small group organized by Walk Patagonia had started three days earlier in El Calafate, where most people arrive since that is where flights to the area land from major cities like Buenos Aires. We were told we were “lucky” since the weather had been terrible, cold and rainy. What greeted us was spectacular blue sky, an expansive view, shining stars reflecting on Lake Argentina, and clear albeit slightly chilly temperatures. Oh, and wind. Lots of wind. Omnipresent, unceasing, inescapable, dry and strong. Ah, the wind in Patagonia, be prepared to learn to live with it on a trek there.
Balcony of Sighs
A few days after arrival, on the drive to El Chalten on Route 40 from El Calafate, we stopped to take in the spectacular view from a viewpoint known as “The Balcony of Sighs” (Le Balcón de los Suspiros). That is where the road makes a turn and, if you are lucky with the weather, you catch your first breath-sucking glimpse of Fitz Roy and family in all of their majesty. And you get blown around on the little viewing mound if you don’t watch out.
We were indeed lucky. The mountains gleamed and offered non-stop views. I could not wait to get closer. I could not wait to get on the trail, to be in the shadow of Fitz Roy, to head out on a trek in Patagonia that was to take us to the most sought-after sunrise view of the peak in the Laguna de los Tres lake. The short section of trail taking you to that view threads up an exposed area, demanding the use of trekking poles and protective gear – and then only in decent weather.
At this point, the weather forecast was bouncing around. We were to leave in the morning for a two-day, one-night backpack toward Fitz Roy for our trek in Patagonia. I tried so hard to remain optimistic, as did the others.
Good morning, rain
But the morning didn’t start well. Dark clouds filled the sky, the wind whipped, and it was drizzling a bit off and on. We packed up our gear — checking to be sure rain gear, hats and dry bags for electronics where at hand – and were soon dropped off at the trailhead at El Pilar. The occasional drizzle had turned into a steady drizzle. Hoods were pulled on. The troupe was still happy and optimistic since it wasn’t so socked in. Yet.
We headed out. Thankfully, it didn’t seem all that cold. And not too far along the first wide section of trail a rainbow popped out. Rainbows are good luck, right? RIGHT??? We hiked onward along the trail, crossing fields of grasses, rocky sections and then entered the trees, hoping the forest would block some of the wind and wet.
Not far down the trail, we stopped at a viewpoint for the Piedras Blancas lake and glacier. The drizzle had nearly stopped, and we took a break for a snack, slipped off packs, and listened as our guide Pablo explained all about glaciers, pushing the dirt around on the trail to demonstrate what moraines are and how they are formed.
The trek continued into the park, and the rain started to get serious. Nevertheless, our guide made his best effort to fulfill his guide duties of helping us understand the terrain, the geology and the mountains he obviously loved.
We trudged onward and, as the rain dumped all over our formerly optimistic selves, it became a bit of a march in the dreary shadow of Fitz Roy … which was there, somewhere, behind the clouds, I guessed. The eternal optimist, I kept looking up at the clouds, imagining I was seeing them thin. I stopped hauling out my DSLR camera for photos and wrapped it in a dry bag, relying on my smartphone for snapshots. And that I did only when I just HAD to have a photo and dared in the name of a story to take my wet and chilled hands out of my pockets for a nano-second. The pinnacle of the trip was to me the exposed hiking trail that would be up to two hours round trip but that offers THE view of Fitz Roy I had dreamed of. Having seen photos, the view on a clear day or at dawn included an indescribable reflection in the Laguna de los Tres. I had been salivating about this view for, well, months. Every muscle twitched in anticipation of my own balcony of sighs.
In the clouds of Fitz Roy
But, alas, it was not to be. The rain became a steady downpour. We were all sloshing through puddles and mud. A drippy and wind-blown mess, we arrived at Camp Poincenot, just across the small river Rio Blanco. From there, the trail I had dreamed of would take us up to The View – or was supposed to.
Pablo conferred with Zoe from Walk Patagonia about what we should do, and the prognosis was clear to all of us: We would cross the river to the lean-to hut to give Mother Nature one last chance to clear. At that point, if it remained as it was, it would be too rainy, cloudy, windy and in fact dangerous to push up the next section of trail. So we would head instead to Walk Patagonia’s seasonal base camp about 20 minutes or so away and wait out the weather. If it cleared, we could make a spontaneous decision to head up that afternoon. If it didn’t, we would hang out and hope it would clear overnight so we could go up at sunrise. The last short section to the camp was also exposed, and the rain and wind were whipping sideways as we splashed through water, creeks, and across grassy fields. I grabbed the brim of my hood and held it down over my forehead to keep it from blowing off.
After arrival, we all huddled in the unheated group dome tent, hoping against hope that gloves, pants or hats might actually dry. Ha ha ha…. The rain continued, the wind gusted. There was no evening hike in the cards. Partly because we were bored silly, pre-dinner snacks of salami, olives and cheese with Malbec wine (of course) were served pretty early. And then came a hot bowl of corn soup and a plate of pasta, both of which I just cradled to warm up my hands that were still cold several hours after arriving. Then came a birthday surprise that cheered us up – cake and a birthday song for Adria whose birthday was that day. Our guide Pablo had in fact baked this cake for him and wrapped it gingerly for the trek!
We all hit the sack pretty early, still hopeful for overnight clearing on our trek in Patagonia. I lucked out with a single tent, which is a blessing when it is so cold and rainy and all your gear is soaking wet. I could spread out my gear on a plastic bag in the muddy vestibule, hang my rain jackets and pants there, and litter the tent with other items. I could also lie there in quiet listening to the rain sheeting against the tent.
Where are you Fitz Roy on our trek in Patagonia
In the night, I awoke to what was definitely not just rain hitting the tent. In fact, it was certainly frozen rain, sleet or perhaps snow. I didn’t look. I was a bit sad since I had looked forward to this push up the mountain and The View I had heard so much about. But it is what it is. With the early morning wet and cold weather, most of us didn’t crawl out of our tents at dawn, but instead listened first to the sleet slow. But that didn’t mean the view of Fitz Roy across the Rio Blanco from the camp appeared. In fact, this was the view we had, below. No rain, but dense clouds. Sigh. Where are you Fitz Roy?
The plan was at this point to head back down the trail and toward Laguna Torre, where we would have lunch a few hours later. Not too far from our camp, the clouds thinned a bit, allowed a peak of part of Fitz Roy, and I had a shot snapped quickly before the devil hid again.
The rain had stopped, but the temperature had dropped. Granted, I get cold easily, but I had on five layers on top (no, seriously, I do not exaggerate), and three layers on the bottom. On my head, I had on the hoody part of my merino top zipped up to my chin and, over that, a wool cap, and over THAT my rain hood for wind protection. I had on one pair of dry gloves, with heat packs inside of them. My pack was as good as empty since I wore all I had! Still, the return hike was spectacular and diverse. And I could return my camera in its super accessible MindShift Ultralight camera cover to its front-and-center position to start taking photos again.
We headed toward Laguna Torre lake, which is appropriately at the base of the Laguna Torre glacier. Gradually, the weather did clear. Of course, it was still windy! But that’s a given on any trek in Patagonia. Within three hours or so we neared Laguna Torre, which is a popular one-day hike from El Chaltén. The hike into, the view of, and hike out of this lake basin turned out to be a true highlight of this trekking trip.
Although the rain ripped at us as we crested the moraine and dropped toward the lake’s shore, it was a sight for sore eyes. Icebergs bobbed around on the lake as waves pushed them around. The Laguna Torre glacier at the far end glistened in the sunlight that was trying to bust out of the clouds while the mountains above were still shrouded in clouds. We huddled up against rocks warmed in the sun and ate our lunches.
Although my hands were freezing, I scampered up the moraine and around the shoreline to snap some photos, amazed we were lunching at the edge of a lake with icebergs on it!! Even my trekking buddy Herr von Widderstein wanted to see the icebergs and lake up close.
To return from the lake to the trail back to El Chalten, there were two choices – one more difficult than the other. Both met up a short distance down the trail, merging for the trek back to town. About half the group and I chose the climb up over the moraine wanting a little “more” from the hike; without the push up to the Fitz Roy viewpoint, the entire trek was not all that strenuous, especially at our leisurely pace. This section was an interesting 10 minutes or so!! Sitting at lunch in the basin, it was windy but, as we soon found out, still protected from much of the wind. Climbing up over the exposed moraine, I could not even walk a straight line or stand up straight as the winds pummeled me around like a feather in the wind. Our guide later estimated the wind at a solid 40-50 mph! Another member of the group had to hold onto me – noting I was not exactly a heavyweight — otherwise I would have been relegated to crawling. Thank you, Steve! I wish I had video of the group staggering all over looking like a drunken bunch of bandits trying to fight the wind!
After that, the trail became pretty mellow, undulating just a bit, and the sun broke out so I was able to slowly strip out of some of my layers. Then came another highlight of our trek in Patagonia – a view that would not have been what we experienced if it had been a crystal clear day!
The cloud formations around the peaks of Cerro Torre and the other mountains in front of it changed constantly in the wind. That made it a slow hike since you kept stopping to turn around and gasp at the beauty.
The combination of clouds and rugged peaks was indeed breathtaking.
Then, finally warmed by the sun, we started hearing the sounds of the town and, before long, our trek in Patagonia in the shadow of Fitz Roy was over.
We approached the back of the sign announcing the trailhead for the Laguna Torre trail we had just finished and looked down the short hillside to town. Yes, we could all “smell the barn” as they say, not to mention a hot shower, a cold beverage, and a cozy bed. El Chaltén, however small it was and however “rustic” it was, beckoned like a luxury port in a storm.
Thanks to our guide Pablo and the organization by Walk Patagonia, our trek in Patagonia was unforgettable, although the longed-for view of Fitz Roy at dawn did not happen. The trails, the rivers, the views, the clouds were like something you will not experience elsewhere. Of course, as soon as I finished, I started plotting my return to the Southern Patagonia area. This time, knowing the unpredictable weather, I wanted to plan on a few days in El Chaltén so there would be the freedom to head out on hikes as the weather allowed. Other than the Huemul Circuit, many of these treks in Patagonia can in fact be tackled as day hikes, assuming you have the supplies, a sturdy daypack, and the legs for three to six hours of walking at a comfortable pace.
Fitz Roy may have been a bit of a tease on our trek in Patagonia, but I will be back to heed the call of those soaring crags.