Late March to early April.
While Ushuaia is the physical and symbolic destination for our American Cordillera bikepacking journey, El Chalten has perhaps been the spiritual goal. If there is one location that we have remained continually excited to finally see – and spend some time at – it’s the mountains of Los Glaciares National Park which include the mythical Cerro Torre and the magnificent Monte Fitz Roy/Cerro Chalten.
El Chalten is the base town for hiking and climbing within the ranges and is a place we have both long dreamed of visiting and held in our imaginations continually as we’ve cycled south. For both of us, this is our first time in southern Patagonia. For me, the word ‘Patagonia’ has always conjured images of sheer granite peaks, vast glaciers, fiords and forests. Of course it’s so much more than that, but to finally reach the place that might be considered ‘classic’ Patagonia has been exciting, and it has exceeded our expectations. It’s one thing to see these famous mountains in film and photograph, but to experience them glowing in the twilight or lost in swirling cloud and to feel the freezing wind howl down from their distant ridges is another thing entirely.
This post departs from my usual narrative style, and instead I’ll mostly let the photos do the talking, but first, here’s a brief summary of how we spent our 18 days based in El Chalten:
We arrived two days into a rare four or five day fine spell, which was the first such stable weather of the summer. The weather is notoriously wild here – the wind in particular – with fine spells generally being counted in hours rather than days. But autumn does have a reputation for better weather, and we’d timed our ride to arrive at this time.
To make the best use of the weather we hired packs right away and set off to walk a circuit that included Laguna Torre, Campamento Poincenot, and Laguna de los Tres. Cerro Torre is the hardest mountain here to see, because it’s closer to the ice cap and is often swallowed by cloud, while Fitz Roy remains visible. So we decided to tick this one off first, initially heading in to Campamento Agostini. From camp in the beech forest it’s just a 10 minute walk to the lake shore opposite Cerro Torre. We spent one night at the camp, and the next day made the easy hike around to Campamento Poincenot, which made a good base for the predawn walk up to Laguna de los Tres, where there is a panoramic view of the Fitz Roy range. We ended up doing this hike two mornings in a row because on the first there was no good light and it was too windy to shoot.
We walked out on day four, after photographing that morning and scrambling as high as we could without proper gear up Cerro Madsen, a bump alongside the Fitz Roy range. Then the weather stormed for five days while we waited patiently for a clearance. Our next goal was to do the four day Huemul Circuit, which crosses two passes and provides incredible views of the Viedma Glacier. The crux of this objective was the requirement for a reasonably calm day for crossing Paso de Viento (Pass of the Wind!). There was only one obviously calm, clear day due in the next four days, so we walked in (along with around 35 other people) to the first camp on a cold day of light drizzle and snow, so to be crossing the pass on the best day. That worked out perfectly and we had a fantastic four days of transalpine tramping and mind blowing scenery.
After resting a couple of days we filled the remainder of our time there with an early morning shoot at Cascada Escondida (Hidden Falls) and then made a final overnight trip to camp near the treeline below Loma del Pliegue Tumbado. By this time the autumn colours were in full display, with the beech forest turning spectacular hues of red and orange in great swathes across the valleys.
Without setting foot on the actual peaks, there are so many tempting places to explore in the foothills and surroundings we easily could have stayed another fortnight, but Ushuaia does call.
A view of El Chalten and the ranges lost in cloud, from bluffs above the Rio de Las Vueltas.
Cerro Torre and the night sky reflected in Laguna Torre. It was incredible to be here alone, photographing on a relatively warm, windless night. I spent about two hours after sunset and then went back again an hour before dawn.
Dawn was equally calm, and I again enjoyed the solitude for a while until the first twilight crept onto the peaks.
Cerro Torre (3102m), Torre Egger (2850m) and Aguja Standhardt (2730m).
It’s taken over 50,000km of cycling and nearly seven years since we started to get here!
The steep track up to Laguna de los Tres; the beech forest already resplendent.
On the second attempt at a predawn photography session at Laguna de los Tres we got perfect calm.
Fitz Roy Range reflected in the lake.
Aguja Poincenot (3002m) and Monte Fitz Roy/Cerro Chalten (3405m).
Still calm, even after the sun came up.
Another view of Poincenot, from the previous windy morning.
Lagunas Soucia and de los Tres, below the Fitz Roy Range. The previous day we’d tried to walk into Laguna Soucia and were nearly blown off our feet. It was impossible to move up the valley in the wind.
Hana scrambling up Cerro Madsen (1806m) which sits 500-odd metres higher that Laguna de los Tres (to Hana’s right). We climbed as high as we could without axes, crampons and helmets and got some amazing views.
A stormy few days brought snow and hastened the changing colours as we walked in to Campamento Toro for the Huemul Circuit.
In the valley close to Campamento Toro.
Early morning on day two of the Huemul Circuit, on the glacier worn rock above Laguna Túnel.
There are two pre-rigged tyrolean traverses set up to cross rivers on the route. Like most trekkers, we rented harnesses and carabiners in town for these.
Above Glaciar Río Túnel Inferior. The route followed the base of the towering moraine wall on the left for a while and it was dangerously unstable after heavy rain, a freeze and then morning sun. We got onto the edge of the glacier as soon as possible.
A big climb led to Paso del Viento (1400m) and a view of upper Viedma Glacier and the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, a place so vast that it was hard to comprehend. We might as well have been in Antarctica.
We spent over an hour on the pass, soaking it all up and the continued to camp at Campamento Paso del Viento, where there’s an old research refugio.
In camp along with 23 other tents. A bit busier than our usual camp sites, and a good deal colder.
Clouds above the ice cap glowing in the first light of dawn.
From Paso Huemul (crossed on day three) we walked along a ridge for a spectacular view over the terminal of the Viedma Glacier and Lago Viedma.
Looking roughly south east over Lago Viedma.
Dropping off Paso Huemul towards the steep bluff descent to Bahia de los Tempanos.
Our final camp on the route. Like most of our camps here, there’s a big rat problem, so all food has to be hung in trees. Our tent has suffered quite a few holes!
Twilight warming the peaks of the Fitz Roy Range above Cascada Escondida.
View of Cerro Torre from our camp on Loma del Pliegue Tumbado.
Our final overnighter in the park coincided with a full moon, which rose shortly after the sun set, casting surreal shadows onto the partially lit landscape.
The light of moonset in the predawn was also surreal.
A storm was beginning to blow in off the icecap, but while the top of the peaks were lost in cloud, the light before sunrise was extraordinary.
And in the sunlight the valley floor was alive with colour.
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