The custom-built adventure town of El Chaltén . A by-product of the Chilean and Argentinian arms race to secure tourism sites in southern Patagonia. This Argentinian stake in the ground forms immediate access to the fortress of mountains that surround it. Fitz Roy & Cerro Torre to name a few. With strong winds and sideways rain the norm it was on a rare clear day that we set out for an adventure. Can we complete two day hikes for the price of one?
Erin and I arrived into El Chaltén late after the completion of a mammoth drive from Chile Chico. We had negotiated border crossings, traversed vast and windy deserts, gotten lost in the one and only town we went through and made a last gasp effort to reach El Chaltén by nightfall. All told we had clocked over 1000km with 100km of those in some of the rockiest roads we’d encountered to date. A celebratory meal was all we could manage before retiring for the evening in our inconspicuous campervan just off the main street.
At day break we booked a more traditional campsite and spent the day getting the lay of the mountainous land surrounding El Chaltén. Strong wind and a light rain persisted most of the day but it was good to have a ‘day off’ just getting a few niggling repairs completed after our action-packed, week-and-a-half long Carretera Austral adventure.
El Chaltén is the Argentinian hiking capital. It may as well be, there little other reason for its existence! I don’t mean this as an insult just referring to facts. In 1985 Argentina won a border dispute with Chile claiming this rainy, cold and windwept valley as it’s own and in the process securing tourism access to the mighty spires of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy, among others. With a pop-up gas station which rarely has gas, one ATM which rarely has cash, one supermarket and yet about 50 laundry services and pizza restaurants, El Chaltén is as unique as it is inconvenient!
Cerro Torre vs Cerro Fitz Roy hike from El Chaltén
After our car being rocked by wind and rain all night it was a surprise to wake to clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. Decision time, we needed to make the most of our one, possibly two, days hiking set aside for El Chaltén. We eventually decided on the Cerro Torre hike first over the more popular Cerro Fitz Roy. Cerro Torre is rarely seen due to being shrouded in cloud. Still Fitz Roy is also supposedly a pretty epic mountain view. A further scan of the hiking map revealed a connecting trail between the two routes. Perfect! We could do both on this splendid sunny day. Vamos!
The pace was quick early on and we passed a number of groups. There were a lot more hikers on the trail than we’d been used to. Still it was pretty empty and we ate up the trail quickly, passing through forests and alongside rushing streams which were turned green having been mixed with tiny specks of moraine, granite crushed to powder under the weight of tonnes of glacial ice.
Cerro Torre stands at 3,128m on the edge of the southern Patagonian ice field. Its first recognised ascent was in 1975 by an Italian expedition after some dubious previous attempts had claimed the summit without reaching the top of the unique mushroom shaped ‘true’ summit. For mere mortals however, the hiking trail simply provides views of Cerro Torre and it’s neighbouring peaks from the comfort of a glacial lake.
It was an undulating track for the entire 9 kilometres it took to get to the Cerro Torres mirador. Overlooking the large lake we had an almost perfect view of the Cerro Torres spires while enjoying a morning tea of an apple and a muesli bar. A light breeze coming off the glacier cooled our bodies down after the fast march from town.
Time for Fitz Roy
Returning down the Cerro Torre valley we quickly reached the trail junction that connected to the Fitz Roy trail. We had mentally committed to Fitz Roy by this point so we just continued that way without discussion. Immediately the trail climbed for 30 minutes or more, far more than we’d had on any section of the Cerro Torre trail. It was a lot less populated, we only passed two or three people before reaching the first of the two lakes. Known and Laguna Madre (mother) and Laguna Hija (daughter) lake the mother lake metaphorically fed into the daughter lake ending an alpine lagoon. As we reached the mother lake, Cerro Fitz Roy began to come into view. Still not a cloud in the sky and glaciers could be clearly seen draped across the underside of the peak.
Cerro Fitz Roy in contrast to Cerro Torre sits at 3,405m and was first climbed in 1952. It was discovered by Argentine Explorer Francisco Moreno (of Perito Moreno fame) and named after Robert FitzRoy who captained the HMS Beagle, the same ship Charles Darwin sailed on his evolutionary escapades, much of which was along the Patagonian coast. It is still regarded as one of the most technically difficult mountains in the world to climb.
We met the main Fitz Roy trail at a familiar rushing stream and followed this until it reached the final ascent. Signs indicated some warnings about being physically fit to continue and to not attempt the ascent after 5pm. It was 1km to the top, with and ascent of some 500m. My calculations say that is a 45-degree angle! We’d already covered 21km today, the legs would definitely start to feel this!
The final 1km push to Fitz Roy
Large groups were coming down the mountain so it was difficult to progress freely. Fitz Roy is the most popular hike in El Chaltén. Most looked relieved to be descending, many were still wrapped up warmly from the lookout. The trail was a mix of boulders and roughly made stairs using the available rocks. Our hike thus far had revealed Argentina spend more effort on trail markings and maintenance than their Chilean neighbours, we even passed a work crew fixing up one particularly slippery gravel section by cutting in some stairs.
But it was a hard slog, large stairs on a zig-zagging trail led ever upwards, we rounded a bend which looked to be the top only to reveal a flat section leading to perhaps the steepest part of the climb and on loose gravel! The wind had picked up and during the entire ascent the face of Fitz Roy had hidden from view, we were waiting for the big reveal.
Cresting the top of the rocky ridge we got the view we’d been waiting for, a large blue lake with multiple jagged spires etched into the bright blue sky. A glacier ran down to the lake which, if it wasn’t so cold, would make a lovely swimming hole. The wind was strong but compared to most days this was mild and we sat and recovered from the climb until the chill of the air seeped through our clothing.
The push to the summit was motivated by the expectation of this view. We now had the return journey, some 12km to our campground making the days efforts over 33km! The only motivation the promise of a warm shower, a hearty meal and a cosy bed! And, despite the scenery being similar to the ascent we were blinker focused on just getting down as quick as possible.
How to do the double
The Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy ‘double’ as we like to call it is a long but surprisingly doable day hike if you too get a patch of good weather during your visit to El Chaltén. It is long but the final kilometre of Fitz Roy is the only real challenging section. You can top up on fresh water along the way but take a good amount of food to keep energy levels up. While it may seem logical to get the more difficult Cerro Fitz Roy first, the hike towards Fitz Roy from the adjoining Cerro Torre trail (past the mother and aughter lake) allows long interrupted views of Fitz Roy as you approach, more than you will get on the Fitz Roy trail itself. Just remember you will have the hardest part of the day after 20km of hiking!
Enjoy your stay in El Chaltén, it is a unique town custom-built for hiking in one of the few places you can walk direct from town and be in the wilderness in minutes.