We depart El Calafate on a public bus. It is several hours on the road to El Chalten. The route takes us along Lago Argentino and then Lago Viedma. I am overwhelmed with the sight of the steppe, these enormous lakes, the emptiness, and the mountains visible north to south for hundreds of miles. It’s not something we’re used to in North America. As before, it looks like the American West, so desolate and dry. Except for no vehicles on the road.
El Chalten is a frontier town. It was established in the 1980s by Argentina to resolve a border dispute. It sits underneath two of the world’s coveted climbing prizes, 10,262 ft Cerro Torre and 11,070 Cerro Fitz Roy. These vertical fangs are renowned for vertical difficulty combined with abominable weather. They’ve claimed a lot of lives. The town is renowned as one of the windiest in the world, and we are about to experience it for ourselves. It’s not cold right now. But the wind is supposed to be epic. It sits at the gateway to the north entrance to Los Glaciers National Park. El Calafate was at the southern end. It contains world class hiking and opportunities to climb on the Viedma glacier, largest in Argentina. We will do it all!
All during the drive I keep an eye peeled for the Fitz Roys. Something catches my eye, and I cannot believe it! I am seeing a river of ice which ends in the desert. It is the Viedma Glacier! I never imagined anything was possible. It makes its own lake, but everything around it is desert! Click on the image to see all of it.
And to the right of the glacier, this sight also made my jaw drop! It is the Fitz Roy Range! We will hike it!
For the umpteenth time in as many days my eyes tear up with what I am seeing. I just cannot imagine. We get closer. The road stays empty. This afternoon, we will be hiking in these incredible mountains!
We reach town, where it’s windy beyond belief! The entire town seems to be under construction. It’s a magnet for adventure travelers. Wind blown backpackers can be seen walking the streets. We stay at the Ailen Aike hostel, six to a room. It’s got a small common area with flat screen TV, a bar, and tables. The whole time we’re there, the wind is moaning, trying to lift the roof off!
This trail is perfect for an afternoon. It climbs steeply out of town, but after the first mile, begins a more rolling climb, much more tolerable. The wind up on the trail isn’t so bad.
In fact the sun is out, and things are pretty nice! But up above, Cerro Fitz Roy is in the thick of a maelstrom. Its other name is Cerro Chalten, meaning smoking mountain. The wind runs vertically on all sides of the peak, creating a constant cloud which blows off of it. It looks like it’s smoking!
I’m sore from the climb at Torres del Paine. We have a big hike in two days, and I don’t want to overdo it. So my plan today is to get to the first viewpoint, lunch, watch the mountains, and head back to town. The others are going to go all the way to Laguna Torre, to the lake where a glacier ends. This way it’s like a workout.
This is a truly lovely park. And not as busy as Torres del Paine.
There are glaciers cascading down from the mountains. And of course pretty azul colored rivers flowing from them. There’s also a small plain below everything, which looks great for walking.
The others depart and I stay put watching the scenery.
What is apparent is the violence of the winds aloft. There is a stationary cloud behind the peaks – It’s formed by the permanent ice sheet above. The unpredictable, violent weather here is driven be four factors: 1) Latitude – we’re not far from Antarctica; 2) the bottom of South America is not all that wide – we’re simply a giant finger in between two oceans, so the trade wind blows across; 3) factors 1 and 2 combine to create the ice sheet, which makes the air so cold above; 4) the desert is lower and drier…so the cold air rushes downward off the mountains to the desert all the time.
As I sat watching, an upside down atomic bomb mushroom cloud explodes downward over Cerro Torre! Holy cow. I wouldn’t want to be on ropes climbing! Here is a video I took as I was watching Cerro Chalten. In it, you can see the cloud moving downward over Cerro Torre, if you look carefully!
After an hour, the wind begins to pick up so I decide it’s time to head back. I think I’m walking a good pace. But then, I hear some footsteps behind, and it’s a woman jogging down the trail! Down she runs, at a good pace, dodging the rocks, and passes me by. My goodness! She made me look like a slug!
After two hours I reach the top of the beginning of the trail. From here, there is a good view of El Chalten.
I think that part of the reason it’s so windy in town, is that it’s in a valley. The wind must get funneled through there!