Mount Fitz Roy wouldn’t qualify as a small mountain under any circumstances, but by that same token, it’s not one of the world’s greats…size wise that is. At a hair over 11,000 feet the mountain has earned a ferocious reputation for it’s sheer cliff faces and near-impossible climbs. With sleepy glaciers resting at its feet, not unlike hunting dogs warming before a hearth, Fitz Roy stands tall and imposing over the surrounding countryside. In truth, as I reflect on the mountain and region at large, I can’t help but imagine authors from several hundred years previous taken by flights of fancy, creative minds compelled to write about Fitz Roy and its siblings the Cerro Torres as the jagged, sharp teeth of some sort of sleeping titan. A creature at rest with giant maw or spiked carapace protruding violently from the icy snows that decorate the range’s slopes.
The howling winds that had terrorized us the evening before had died down slightly leaving the three of us to dress, shower, and prepare for our hike. A light rain threatened but had temporary submitted to the buffeting winds and splotches of sunlight which burst through the clouds in ragged spurts. Eager to begin the adventure we grabbed our maps, identified where the trail left El Chalten, and began our walk. We paused briefly at a small market to pick up a tin of spam, several loaves of bread, other small snacks, and three victory beers. The plan was to hike along the 12 km (24km round trip) path which cut through the foothills and led to a base camp at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy. The weather was mixed and threatened to deteriorate further, we weren’t in the worlds most amazing shape, and it was already 11 o’clock. I suppose in retrospect, the decision to pack beers with us was a solid indication of the relaxed general approach we were taking to the outing.
We wound our way across the town and past a small corral which serves as home to a small group of gorgeous horses. Fit, stout, hearty and a little wild, they fit the region perfectly. Unfortunately, the closest we’d come during our hike to a pack horse was whomever ended up lugging our sole backpack. True to form the pack was loaded down with our beverages, food, and camera gear.
Once on the trail proper we wasted no time cutting towards the heavens in a steep zig-zag pattern. Legs burning we trudged along enjoying the scenery and refreshing sharpness of the cool, clean mountain air. Before long we found a small overlook and paused to take in the river as it spread out and slithered its way out of El Chalten. The water was a wonderful blue-gray and the clouds teased at a break in the weather.
It wasn’t long before we reached the next break in the trail. A large, open gravel space in the saddle between a small hill and the main one. The small gap offered a great view down the valley and left us grinning at the pure natural beauty of the vista. It also left us grunting in surprise as the wind blasted our faces, tore at our clothing and ripped off one of the guys aviators, blowing them along the ground back the way we’d come. With an anxious lump in our throat we also noted the visible haze of wind-blown rain drifting further down the valley. As it turned out, it was only a matter of minutes before it found us. As we continued on from the gap the trail cut across a meadow and clung to the steep sides of the mountain. It was then that a light rain began to tease at our jackets and dampen our hair. Undeterred we continued on, smiling and waving at hikers who had struck out early in the morning and were now finishing their hike having given in to the weather.
As we crested our first major foothill we entered moss-covered forest. The slightly muddy underbrush consisted mostly of mixed grasses, blooming wildflowers, shrub, and moss-covered earth. The trees were a mixture of squat, ragged, scraggly things and slightly taller healthy trunks which supported a splotchy canopy. Luckily the trees offered some protection from the light rain and blocked most of the wind, allowing us a brief respite and the opportunity to pause and enjoy some of the wildlife. At one point we stumbled upon a gorgeous woodpecker with a raven-black body and scarlet red tuft of color around his beak. He clung leisurely to the side of one of the trees pausing periodically to evaluate us disapprovingly before returning to his war on small bugs and and ragged tree bark.
Shortly thereafter we came across an amazing sight. As you’ll note in the photo above, one of the trees had literally been twisted to the point of shredding. Set to the back drop of Mt. Fitz Roy, I couldn’t help but imagine the hands of some massive giant reaching down and twisting the tree in its fingers as one might a water-logged pair of socks or piece of straw. It was yet another reminder of the ferocious and temperamental nature of the weather that periodically sweeps across Southern Argentina.
As we continued along our path we paused from time to time to evaluate the weather and our condition. Though damp, windblown and cold we decided we had plenty of daylight, warmth and spirit and that the weather didn’t threaten further deterioration. So, with the invigorated spring of exploration in our steps we struck down and across the valleys which separated us from Fitz Roy’s base. The mossy terrain gave way to tundra-esque peat and incredible views of the mountains and winding glaciers they feed.
As we continued to close on the mountain we would periodically pass hikers who had obviously made the trip to El Chalten and the region specifically to hike. As more city-oriented travelers on mixed backpacking and hostel-oriented trips, we lacked the dedicated equipment (waterproof pants, hiking poles, etc.) that stuck out as an unspoken uniform among the other hikers. As they trudged past us – often heading back to town – some smiled, others shot us inquisitive glances and mumbles.
Growing tired and hungry but feeling tantalizingly close to our goal we continued to strike towards one of the nearby glaciers. Unfortunately, as we drew close and crossed through the main campground that feeds Fitz Roy, we came to the conclusion that it was time to eat, and perhaps call it a day. The weather was continuing to nag at us and the water and reduced traffic levels had made the path nearly invisible. We decided it was time to ford one last river, pause, eat our late lunch and then begin the arduous trek back towards town and a warm shower.
We paused for our cold lunch – a combination of candy bars and cold spam smeared across soft baguettes – before beginning our march back. As we chewed away gratefully we chatted and generally agreed that we’d accomplished what we set out to do, and more. After warming up a bit sheltered by a small grove we re-filled our water bottles from the river before turning back towards El Chalten.
The area near the base of Fitz Roy is gorgeous. I can only imagine that there are a wealth of stunning glacial lakes and snow-covered valleys to be explored under better conditions. Despite the clouds, rain and wind we still enjoyed the small stream’s blue-tinted crystal clear waters and what we could reach/see. The view of rain-slicked, black mountains and of large glaciers slipping and sliding their way gently towards the valley below still rests pleasantly in my memory.
The return trip was made largely in silence. Tired, cold, happy but exhausted, we retreated to our ipods and enjoyed the 12km return hike. Each relishing the feel and added mystical aura our custom soundtracks offered. It’s amazing the different emotions, connections and feel music can have when you’re traveling. For my part, the silken crooning of Il Divo and Enya served as a stunning backdrop for the remainder of my hike … all mixed in with some symphonic metal and classic punk rock to keep my heartbeat cranking.
Back at the gap, as we neared town once again, we paused and cracked open our celebratory beers. True, we probably should have drunk them earlier but there were few things more entertaining than the bemused, startled, and periodically baffled looks of fellow hikers just starting down the trail as we approached the trailhead with frothy beers in hand and welcoming grins on our faces.
By the time we reached our hotel room we collapsed into our beds utterly exhausted. We had bested the mountain, but just barely. Legs feeling swollen and ready to burst we relished a day well spent. It was Christmas Eve. Time to find some food, drink, and celebrations.
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