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Patagonia: El Chalten, Santa Cruz, Argentina


Arriving in El Chalten: Cerro Torre and Fitzroy in the background


Fitzroy in the morning


Rio Blanco from the top of the moraine at Laguna de los Tres


On the trek up Laguna de los Tres


Hikers at the start of trail to Laguna Torre


Cerro Torre

31 December 2010
… Continued from the previous post. After Laguna Azul this morning, and a long drive around Lago Viedma later arrival at El Chalten was perhaps one of the best road trip I’ve been on. From far, the mountains I’ve seen in magazines and pictures start to appear slowly, and while the bus stops in many spots for us to take panoramas, it always seem to look better the closer you get to it. Normally there are not that much traffic on the road, but when the cars do appear they drive fast. Just before the descent into El Chalten there is a look-out point with a nice view that is spoilt by certain inconspicuous large buildings in the town.


Entering El Chalten


This is what I always wanted to do. BMW 1200GS roadtrip.

The bus went straight into El Chalten and out of it, proceeding straight to El Pilar which is just right outside of town. The rocky gravel road leading to the hotel runs alongside Rio Blanco and with mountains to the other side. Mount Fitzroy is visible closer to El Pilar and one or two other peaks. It’s not really a full unobstructed view of Fitzroy from here, but the peak is visible while the base is covered somewhat.


Picture says it all. Also the start of the trail up to Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia.


El Pilar Hosteria

A small stream runs right next to El Pilar, I’d say that this is Rio Blanco or one of its upper tributaries. It looks shallow enough a quick wade is sufficient to get across. I didn’t try as the water coming from glaciers are horribly cold, just an educated guess. I decided that the pebbled stream bed is a good place to be shooting in the morning and the first order of this evening at El Pilar is to scout for a good place for the morning shoot. For this purpose, a nice small point and shoot camera like the S95 is perfect for visualization. At this hotel, there are some rooms with straight views of Fitzroy, which is not the one I had. In fact, Fitzroy is visible from the dining room, the good thing being the diners could see the peaks of Fitzroy while having dinner at 8:30 pm just before the sunset at 10pm (summer).

Arrival at this place was close to dinner time, and for new year eve the chef prepared lamb for mains. There will be a long new year hike to Laguna Torre tomorrow to see Cerro Torre, one of the long hikes of this trip. New year celebration was quick and before midnight it was already time to get into bed to get ready for the next day. The last sunset of 2010 was average. There was no cloud at all, so no spectacular light show on Fitzroy, so there was no camera action at all tonight. Weather forecast for the next 2 days are supposed to be blue skies and very hot, apparently ideal for serious climbing, blue skies and calm winds


Setting up tripod in the morning


The result… Fitzroy in the right, and Poincenot on the left


And another interpretation from the same location.

1 January 2011
When staying at a nice place like this, anticipating a nice morning for shooting is difficult. Talk about sleepless nights, my room was not facing Fitzroy, but nothing stopping me from waking up every hour to check the weather hoping for no rain or low clouds. The weather looked clear this morning, and the alarm would wake me up at 5am and by 5:30am I’m out by the stream next to El Pilar looking for the best spot to set up the tripod. I swear I should have brought my headlight this trip but somehow I forgot it. The morning light that we photographers crave comes out close to 6am and the shooting does not really last for more than 10 minutes if that long. The setup has to be ready minutes before to be sure nothing is missed. Before the first light it out, the mountain looks bland and colourless, and after the good light, what you have is another boring mountain drenched and bleached in bright sunlight. The skies are really clear this morning and I could see the sun’s rays coming up over the mountain behind me and start to illuminate Fitzroy. First both Poincenot and Fitzroy is lighted up while the rest of the mountain middle and base is still in the shadows, and then the amber light hits the middle ground and the peak gets darker (I suspect it is my eyes playing a trick on me) and eventually in a short time, before 6:15am, everything is no longer amber and the morning light show is over. That is also a good time to catch up on some sleep. Long hike today.

What a way to spend the new year. A nice long strenous hike to Laguna Torre close to the base of Cerro Torre, about as far as we amateurs could go without making a fool of ourselves and inconveniencing the rescue team. Early morning, after breakfast and packing up sandwich lunch filled with sliced hardboiled eggs, ham and pickles lettuce, its time to start the long hike.

The bus ride goes back into the heart of El Chalten and to the start of the trail head by the edge of town. Don’t think I’m going to spend too much time describing the whole trek, but in summary, its rolling hills, sometimes in the shelter of trees and sometimes not, and then the first major view point at El Mirador (which I understood stands for “view” in Spanish). The view here is of the valley where the rest of the trek is about to take place. Cerro Torre, Cerro Egger and Standhardt stands in front marking the destination today. The full sun makes the trip difficult as a slow slog. It is hot and feels humid today. The next part of the walk descends into the valley floor along Rio Fitzroy.


Just in case I forgot where I am…


Somehow I trust my GPS more than this dumbed down map


This time without hikers


Magellanic Woodpecker


Cerro Torre from the Mirador


Llama train. Llamas have shorter legs and are domesticated compared to Guanacos.


Valley Floor just after the Mirador


Camp de Agostini


Occupants list at Camp de Agostini


Cerro Torre from the valley floor

There are a couple of streams here at the Mirador where bottles could be refilled with cold mountain stream water that tastes really good with a hint of tree barks. There was a llama train spotted going to the foot of the mountains to haul gear out. A few hours of walking in seemingly repetitive terrain, the path seems to be gaining some altitude. It looks like I’m going up a large moraine that holds Laguna Torre. At the top of the moraine and with a couple of large rocks to climb and avoid, Laguna Torre is just in front. To go any further will require a little more than zero mountaineering skills. The skies are still perfect and cloudless and right in front is Cerro Torre right to be photographed. There are not that many places in the world where you get a cluster of peaks made up of steep, almost vertical granite walls. Time for lunch and plenty of staring at the mountains and make the long strenuous hike worth every single bit of sweat that was shed on the way here.


Moraine holding back Laguna Torre


Setting up at Laguna Torre


… This was the result


… looks good in black & white too

The hike back was the least enjoyable part of the day. The heat is starting to get to me and that makes the hike back feel a lot longer than this morning’s trip to the lake. Everyone seems to be moving pretty quick, probably hoping to get out of this heat wave as soon as possible, but the rolling hills make it difficult to judge the distance. I had my GPS with me, but it just seems to go on and on and even with many refills of the water bottle it was still hot as hell. But at the last of the rolling hills, there was music blaring from the town of El Chalten, welcoming everyone that survived the hike back to town and best of all, was greeted by a big cold box filled with beer. Beer never tasted that good.


El Chalten from the trailhead to Laguna Torre.

And glad not have been devoured by a hungry puma.

Dinner that night was a quiet affair. Fatigue started setting in for most. I had sunburn all over. And this was on top of some burnt skins from Buenos Aires!

The hike today was so tough, an original plan to hike up a tougher route to Laguna de los Tres tomorrow was to be delayed. The weather tomorrow was supposed to be hot blue skies, with good views and visibility, but at the aftermath of this new year hike there was no other choice but to take a chance on the weather for the day after. A rest is required. So gamble we shall.


Salto del Chorillo waterfall


Food. El Chalten on our rest day.


Yup. Tourist town.


Small Town. Nice Views.

2 January 2011
Rest day: i.e. do nothing today. That’s not true to be exact. Took the bus down to El Chalten for a bit of walkabout. Nothing much in the town, most of the people walking around are backpackers but in the hot sun there are not too many people nor cars on the street today. How hot? Like the inside of an oven. Dry and hot. On the way back from the town, made a stop over at Salto del Chorrillo, a waterfall close to El Pilar. I found a good spot to take my shot but had to wait long for the sun to get to a point where I get the lighting that I wanted, so I ended up not making the shot at all. The real reason for the laid back day was to be rested for the long hike tomorrow. Glad the hike was not today. However the weather forecast for tomorrow is tough to call… patches of rain, definitely some clouds to be expected, marking the end of sunny days.


This silhouette of Fitzroy was taken during dinner between mains and dessert.

3 January 2011
Contemplation. General sleep problems this morning wondering if I would survive today’s anticipated long walk. Skipped the morning sunrise shoot and it all starts at 8:30am walking along the banks of Rio Blanco up to Laguna de los Tres near the base Mount Fitzroy. The backpack is pretty heavy, tripod, one camera, one wide angle zoom (17-35mm) and a medium telephoto zoom (70-180mm) plus water and lunch.


Easy Trails


No idea how this tree got to be like this…


Private Property? Where?


One looks like a dog. No idea what the second one looks like. Personal squirrels?


Result of woodpeckering on this tree


Lenga Trees

The start of the trail is easy enough, rolling hills and under shade of old lenga forest with trees that seem to have snapped sometimes at the trunk, either by strong winds or perhaps old age. It has the look of a spooky type of forest with trees up to 20m tall in some places. This is the type of place you’d wonder if you want to camp out at night. Trees here seem to just die off and take its own sweet time to rot. There are patches of clearing with shorter trees and patches that are in the clear with just short undergrowth. The last two days were perfect blue skies and we get the payback today with cloudier days and a chance of rain on the evening perhaps on the way back down the mountain. In fact the cloud cover is so low, Fitzroy would occasionally go in and out of the cloud cover.

The walk is punctuated with sounds of cracking roars, chunk of ice from nearby glaciers breaking off and falling into glacial lake. Glaciers here hang off mountains so broken parts crash pretty loud. Since sound move slower than light (if you still remember what you learnt in school), when the sound is heard, its usually too late to see anything. So don’t bother looking if too far away.


Distant hanging glacier, source of all the cracking sound. Glaciar Piedras Blancas.


This was going to be the last time I will see Fitzroy today before the cloud cover came in.


Camp Poincenot

After 3 hours of walking, we walk past Camp Poincenot, a campsite with occupied tents, with personal belongings and laundry hanging on lines. This, I was told is the demarcation line between “nice long walk” and “long hard climb”. Right after the tented area, the path goes down to the pebble river bed, a nice place to refill the bottles for the oncoming sufferfest, and crossing one of those rickety bridge where one person crosses at a time because it is THAT weak. It doesn’t sway at all, but the wooden bridge does creak a bit when I crossed, and the weight of my backpack made it quite unstable for me to cross the bridge. At this point I must be around -49.27916, -72.96525.


River crossing


I feel important already…

The bridge crossing was uneventful enough, but the view of the switchbacks we’re about to go up on is a different story all together. Laguna de los Tres. Steep. Tiring. But I have been walking close to 4 hours right now and turning back would be a serious character flaw. And this is one serious looking moraine that has to be conquered before getting to the destination. There is no tree cover on the switchback, but good that it is a cloudy day because a full sun would have been horribly exhausting. Loose rocks form the ground almost all the way up but they’re not really dangerous unless you decide to fling yourself over the cliff or faint on the way up.


Up the switchbacks


Almost at the top


Panorama of Laguna de los Tres

One step at a time, and eventually we go get up to the top of the moraine. Reminded me of the long high altitude hike I did in Sichuan China which ended with a broken artery in the cornea, so this time I rest when I’m short of breath. The altitude is not that bad here, but the sheer strain from carrying a few kg backpack and steep switchback does sometimes take its toll. On occasions, I could feel the build up of lactic acid in my calves. The problem with moraines are the loose rocks. They are horribly tough to walk up, zapping up energy going uphill.


The small speck on the bottom right are 2 climbers on the ice field across from Laguna de los Tres. Nice weather to climb it seems.

Up here, it is devoid of any vegetation. Laguna de los Tres has a nice blue colour from the melted glacial ice. Unfortunately, the clouds did not lift when I got up there, so it was only possible to see the base of the mountain. There was enough time up there to have my packed lunch sandwich and fruit juice while waiting that the clouds to clear. The winds here are strong, sometimes the weather can change for the better (or worse) in a few minutes. But not today. I made do, photographically, with what was in front of me and tried to take a panorama or two. With a long telephoto lens, I spotted two climbers hiking up a ice field opposite the lake. The footprints in front of them tells me that this is a common path and they’re not the only two going up the mountain today.


Hopping to the cliff edge to have a peek at Laguna Sucia


Laguna Sucia

Over on the left edge of the lake, crossing a little stream that leads to a waterfall that drops a few hundred meters, Laguna Sucia is visible down below. Imagine one lake high up (de los Tres) and a second one (Sucia) below in a steep valley, almost vertical walls. Laguna Sucia itself is quite big but the clautrophobic valley it is located in makes it very difficult to take a nice picture of the whole lake without either a helicopter or me dangling off the side of the cliff. I believe that these two lakes are what feeds Rio Blanco that flows next to El Pilar where we stayed, can’t really confirm it and I’m too lazy to do a wikipedia to check.

This is not the first time in Patagonia, but it always seem to feel like the return hike along the same path feels a lot longer than the way up. I don’t mean to say that it is boring, the views are stunning, but either its strenuous or the craving for pampas-fed steak at the end of the hike awaits every night.




On the return trip, the peaks are now covered.

The way down the moraine was quick, while trying to be careful not to bust a knee cap or two when descending too quickly, but the rolling hills in the forest just seem to go on forever. I could feel my knee starting to buckle. Which reminds me that I will need to get a trekking pole next time I do one of these long hikes. And perhaps to lose the tripod and try to hold my camera a little bit steadier. Sometimes times like this you realise that you don’t really need so many gear to shoot a nice photo. Looking at the result at the end of the trip, I think I could have done 90% of the pictures I wanted with a wide angle and a medium telephoto around 200mm range. I want to think that my cheap 200mm f4 AIS would do but I’m not confident to shoot that without a tripod, hell even with a tripod I’m quite wary of camera shake. Anyway. equipment aside, its true the best camera for you is the one that you have with you.

Returned to El Pilar at 6 pm after around 10 hours outside. That’s a long long day. Dead tired and legs are sore. It started to drizzle a bit, and what I didn’t mention is that I do have some raingear in my pack just in case. Weather here changes quickly and you can go from hot summer to cold winter when the wind changes direction. In fact for some parts of the trek today it was drizzling, but that helped to keep the temperature at a bearable 15-20C level which is a welcome respite compared to the trek up to Laguna Torre 2 days ago.

But now back at El Pilar, what better way to cap a long day than a hot shower and a argentinian steak dinner. Food in this place is amazing. I won’t call today a good day photographically speaking. Would have been a lot better to be rewarded with a nice view of the laguna in the foreground and Fitzroy in the background and perhaps some high cloud cover, but it was not to be this time. Even back at El Pilar we could see that it was probably starting to rain up at Fitzroy. The mountain didn’t show itself today, which makes for a good excuse to come back in the future. I shall return.

Tomorrow we take a bus down back past El Calafate towards Perito Moreno glacier.




Proceed to Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina…

3 Replies to “Patagonia: El Chalten, Santa Cruz, Argentina”

    1. Thanks! But it was a photoshop conversion. Just getting ready for my transition to digital which should come in the future when I run out of film!


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