Imagine going to sleep to the sound of a howling wind whistling across the jagged, snowcapped, and cloud-covered mountains while you huddle inside your sleeping bag fully clothed- jacket, hat, mittens, the works. Then it begins to rain. Its okay though because you have already brushed your teeth and gone to the bathroom so there is no need for you to get up until the morning. You just hope it stops raining by then.
When you wake you`re delighted! It has stopped raining and the wind has stopped as well. So you unzip your sleeping bag only to find that it is snowing: snowing and the mountains are still obscured by the strangest clouds you have ever seen, but, at the moment, its too cold to stop and take pictures of those marvelous formations of rock and cloud anyway. You and your crew need to pack up the frozen tent and get on your way to your next campsite. So you do, and after hiking through a beautiful, fluffy snowfall, you are rewarded with the sun again, a magnificent ancient forest to hike through and later a view of one of the most famous mountain ranges in all of South America – the Fitz Roy Range.
If you haven’t guessed it already, this is kind of how our trekking in the north end of Argentina´s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares went. We took a bus from El Calafate to El Chalten, in search of some multi-day wilderness adventures. The town of El Chalten is located within the boundaries of the National Park and thus, our bus stopped at the park office so the passengers could get a safety talk as well as maps, and information about the treks in Argentina’s trekking capital.
Mount Fitz Roy is the major draw for the visitors to the town. It is perhaps Patagonia’s second most famous mountain range and it is only several hours away from the trailhead (it can also be seen looming over the pueblo). We began a three day, two day hike the same day we arrived in El Chalten and needed just over 3 hours to hike to our first campsite. Most of the hiking that we did in Los Glaciares National Park was the same difficulty level as a Saturday afternoon walk through a forest preserve in Illinois. The trails were also marked just as well as a forest preserve`s might be, and the number of people on the trails was about the same. In fact, we probably did not even need a map other than to tell us how long the distances were between campsites. The only major differences were the landscape and the unpredictable weather for which Patagonia is famous.
Although there are many different paths to see Mount Fitz Roy, some which need registration, some which require a guide, and most that only require a few hours, what we ended up doing was a hike on our first day to Campamento Poincenot, passing Laguna Capri, a great mirador of the Fitz Roy Range where we stopped for a lunch break. This first day we saw the famous Fitz Roy Mountain for just a few minutes before it was shrouded in a foreboding accumulation of clouds unlike any I had ever seen before. At night, the wind howled through the Poincenot campsite at the base of the trail up to a closer and more impressive lookout of Fitz Roy. In the morning, the weather was great while we climbed to Laguana de Los Tres and had fun taking pictures, but the mountain range was again quickly covered by the ominous clouds that swirled around it, so we hurried back down the mountainside to pack up our tent and continue on to Campamento De Agostini. This campsite was much better sheltered from the wind, and was at the base of the lookout to another of the famous mountains in the park, Cerro Torre. Unfortunately, however, the clouds never left the area, and the cold and snow started to set in so we headed through the Patagonian steppe and forested mountainsides before returning to El Chalten to spend the night in a hostel we had reserved in advance.
Despite being Argentina’s trekking capital, we were suprised with the hiking in the area. Though the mountain range was magnificent, the hiking was not as rewarding as we wanted. Too many people, too short of trails, too few of options. Because of this, we took off on a different trail the next day to Laguna Toro, a much less hiked trail than those we had done in the previous days. This trail took us through ancient forests, marshy wetlands, more Patagonian steppe, and descended into a wide open river valley where we encountered the laguna and a very windy pass (Paso de Viento). The campsite was located in a little mountain cove, where we were protected from the strong winds just around the corner. That evening though, we had fun playing in the winds of the Paso and scrambling the mountains on the other side to get a glimpse of the glacier on top. The following day we returned to El Chalten by the same trail and were rewarded with a sunny, almost windless day. On this beautiful trail, there were much fewer people, less trail markers, and more of the kind of hiking we were looking for.
A word on El Chalten: the town is located within the national park limits, where residents need to follow the same rules as campers, regarding washing near the rivers and streams in order to guarantee that they remain drinkable for future hikers. There are also problems with stray dogs hunting the endangered Huemul deer, so it is necessary to make sure that no dogs tag along on any of the trails outside of town. Inside the park all of the campsites are free and basic. This means that what you carry in, you must carry out, including and especially trash. All buses entering El Chalten stop first at the park´s information office before continuing to the bus terminal to insure that all tourists know the rules of the park before they head out on the trails.