We love mountains

My thoughts and experiences cycling, snowboarding and travelling around the world

Winter hiking around Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten, Argentina

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe final stop of our summer in  South America was the town of El Chalten.  Just to the north of El Calafate, it is the logical next stop off. The town is surrounded by some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world. The famous peaks of Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre rise vertically to huge heights from the flat steppe behind the town. “Chaltén” is a tehuelche word meaning smoking mountain, as they believed it was a volcano because the peak is covered by cloud most of the time . The cloud has an interesting action of whipping in from the Pacific in the west and swirling around the peaks like wisps of candy floss before just evaporating and disappearing into clear blue skies in the east.

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To get to town we caught a bus up from El Calafate it was a double decker coach, yet it had just 7 or 8 people. I  think the bus served as a good metaphor regarding El Chalten, this town is growing and changing. The infrastructure is being built here to support mass tourism.  Initially it was an old sheep ranch that was sold up and developed as an access point to the mountains, it was  slapped together quickly  in 1989 by Argentina to ensure  they have a land claim in a contentious area. The Chilean border zig zags about, spliting Mt Fitzroy in half during the process. The Patagonia border has almost led to war in the past.

We had left about 11 days to explore the area which felt about right, and allowed for at least one decent weather window. Our plans were for a loop around the front of Mt Fitzroy starting from town to Lago Torre, to Lago de los tres, then to rio and lago Electrico and hitchhike back to town. We then planned a wilder adventure to the southern icefield that was a ‘guide only’ route and it was spectaculer, but I will describe it in a separate post.  Of course the area is huge and there are more options to the north that would be fun, but I think these two routes capture the beauty and wilderness well.

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The first hike was overnight to Lago Torre, we left the town in sunshine hoping to get a view of Cerro Torre on the route. Cerro Torre is famous as it is notoriously hard to climb, there is a controversial history for the early attempts to summit, whereby some climbers deem other climbers to have cheated. One group had a tragic end and the survivor claimed to have summited when he clearly didn’t and then the same guy goes back and puts bolts or anchor points all the way up making it much easier. Next a Swiss guy went up and ripped them all out while climbing it just to prove it was a pure ascent and that he was hardcore. Still to this day few people have made it to the true summit. A combination of the vicious Patagonian weather and precarious ice mushroom that caps the summit conspire against even the modern Alpinist.

The below map is the parkwarden’s official one and gives you a great overview of the easier trails that we followed on this hike. The hike is deemed low risk and as such doesn’t require you to sign out at the park admin centre.

fitz-roy-map

The walk to Lago Torre is pretty quick and can be done as a long day trip. However we wanted to camp and see sunrise/sunset and hope for a break in the cloud, so we could see the summit of Cerro Torre. As we headed west along the path it was soon clear that the trademark cloud was swirling about the peaks, the further we headed the worse the weather got. We were not going to see the mountains in full glory today. The conditions did however set up some stunning rainbows as the wind whistled the rain into the sunshine.  We camped entirely alone near the lake. At about 8.30am the sun was just in the right spot to create a rainbow sprouting out of the glacier. The picture below shows the phenomenon, within minutes it had moved away and the spectacle was gone.

We passed a windy but pleasant night alone in the campspot, we climbed trees and balanced on narrow fallen trees to pass the time. The next day we saw the rainbow above and started walking along to the next campspot. The weather again improved as we headedback towards town a bit. We even detoured through the woods to get a view from the ridge up to Loma de las Pizarras.  I love walking through Patagonian forest, the wind stunted trees twist like bonsai trees and make me feel like a giant!

The next spot was the Poincenot campsite, this time we had to share with one other tent, it felt rather overcrowded! The cloud was still blanketing the tops but every now and then a stunning back lit vista appeared from the murk. The shot below is not sepia or any other funny effect it was just  an eerie light. I think the sun is just on the top of the Poincenot peak.

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Camping at the Poincenot campsite was pretty wild feeling. This was one of the few spots where signs indicate the water in the streams is good to drink straight and it tasted great. We saw quite a few birds wandering the around the site from a chicken looking Crested Caracara to the Sierra Finch in the picture below. The picture of the tent directly below looks a bit like an advert for MSR stoves, which I would happily advertise as the Dragonfly one we have used for last 6 years is great!

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The shot below shows the stunted trees and the dramatic setting, with the clouds and just the lower foot hills.

A wind swept view

One of the birds that stalked us around the campsite, a Sierra Finch.

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The next hike was from the campsite up to the simply stunning Lago de los  Tres. On a clear day the view of Fitzroy is stunning. Even with snatched glimpses the view was breathtaking. The glacier at the back provided ski touring options. If the lake was harder frozen we would have returned with skis to explore, however I think July is the month to tour here. The steep path up to the lakes still had patches of slippery snow, but the Argentinians with there canvas trainers and little else managed it fine. Some of the day trippers we encountered we amazingly under prepared. Few had back packs or waterproof jackets. One chap had decided to bring his packed lunch in just a paper bag, given the rain this failed dramatically. He was grasping and clutching apples, crisps, sandwiches draped in wet paper against his chest, as his wife walked on ahead. That is another characteristic of Argentinians, they are very shiverous, the man always carrys a huge backpack while the lady walks carefree. I believe in equality and fair play, so does Marion 🙂  but I felt a little less a man with our roughly equal sized bags!

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After walking back down to camp, the weather was still the same. Cloud and eerie light. We spent a second night at the campsite with whistling wind and snapping branches. I do enjoy the weather beating in against a snug tent but this was third night of it now. The next morning we walked along to Lago Piedras Blanco, the lake has a huge hanging glacier feeding into it. The path is a dotted line on the map meaning it is a tad harder to follow and a few scrambling sections. The end section was however quite interesting. Huge boulders rolling down from the moraines lie across the stream in the valley, and it looked like a continuing overhead danger of more rocks, that were precariously balanced.  The picture below is Marion ‘bouldering’ . The gaps between boulders fell away to the water in the stream below, a slip was not a good option.

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On the walk back down we decided to pass Lago Electrico as the weather showed no sign of improvement. This meant a detour straight back to town. As we arrived to the main street the clouds cleared and the sun set behind  Mt Fitzroy in all its finest glory.  The picture below is what greeted us above the town. We then detoured to the great bakery for some small pastries or facturas as they call them in Argentina.  To celebrate we headed to a great little restaurant to have a local sheep stew.

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The picture below is of Jenny pouring some red wine from the local penguin jugs in the restaurant mentioned. Looks a bit like they’re throwing up but pretty unusual! It was fun meeting up with Jenny again who we knew from Fernie, BC and then Chamonix,  we also saw her in the spectacular Refugio Frey, Bariloche a few weeks earlier.

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9 comments on “Winter hiking around Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten, Argentina

  1. Luiza Madalozo
    July 6, 2014

    Hey! Could you tell me when exactly you went to El Chalten? I am planning on going in August but I am wondering how much snow there will be over there. In what month did you go? Thanks!! And great post by the way! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Adam
    July 7, 2014

    Hello
    I am also interested in hiking here in the winter…..which month did you go? How much snow is there? I am debating whether or not to go on a guided tour rather than just my wife and myself.
    Awesome pictures, thanks!

  3. Danny Timpona
    January 14, 2015

    Also interested in hiking in winter… any info would be great on what time of winter you were there and how much snow there is..! Awesome post and read!

    • welovemountains
      January 14, 2015

      Hi Danny Glad you like the post, we were there in September and had fantastic weather, there is rarely much snow all winter. We pretty much had no snow but guess depends if unlucky and get a storm!

  4. Harry Not Potter
    June 19, 2016

    Thank you so much for sharing these priceless information and beautiful pictures!

    I am heading to El Chalten at early July this year, wondering if i am lucky enough to get some insider’s advice before I leave for there.

    1) I am hiking alone. And I concern if the trails will be covered by snow so it will be difficult to trace?

    2) For the loops that are longer than 15 miles: I am afraid that with winter shorter daylight time, windy or probably snowy condition, I am not able to hike back at the same day since 15 miles per day was my usual hiking speed without snow condition. And by looking at your pictures, I guess the trails are not too steep?

    3) How can you keep your cameras working in cold weather? I am going to take my phone with me. Did you store your electric equipment close to your body to keep them warm and only used them when you took shots? Or you had some tips for me?

    Thank you in advance.

  5. Zain
    February 10, 2017

    Hi, How does one even get to El Chalten in winter?

    • Harry
      February 11, 2017

      I did it last winter (did you mean winter time in US or in Argentina?) If you meant in US, I’d like to tell you some details.

      • jit K
        February 25, 2017

        Hi Harry
        Can i ask you how you get to El chalten ? I thought that the bus companies stop working during winter? I’m planning a trip to Torres del paine & El Chalten this July, still figuring out how we get there, any suggestions would be really appreciated.

      • Harry
        February 25, 2017

        Hello Jit!
        I found a bus to El chalte after I arrived at El Calafate airport. There were 2-3 bus companies and one travel agent there(from my memories haha). You can’t miss it since you have to pass there to get out of the airport and the airport is very small. When I arrived, there was only one bus company left. They were family owned and had done this business for years. They usually had two schedules everyday, and would wait for the arrival of the last airline before they made their last trip of the day back to El Chalten. They could drop you off at your stay. If your flight arrives early, you have more choices on schedule. The bus will stop at the visitor center of El Chalten. From there, you can reserve your bus tickets to many places.
        I think winter is a good season to visit! It was not too cold in my opinion. During summer, the trails are very crowded and one has to stop many times to let people from the opposite directions to pass. Last year, I hiked for 3 days and I only had seen 15 people or so. So you have a chance to be with a lake in front of a glacier just by yourself!! The tricky thing is the weather. Some higher evaluation area may be icy and can’t be accessed by regular hiking shoes. And it is possible that when you get to the top, it is too froggy so you can’t see the views. However, the views on the way already worths the trip!!
        When get to Patagonia in winter, everything is slowing down: the land is huge, human beings become smaller, and the nature plays a role on your activities. For example, you may get stuck in airport since the weather is not good for the flight. Sometimes it can delay a flight for a couple days. A tips is that a bus doesn’t require the same level of visibility to function, so you can take a bus or rent a car with someone else to another airport. (But keep in mind that sometimes it is safer to fly than to drive).
        Good luck and have fun!

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