Wednesday, February 13, 2019

El Chalten

Just a 2 hour bus ride from El Calafate, the tiny town of El Chalten sits within El Glaciares National Park. We spent 5 days enjoying the accessible day hikes and an overnight trip to see the southern Patagonian ice field.
Hiking up to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field
Cerro Torre
On Christmas day we arrived in El Chalten and spent the afternoon hiking the Cerro Torre trek. The weather was perfect for us, providing clear views of the mountains and the desolate scene of burned trees. Open fires are strictly prohibited in the park, and it's easy to see why from the scar left by previous forest fires. We enjoyed the flat terrain, covering the miles to the laguna in a few hours. The trail took us through lush woods before spitting us out above the laguna with a breathtaking view of the snow covered mountains meeting the glacial water.
Cerro Torre
Paso del Viento 
We'd planned to complete the entire Huemel trek over four days, however the weather forecast and the poor quality of our rented gear (our backpacks with our own gear were MIA from our flight down) pushed us to shorten it into a two day, one night trip. To complete the trek you must check in at the ranger station which opens at 9 am and register your hike. The rangers confirm that you have the necessary supplies: a map, camping stove, and traversing gear for the river crossings. You can purchase the map and rent the harness and carabiners from multiple outdoors stores in town. It doesn't cost anything to register your hike, but the rangers will tell you not to go if the weather forecast shows high wind. We were promised two days of good weather and potential rain and wind the following two. Since the most dangerous part of the four day hike is on day 2, other hikers were going for the entire circuit.
Leaving the Ranger Station heading towards Huemel

I felt good about our plan which ensured that we would see the Patagonian ice field but have us back in town before the rain came in. We hiked to the campsite in five hours, the traditional end of the first day of the trek. That section was about half uphill then down with a great view of the Huemel mountain. 

After setting up our tent and packing a day pack we set off to see the ice field around 3:00. We planned on being back by dinner thinking it would be around four hours to go out and back. Instead, we faced the toughest terrain we've ever experienced and struggled to even find the trail on one section despite an app we'd downloaded. We did a lot of rock scrambling and felt lucky to not be caring full backpacks. It was after 8:00 when we finally reached the ice field and I worried about hiking back in the dark. Despite all my fears, hunger, and the bone chilling wind, I couldn't help but stare in awe when we finally reached Paso del Viento and looked out over a sea of snow and white peaks. Pictures don't come close to capturing the vastness of the scene which made me think of Antarctica.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field

Hiking back wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. The sun set around 11 pm since we were so close to the summer solstice. We arrived back at camp at 11:30 sharing the limited light from John's phone flashlight. All the soreness and hunger was worth the once in a lifetime experience of seeing the ice field.
Fitz Roy
We were blessed with 3 days of great weather with the normal El Chalten wind. During our last 2 days in the area we experienced the windier and wetter side of the typical weather. The day after we completed our trek back from El Paso del Viento we stayed in Hotel Lago del Desierto and enjoyed some relaxation and Argentinian wine along with take out from our favorite restaurant in the town, El Parador. After all of our cheap nights in hostels (around $10 per person), the hotel seemed a little pricey at $50 for a double room, but it was well worth it to have our own space and get an amazing breakfast included. 
The beginning of our hike before the rain

The weather was iffy as we began our hike to see Fitz Roy. A short ways in to the hike the drizzle became a steady pitter patter on our rain jackets and I began to shiver. When we were about half way to the view point (a quarter of the way through the entire hike) we felt a bit deflated looking at the gloomy clouds blocking the mountains. Instead of treading on in the cold rain, we decided to turn back to the warm hostel. Although we were dissapointed to miss out on this hike, we felt lucky to have had 3 good days, especially when we spoke to a fellow hiker in our hostel who was in El Chalten for only the 2 rainy days. I would recommend to anyone going to this area to plan for extra time to accommodate the weather. The iconic Patagonia views are mountain peaks and it's a coin toss if you can actually see the scene on any given day. 

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