Los Glaciares - Fitzroy Treks (part 1)

Getting there - El Chalten

The bus from El Calafate takes almost four hours, across the dry Patagonian steppes, to reach El Chalten; stopping for coffee at a small hotel where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid once holed up after robbing a bank in Patagonia (they did get around!) and the large turquoise Lago Viedma, with the glacier of the same name flowing down into it from the great southern icefield.

A bit of Patagonian heritage

On the road to Fitzroy

The mighty Viedma Glacier flowing down into Lago Viedma

It was grey when we left El Calafate and raining when we arrived in El Chalten. Still, we found a nice place to stay and holed up for the afternoon in comfort. By 5.30pm, the sun was breaking through and it seemed a good idea to walk to the Mirador de Torres for our first look at these famous mountains.

Canyon of the Fitzroy River

Siempre el condor

Rolling grassy hills behind El Chalten

A curious play of light and cloud in the Rio Fitzroy valley

As we set out in bright sunshine, across grasslands speckled with the odd colour of flowering herbs and orchids, we had little idea that we would return less than 2 hours later under heavy snowflakes swirling about in an icy wind. It was our first lesson in the weather of Fitzroy and the mountains had kept their faces hidden from us; tomorrow, we would try again.

Snow clouds rolling in over the peaks

Walked out in sunshine and back in snow

Our comfortable accommodation in snowy El Chalten


Loma de Pliegue Tumbado Walk (22km - 1020m ascent - 1020m descent)

At 6.30am I looked outside the window of our room; snow still lay on the ground in El Chalten and the hills around, but it was glistening ..... in the sunlight. A fine sunny day is a precious object in this part of the world and there was no time to dally. We were up, showered, fed and on the track by 8am, hoping to catch our first glimpse of the mountains of Fitzroy. With the promise of fine weather, we decided to head up the lesser known track to the the Mirador de Loma de Pliegue Tumbado, with the promise of a magnificent panorama of the two icons of this area - 3120m Cerro Torre and 3405m Monte Fitzroy.

Our first view of Fitzroy from El Chalten

First tracks in the fresh snow - we were up early!

Passing a grove of snow-covered beech

As we walked quickly through the streets of El Chalten, the enigmatic shape of Monte Fitzroy appeared above the horizon, climbing higher as we headed southward down the main street towards the National Park headquarters and the start of the walk.

Fitzroy hiding behind the clouds - view from Mirador Condores

Leaving the ranger station, we headed off across a small flat area to the junction of a track leading up to Mirador Los Condores, 200m higher to our left. The clouds starting to form in the once clear blue sky were a bit of a worry, so I raced up to the Mirador to take a couple of photos (just in case) while the fair Nello pushed slowly on up the track. Not only were the mountains more impressive from the higher viewpoint, but the sight of El Chalten surrounded by snow-covered hills and grassy flats was spectacular.

Looking back over El Chalten

Rejoining the track, I hurried up past small stands of low-growing ñire beech, lining a stream that flowed out of a small gorge, crossing it on a wooden bridge. From the single set of well-known bootprints in the snow on the bridge, only the fair Nello was ahead - climbing steadily up through a feerique white-carpeted landscape, the shrubs and bright-green leaves of the lenga beech trees also wearing white mantles of snow.

Soon I caught up and we pushed on together, enjoying the stillness and the chillness of this wintry setting - it was good to be the only ones out here at this time. Or should I say the only humans, as the animals of Patagonia were also out and about, their footprints tracking through the snow in erratic paths. The condors were also out, one sweeping low overhead searching for old meat on new snow.

View of Cerro Torre from Mirador Condores

The snow softly dusted the grass and trees

Snow melting on a golden orchid

The morning after the snowstorm - magical!

The mists swirling around Fitzroy's impressive profile

Nello climbing steadily up through the white carpeted landscape

Climbing steadily upwards, we alternated between open grassland and groves of mature beech, while at times the spires of Monte Fitzroy and the needle-like Cerro Torre appeared through the gaps in the forest.

At one clearing we were watching a pair of hares at play, when a noise nearby attracted our attention. Watching us from the protection of the nearby beech grove was a huemul, the rare mule deer of Patagonia - it bolted when we crept closer. The track now turned westward to head up a long spur, once again entering the deep beech forest.

The barren mountains to the east

The ascent passes through grasslands and beech forest

Amongst the tall beech

The needles of Cerro Torre reaching skyward

Reflections of Fitzroy in a mountain tarn

Track through the higher beech forest

Under the cold forest shade, we were soon crunching across dry snow, for a while following the fresh tracks of a large fox, until we finally emerged out of the forest onto a broad snow covered grassland high on the spur. Another pair of hares were chasing each other around through the snow. Ahead to our left lay the rounded dome of Loma de Pliegue Tumbado, while to the right clouds drifted around the needles of Cerro Torre and the mass of Fitzroy.

Snow covers the path in the still cold forest

Looking back at our path

Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run .....
... there's a fox on the prowl (OK I know it's a hare - but that has no alliteration!)

Following a series of rock cairns, we climbed steadily across the snowy landscape, views opening up over the distant pale green expanse of Lago Viedma as we gained height. After one last steepish ascent of a shaley slope, we rounded the saddle to the viewpoint of Loma de Pliegue Tumbado.

View across the slopes of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado to Lago Viedma

Nello heading in the direction of Fitzroy

Looking up the last climb to the saddle

Almost on cue, the clouds parted to reveal one of the best alpine panoramas that we have ever seen; the incredibly sharp needle of Cerro Torre and the dark bulk of the south face of Monte Fitzroy standing guard on each side of Glacier Torre, curving down into the milky green waters of Laguna Torre. This is one of the few places where you can see both these icons in their full extent at the same time.

The swirling clouds lifted from the mountains to reveal ...

....the incredible panorama of Cerro Torre and Monte Fitzroy rising above the
the glacier-filled valley and lake

For over an hour we sat and watched the interplay between mountain and cloud; the jagged rock faces appearing and disappearing as clouds swirled by or formed around the mass of Fitzroy and the elegant needles of Cerro Torre. Fitzroy itself appeared to be the maestro conducting this symphony of mists and clouds.

The 3102m spire of Cerro Torre and its
neighbouring rock needles

Why Cerro Torre is considered one of the most
difficult mountains in the world to climb

The south face of 3405m Monte Fitzroy behind
Cerro Techado Negro

The wildness of the Patagonian Andes

After a long and slow lunch break, we forced ourselves to leave this magic setting, once again rounding the the saddle to start our descent, only to find that the world had changed dramatically. During our ninety minutes on top, the snow had almost all gone, leaving a shaley, pink-tinted rocky surface, colonised by mosses and cushion plants.

So what happened to the snow? The shaley surface of
Loma de Pliegue Tumbado revealed

The forest was dripping with melting snow as we passed through it and lower down, where we had walked up in white carpet, we were able to sit in the warm afternoon sun on a grassy slope, dotted with dandelions and alpine herbs. It was a very different trip down; what more can you ask for - two walks for the effort of one!

Tree line on the way down

Grassy clearings on the middle slopes

Back in the rocky creekbeds

Hard to believe that this is where the hares cavorted in the snow 3 hours earlier

The daisy-lined track home to El Chalten

A stand of stunted ñirre beech

By the time we passed the Ranger Station on the way back the clouds were lifting, revealing the classic photo of the jagged profile of Fitzroy and its neighbouring peaks taken by every passing tourist - it is an impressive panorama and I duly took my photo ... and another ... and another, as the clouds evaporated from the sky.

The famous skyline of Fitzroy

The clouds finally clear to a brilliant Patagonian spring day

We were glad that we had done this walk first as, apart from the wonderful snowscapes in the early morning, it gave us a very good feel for the lay of the mountains. Moreover, it is a lesser-trodden trail and you can wander here peacefully - tomorrow we would start to get closer and more personal with the individual peaks and join the throngs on the Road to Fitzroy.


Laguna de los Tres Walk (30km - 980m ascent - 980m descent)

What joy - a second fine day in El Chalten! Some high cloud was drifting in from the south, but the air was still and warm in the valley. We even slept in a bit and it was 9.30am by the time we set out for the signature walk of the region; the track up to Laguna de los Tres for a face-to-face look at mighty Fitzroy. We soon left the northern end of town and started climbing quickly up through old twisted beech trees at the base of the pink granite knob of Cerro Rosado, emerging at a point from where we could look down the length of the Rio de las Vueltas, winding through its broad flat bed beneath the Cordon de los Condores. As it should be, a pair of these magnificent birds soared high overhead.

Old guardian's hut at the edge of El Chalten

Looking back over El Chalten

View down the valley of Rio de las Vueltas

Track through the beech forest
The track wound around Cerro Rosado, climbing gently through open grasslands, covered with shapely mounds of low prickly shrubs and dotted with the yellow, cream and white flowers of alpine herbs. Soon, however, we were back in world of beech, some low scrubby ñire and some impressively mature stands of gnarly old lenga. The sound of "tac-tac-tac" stopped us in our tracks; looking up, we saw the brilliant red head of a carpintero hammering into the dead wood of an old beech, searching for its breakfast.

The magnificent carpintero
(Magellanic woodpecker)

View across Laguna Capri toward Cerro
Electrico and Glacier Piedras Blancas

The track now climbed a bit more steeply to reach a lookout point over the forest towards the jagged profile of Fitzroy and its neighbouring spires - simply magnificent, framed by a sky kept blue by the reflective energy of the great southern icefield. Elsewhere, the high cloud was winning the day and the sunlight was becoming paler.

The classic view of 3405m Fitzroy from the
Mirador below Cerro Rosado

Laguna Capri - a perfect setting fringed with
stunted gnarly beech

We dropped down from the mirador, turning off at the next junction to wander back along the shores of Lago Capri - here we had a second splendid view of the Fitzroy massif across the waters of the lake and framed by the silhouettes of the bonsaied lenga that grew there.

Fitzroy framing the Arroyo del Salto

The variability of a single species of beech is quite amazing; from tall, thick-trunked and gnarly 20m trees to dwarfed 2m bonsais, to multi-branched quasi-shrubs all occurring within a few hundred metres of one another in this mosaic of micro-habitats.

The jagged profile of Aguja Saint Exupery, Cerro Poincenot and Monte Fitzroy

The distant face of Glacier Piedra Blancas

Back on course, we headed on along the main path, descending gently through open scrubby beech, beneath shady groves of tall mature beech, alongside the flat-red rocks of the Arroyo del Salto with its babbling brook, through an area of thick scrub that closed in on the path and skirting around a broad marshy flat dotted with tarns, to cross the trickling streams of the marshland via a series of log bridges. The jagged profile of Fitzroy and friends across this marsh was even more impressive than the earlier views, while to the north we could see the face of Glacier Piedras Blancas in its steep-walled valley. What was not impressive, was the sight of the track winding steeply up the spur ahead to Laguna de los Tres!

Crossing the Rio Blanco

Pushing on, we entered another large grove of beech, wherein sheltered the Poincenot campsite. We did not dally as the track was starting to get crowded, and risked being moreso on the slower steeper sections, but headed on to cross the stony Rio Blanco on a log bridge and climb gently up to Rio Blanco climbers' campsite.

Here the climb started in earnest - 450m in 2km of zig-zagging track up an eroding spur (the national park has done a good job of repairing the track and defining the path, but with a hundred or so people doing this walk every day it is difficult for areas to recover).

Nearing the Mirador de los Tres

Rocky landscape of the upper slopes

We soon settled into a rhythm and climbed steadily, all the way views opening up behind us of Lagunas Madre y Hija, Capri and distant Lago Viedma.

View of Lagunas Madre y Hija towards Lago Viedma

Still the best views remained hidden until, 45 minutes later, we crested the rocky scree to the magnificent vista of Fitzroy, directly in front of us above a softly snow covered glacier, its grey and pinkish-orange granite soaring majestically 2200m above the pristine frozen whiteness of Laguna de los Tres.

Reflections in Laguna Sucia (me parece muy limpia!)

Tiny specks of trekkers on the shores of ice covered Laguna de Los Tres dwarfed by
the peaks and glacier of Fitzroy

The magnificent setting of Laguna Sucia

Avalanche on 3002m Cerro Poincenot

Not to be outdone, the smaller and narrower spire of 3002m Cerro Poincenot reached skyward to the left. A second surprise awaited; we descended to the lake shore and climbed a rocky knoll to the south - 200m below us lay the incredibly deep blue waters of strangely named Laguna Sucia, spattered with fragments of floating ice, the mountainous surrounds reflected in its still waters. Above it lay the deeply crevassed surface of Glacier Rio Blanco and above that the needles of Cerro Poincenot and its neighbours.

The intense blue of a still alpine lake

We stayed for lunch, joining other trekkers to absorb the aura of Fitzroy and watching ice avalanches tumble down from the glacier into Laguna Sucia or, more impressively, tumbling several hundred metres off the spire of Poincenot high above. One by one, people began to leave and eventually we headed off as well; cloud having menacingly filled the sky behind the mountain! After passing a small bottleneck of walkers on the higher part of the track, we were soon back at Rio Blanco.

Spot the trekker in front of a massive boulder stranded here by retreating ice

Icebergs jammed against the shore of Laguna Piedras Blancas

The face of Glacier Piedras Blancas up close

Picking our way between, around and over this jumble we reached the outlet of Laguna Piedras Blancas, small icebergs floating in its leeward shore, a low-faced glacier at its far end and, high above, the magnificently contorted face of the upper glacier crowned with wierdly angled seracs - simply magnificent and well with the extra 5km.

Stony bed of the Rio Blanco

Crossing the morain - so why do they call
this place "Piedras Blancas"?

Time for a short detour - we followed the river northwards through the forest, sometimes walking on its broad stony bed, sometimes edging along its eroded banks, our target the Glacier Piedras Blancas that we had spied earlier. An increase in the number of very large rocks announced our arrival and we rounded the edge of the morain to an incredible jumble of massive pale coloured boulders.

Piedras Blancas - ice-filled lake and glacier

Close up of the seracs at the glacier's edge

What better time and place to meditate than
late afternoon on Laguna Capri

Heading home through the superb forest ....

Making the detour had one extra benefit; by the time that we returned to the Rio Blanco bridge, the crowds had vanished and we had the return trip to El Chalten largely to ourselves in the tranquility of the late afternoon - even the wind had left us.

Caracara being photogenic

A last look at Fitzroy across Laguna Capri

We pushed on quickly to Laguna Capri for one last view of Fitzroy, arriving to find a pair of caracaras boldly rifling through the campsite and a young woman sitting under a bonsaied beech on the lakeshore meditating in the stillness of the evening. Nothing seemed more appropriate, so finding our own spot a little back, we joined her to take in the silence of the Patagonian wilderness.

... and across the shrubby steppe

View past Cerro Rosado to the Cordon de los Condores

We eventually arrived back in El Chalten at 7.30pm after 30km of walking and almost 1000m of climbing and then descending again; it was probably our hardest single day's walk and our legs were very weary - the delicious Argentinian steak and bottle of Quilmes made us even more sleepy and we were not long out of bed, dreaming about our big day out in the mountains and the dominating presence of Monte Fitzroy.

Go to Part 2 .....