Los Glaciares - Fitzroy Treks (part 2)


Glaciar Grande Walk (25km - 600m ascent - 600m descent)

Glaciar Grande lies behind the milky green waters of Laguna Torre and beneath the incredible 2000m rock needle of Cerro Torre. We had looked down on it from Loma de Pliegue Tumbado a few days ago and this had instilled a strong desire in me to see it close up from below - from on the ice. The fair Nello wasn't as keen on the idea of trekking on ice, so it was just me that set out from El Chalten with a guided group at 7 am on a cold but clear morning - she planned on a good sleep in and a leisurely walk up to Laguna Torre to meet me on the way back.

It was a quick trip out, across the open grasslands, low scrubby ñire and groves of lenga, passing high above the steep valley of Rio Fitzroy to reach the Cerro Torre viewpoint. Here I quickly realised that part of my plans were about to go "belly up" - ahead the lake and glacier were visible, framed by the silhouettes of Cerro Solo on the left and the lower ramparts of Fitzroy on the right, but between them the snowy base of Cerro Torre and its surrounding rock spires vanished into the thick cloud that clung to the higher peaks. Still, we had been very fortunate in seeing all this earlier - some people come and go and never see the peaks of the Fitzroy massif (the indigenous name for these is Chalten, which signifies that they hide in cloud).

Laguna Torre and Glaciar Grande

We dropped off the pass and started to cross the scrubby flats of the Rio Fitzroy. Our guide was setting a cracking pace - she was on a mission to deliver us to the base camp by 9am to join up with other trekkers who had stayed there. Leaving the flats, we wound our way up through the rubbly old morain, covered in tall beech to reach the sheltered campsite and a welcome cup of hot chocolate.

Track down the northern terminal morain

View across the river flats of Rio Fitzroy

Snow-capped Cerro Solo

Soon we were measured, harnessed, our crampons fitted and in our backpacks and were off again, crossing the old forest covered morains to reach the current lateral morain that held back the milky waters of Laguna Torres, with its odd icebergs drifting about. We followed the track down the rim of the barren and steep-edged rock rubble - above, the face of the glacier shone in the sun, but the misty clouds still persisted. In fact, the odd snowflakes drifted down on us as we descended the narrow morain rim in bright sunshine. Falling snow and sun at the same time - this must be Patagonia!

By tiroleser across Rio Fitzroy

Icebergs in Laguna Torre

Reaching the lake and the outlet of fast flowing Rio Fitzroy, we got to test out our harnesses for the first time - hooking on to a tiroleser and hauling ourselves across the ropeline to reach the far side of the river.

Climbing the lateral morain of Laguna Torre

Then it was a steady climb up the southern morain - somewhat more vegetated with prostrate shrubs and the odd stunted beech - to reach an imposing cliff at the high end of the lake. To avert this, the track climbed steeply up through the forest, crossing a couple of landslip areas with increasingly close-up views of the face of the glacier in its little cove, and then descended even more steeply, zig-zagging down a bare and loose rocky morain to reach Glaciar Grande. In fact, before we realised it we were on the glacier, if not the ice, as the edges were covered with small rocks and gravel ripped out by the descending mass.

The face of Glaciar Grande

Overlooking the lower part of Glaciar Grande

Crossing on to the ice at the glacier edge

Cramponed up we head out onto the glacier

Ice cliffs of Glaciar Grande

It was time to put on the crampons and head off into the world of ice and what a curious world it was. An undulating landscape, crinkled by pressure and lined with thin cracks and crevasses.

Looking back towards the glacier terminus

Ice lakes of blue and green

Many icy streams rushed down the glacier in narrow channels, some racing to the edge, others disappearing down large moulins to pass through the glacier and flow beneath it. Small lakes of azure blue or olive green had formed in the surface and we passed small caves, their interiors taking on intense shades of blue. Above, the line of seracs on the edge of the upper part of the glacier formed a deeply creased jumble.

Ice cave

Fast flowing stream on the glacier

Looking up to the serac fields

Glacier icescape

Trekking party on Glaciar Grande

As we crossed the glacier, the wind began to pick up, whistling down from the cold mists above, where Cerro Torre hid. Our goal, however, was a series of ice cliffs, 20-30m tall, protected from the wind by the seracs. Here we arrived to find one of the guides setting up a series of ropes - it was time for lunch and ice-climbing on the almost vertical face. We were about to put our harnesses to use for the second time. I have occasionally alluded to my fear of heights, so it may surprise to know that I not only attempted the ice-climb, but also made it to the top of the 3000m vertical ice face using just crampons and and an ice-pick in each hand (OK, so it was only 30m and only vertical for the last 10 of these, but the fear was faced and overcome) - youth was revisited.

Climbing the ice cliff

Waterfilled crevasse

Heading back down

Return across Rio Fitzroy

After the climb, we made our way back to the glacier edge with the help of a strong tailwind, decramponed, then back along the path to the river, for our third and final harness test, as we tirolisered one last time across the river. The fair Nello was waiting at the campsite to join us all for hot chocolate in celebration of a good day on the ice, and then it was another two and half hours back again to El Chalten.

Rio Fitzroy below Laguna Torre

Beech forests of Fitzroy

The weather closes in over the Fitzroy Valley

All the time the wind was picking up strength and by the time we reached town, it had reached gale force, with icy gusts of up to 100 kph that whipped up clouds of dust from the streets and drove it vertically down the road. The notorious Patagonian winds had returned to El Chalten with a vengeance and we could barely struggle into the microbrewery restaurant for a glass or two of their delicious artesanal beer to celebrate. We had completed our mission in Los Glaciares National Park and, that night, the sound of the wind howling outside and rattling the glass seemed almost like a lullaby.


Rio de las Vueltas (28km by bike, 5 km on foot)

Despite the return of windy conditions, the weather had been kind to us in Patagonia, and we found ourselves with a few spare days up our sleeve. What better way to pass a few of them than to spend a bit of time in the log cabins of Fitzroy Expediciones Lodge, set in a beech forest on the edge of the Rio de las Vueltas, some twenty kilometres north of El Chalten.

Fitzroy from the north - with Cerro Torre peaking through a gap

Valley of the Rio Electrico

Rio de las Vueltas

Here we were protected from the excesses of the wind that was punishing the town and could enjoy a gentle stroll through the forest along the banks of the ice-green river or laze about in the large cypress lodge of the camp, with its full glass wall looking out over the north face of Fitzroy and the rich smells of dinner cooking on the stove. We shared the lodge with a group of French trekkers and had the opportunity to recuperate a little bit of French that had been driven into the recesses of our foggy brains by eight months of Spanish; it was good to listen to "la belle langue" again.

The imposing pinnacle of 3405m Fitzroy

Nello in front of our log cabin

The green of the lenga forest

Setting off on a ride to Lago del Desierto

The lodge at Fitzroy Expediciones

A quiet walk along the river's edge

Reflections of Fitzroy in the lodge window

Rio de las Vueltas at the lodge

Our stroll along the river enabled us to enjoy the flora and fauna of this tree-clad valley - splashes of colour in this world of green, while parrots squawked as they flew overhead and waterbirds patrolled the shoreline.

A delicate orchid

Patagonian thrush

Female upland goose

Pea flowers

Crossing the Rio de las Vueltas

El pato

The following day, we continued our exploration of the Rio de las Vueltas on mountain bikes, heading north up the gravel road from Fitzroy Lodge and following the course of the river as it wound its way down a broad glacial valley, lined with beech forest. The route crossed several rushing sidestreams, including the milky green Arroyo Milodon fed by a glacier high up its valley. This was the main source of colour of the Rio de las Vueltas, for as soon as we had passed the junction with Arroyo Milodon, its waters turned to a clear bottle green colour. Continuing on into a cold head wind, we passed areas of wetland and swamp and then a series of cascades and rapids as the river descended more quickly through a narrow part of the valley.

Memorial to a 1960s border clash between
Argentina and Chile

Waterfall on the road to Lago del Desierto

Cascade and rapids on the Rio del las Vueltas

Rickety suspension bridge across the
Rio de las Vueltas

Bleak weather over Lago del Desierto

A kilometre or two more and we reached the southern end of Lago del Desierto. We got off our bikes and walked through the forest to the lake shore. The wind was whistling down the length of this long and narrow lake and its edges faded into the mists of light drizzle that was falling - a very bleak part of Patagonia, but one that Argentina and Chile fought a brief and localised war over in the 1960s. On the way up we had passed a small memorial to the fact that people are prepared to die for this land.

The long ride home

Back at the lodge

How a woodpecker pecks

On the way back we were once again fortunate to spot "el carpintero" (the Magellanic woodpecker) - we watched with fascination as this magnificent red-headed bird went about its business locating and extracting a juicy woodgrub from a beech tree.

First choose your tree ...

... listen carefully to locate the prey ...

... hammer a hole as fast as you can ...

.... reach in and grab the grub!

The wind did not permit us to linger at Lago del Desierto and soon we were heading back again, with it at our tail and pushing us rapidly southward back down the road. We arrived back at the Lodge in time for lunch and what a lunch it was - this place has a gourmet chef! With its curious natural log architecture, magnificent views and comfortable interior, it was a great place to finish our time in the Fitzroy area.

Gourmet meal at the Fitzroy Expediciones lodge

The parting view of the Fitzroy massif

As our bus headed out of El Chalten, we gazed back at the magnificent panorama of the Fitzroy Massif - it had certainly been one of the highlights of our trip, but it was not time to dwell as there were more memories to be generated. We were heading for the most southerly city in the world with a name synonymous with adventure - Ushuaia!