- “I’m a big believer in winging it. I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find the perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary”. –Anthony Bourdain
My second hike in Patagonia was with a tour group, Fitz Roy Expeditions, to hike, rock climb and do a little glacier trekking. I’ll start off by saying that I’m generally not a fan of group tours but will make exceptions when I believe it’s the best way to learn the history of a particular place, if it provides access that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get, or if I’m about to do something that might be stupid or unsafe to do alone. This hike fell into the latter two categories.
The morning of the hike I’m in the hotel lobby waiting to be picked up and of course wanting to shit my pants as I think of every possible bad scenario that could happen. Being the hike was listed as strenuous, I figured for sure it would be a van full of dudes and super fit chicks all experienced at scaling mountains…and then me. The night before, my period decided it would be a good time to show up so now I’m also worried about having to stop and do personal trail maintenance during the hike. How does one ask a group to stop for a tampon time out? And oh my word, what if I have to shit in the middle of scaling these walls. Yep, this is what I think about while waiting for a group tour to start. I’m not worried about falling off a mountain or into a crevasse, but if I’ll shit my pants. I’m clearly more confident in my climbing skills than I am in regulating my bodily functions.
As I’m working myself into a self-induced panic attack my guide walks into the hotel, this cute upbeat hiker chick. I follow her to the van and other than the male driver there is only one other woman. The hike was going to be me, the other woman who I came to know as Carina, and the female guide. Well this is kinda badass…three chicks going to climb a mountain and hike on a glacier! I feel like the universe was for sure working with me that day. Not that I would’ve minded guys on the trip, I was just happy the group size was small and that it wasn’t full of super serious outdoor junkies levels above me in ability.
Now onto the hike! It took about 45 minute to the trail via a not so smooth road. We stopped off at a Mirador viewpoint because there was a perfectly placed rainbow shining in front of a mountain. Once at the trailhead, it was a roughly 4 mile hike till we started the climbing portion.
The hike was along a very well maintained trail, mostly shaded in a canopy of lenga, and for much of the route followed the Diablo River. The trek is through the Los Huemules Reserve which is private, protected land and thus requiring a small fee to enter. Being the trail is farther outside of town it gets much less attention than those within walking distance. We only came across two other groups of hikers the entire day as compared to the hundreds that hike to Laguna de Los Tres and Cerro Torre.
There really was no wildlife to speak of during the hike. There are huemul, the south Andean deer that is Chile’s national animal and considered an endangered species, but we didn’t see any. The guide said Puma’s can be spotted now and again, but it is apparently very rare.
The elevation gain from the start of the trail to the first set of domes (where we were to pick up our climbing gear), was roughly 1000 ft. Once we picked up our gear we hiked alongside Laguna Diablo until we reached the Via Ferrata, the rock climbing section, which was about another quarter mile out. This was a non-technical climb using harnesses and clipping into steel wires while using a mix of steel steps and rock face.
The climb itself was a little over one kilometer…but as I learned from my previous day’s hike…one km can really kick your ass! The first half was mostly horizontal, scaling the side of the rock face over the Laguna. There were two vertical climbs, one about mid-way through and the other at the end. The first vertical climb was about two hundred feet and generally easy to navigate, with the exception of one spot where my legs weren’t quite long enough to get from one foot hold to the other, so some serious arm work was at play.
The second vertical climb was about 800 feet of straight up fun. I was having such a good time the guide let me go ahead and lead the three of us. At the top, we hiked along a rocky ridge before the path eventually drops down towards the second set of geodesic domes and the glacier itself. In all it’s about 2 miles from the start of the ferrata to the glacier.
From the top of the mountain all the way towards the glacier, I was getting blown backwards by the legendary Patagonian winds. I felt like Jim Cantore reporting the news from a beach in the middle of a hurricane.
We didn’t spend too much time on the glacier because the weather was about to turn and the guide of course wanted to get us back safely. It was a pretty surreal experience and I really wanted to trek further up the ice. There weren’t many crevasses and the one’s I saw were fairly small and easy to maneuver over. I sat down to take it all in and it looked like I was sitting in between waves of ice.
After about 30 minutes on the glacier, it was time to head back up the ridge and down the rock face. It started to rain so that added an extra layer of fun trying to grab foothold on wet rocks, ya know the kind of fun that also scares the shit out of you. Heading back to the trailhead, the three of us hiked our own hike. While we stayed within eyesight distance, I could tell we were all ready to finish the experience in our own heads, taking it in, and finishing it our own way.
After my post hike beers, I was planning to head back to the hotel. The band that had been playing at the bar was finishing up and people kept telling them to play more. So the band left the bar, headed into the street and started playing again. So what happens when a band leaves a bar in El Chaltén….well, the bar leaves and follows the band! I was super tired from a long day of hiking and yet, when the hell would I ever get the chance again to follow a band and dance down the street in a small city in Argentina? So for the next two hours I danced in the streets of El Chaltén with fellow hikers and locals.
It was the most perfectly unscripted way to end such an epic hike and epic day. A moment like that could never have been planned, and more than likely won’t be repeated in any of my future travels.