Crowds sleep late

Posted in Travel at 9:00 by RjZ

Cerro Fitz Roy is practically the symbol of Patagonia. While it is the highest mountain in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, it’s still only a modest 3,375 m (11,072 ft) tall. What makes it impressive is the sheer granite faces, expanses of ice, and terrible weather that make it such a challenge to climb. It used to be a challenge just to see the mountain, but Argentine authorities are developing the area for tourism, updating the airport in El Calafate (a few hours to the north) and completing a paved road all the way to the the small villiage.

The village is growing at an unbelievable pace, filled with hotels and restaurants now, but with at least as many being added and in construction during my visit. Who’s to say how this will play out (I may write more about that later…) but today it means that this gateway to the most famous mountains in Patagonia is far more accessible than ever before.

With accessibility come tourists (like myself), but most folks who like to hike, seek the peace of relatively untouched outdoors and to avoid Black Friday shopping crowds. When a mountain’s profile is the symbol of a popular clothing line, it shouldn’t be surprising that every single resident of every single hotel in tiny El Chalten is on his or her way up there to get a view.

Camping is possible in two areas along the trail, one a couple of hours away and another about 250 super steep meters from Laguna de Los Tres, the (in spring) frozen lake at the base of the cirque. Renting gear is surprisingly easy in El Chalten, and the available gear is of good quality (including the aforementioned brand) so if you forgot your tent and sleeping bag, you can still camp. Um, the campgrounds are first come, first served and pretty tightly packed; it’s like a KOA campground without the RVs, so maybe camping is just OK.

Instead, we decided to catch the sunrise with a before dawn start from town at 3:30 in the morning. On our way out of town, we passed a bar with several tourists drinking up their last beers and beginning to stagger noisily home. Argentines get started pretty late, but the various languages being spoken meant these weren’t likely locals, and it’s not like little El Chalten is known for its night life. Or maybe not. Really, is that why folks come here? I thought it was because of the pretty mountains. Clearly, I don’t know how to have fun.

All alone at Laguna de Los Tres

We made it to the lookout in time for the sunrise, but caught only the tiniest glimpse of sunlight on the peaks before our shy ball of fire hid behind some clouds. More surprising, even though a campground was only about 15 minutes from the view point, we shivered completely alone in the morning wind. I’d have found it hard to leave a warm sleeping bag too.

I expected loads of climbers in El Chalten, but as Cerro Fitz Roy is only conquered about once or twice a year, maybe it’s not surprising that we rarely saw few climbing parties, and even the telephoto couldn’t spot any on the mountain. We did see one pair, helmets, ice axes, and climbing boots strapped to their packs, hiking rapidly passed us, away from the mountain. Their faces were as stony and serious as the sheer face of the mountain itself. They didn’t exactly give me the impression of two victorious mountaineers.

We continued towards the lake, another two plus hours of hiking. Passing through the second campground we saw folks beginning to crawl out of their tents and start coffee. (Had they stayed up late as well?) We hiked up the super steep trail, thankful to be sheltered from the cold, gusty, and what surely would have been downright scary wind, to the top of our hike (only about 1400 m/ 4550 feet). The cirque was less sheltered, but we had it to ourselves. Completely undisturbed we walked around snapping pictures until snow started and scared us off. No one wants to walk down that trail in slippery snow and I’d made that mistake in Peru already. Only on the descent did we begin to pass people making their way to the top.

By the time we were at the base of the climb there was a steady stream of hikers. On the way back we passed whole tour groups of twenty or more at a time, stepping aside frequently to let them pass. The return wasn’t quite a holiday shopping rush, but was exactly the kind of thing we were glad to avoid. So, if you’re like most hikers (and apparently, most hikers are not like this) and want to avoid the crowds, skip the late night beers and get up early. Simple as that.

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