Snow Trekking to a Patagonian Icon

The air was extremely brisk as I ascended carefully on the iced trail through the forest with the head torch being the only light. At times, torturously slow when there was no patches of snow or mud to give me better grip. Other than some of the trees immediately around me and about 15m ahead on the trail, I couldn't make out anything...the moon was but a crescent with its light not really penetrating the darker areas of the forest. After about 1.5km the trail was more snow and less ice and I could start moving a bit faster, slowing down for the little wooden boardwalks and bridges that all had a thick layer of ice on. Crossing them I would try and kick in my heels and/or try and chip at it with the walking poles.

I was trying to reach Lake Capri before sunrise to get the colours and the light of the rising sun on the rock pinnacles of Fitz Roy and co. Departing just before 7:30am from the village of El Chaltén, it was going to be a 11-13km one way trek to the base area of Mt Fitz Roy, (peak at around 3,400m above sea level) at about 1,200m altitude. Located in the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentine Patagonia, it has become one of the iconic and probably one of the most identifiable landmarks in this part of Patagonia with Torres del Paine on the Chilean side, another iconic site.

Winding up and through the forest, the snow was getting a bit deeper as I got closer to Lake Capri - stopping suddenly as I saw the pink clouds over the tip of Fitz Roy, I had to take some photos now as I wasn´t totally sure how much longer it would take me to get to the lake in these conditions. Taking photos, I was on the one hand missing my DSLR camera but on the other hand, smiling like a kid that just got a bicycle for christmas! It was just simply something else to see this icon for myself! It didn´t actually take me much longer to get to Lake Capri but the pink in the clouds was just disappearing as I arrived although the view of Fitz Roy was still clear.

The peace and quiet in this white world was amazing and humbling at the same time. The lake as such wasn´t visible other than a huge flat area covered in about 10-15cm of snow over the iced surface. The trees and patches of forest were in stark and dark contrast against the all white background. A 20min break and taking photos and I headed off to Los 3 Lagos at the foot of Mt Fitz Roy. The trail follows the lakeshore for almost a kilometre before heading out into a more open area. Trekking through the snow from here is not overly difficult with the snow only being around 20-30cm deep although obviously harder work than a plain trail without snow.

At various points along the trail I stop to marvel at the pinnacles of Fitz Roy standing out clear against the sky in the distance, like the one just before crossing over the wetland along a single wooden boardwalk. The boardwalk turns out to be an interesting crossing as it´s covered with snow and ice and only 30cm wide. It makes for some careful kicking in with the boots and/or where possible, breaking some ice out with the one of the trekking poles. A couple of the little wooden bridge crossings are the same - no chance at relaxing mentally as you have to stay alert for any patch of ice which could send one falling and sliding into some freezing cold water. Luckily the worst that happened with me was one glove falling into water at the edge of the wetland and I had extra gloves to use while that one sort of dried in the icy wind.

Meeting up with two other guys along the way trekking to Fitz Roy, we stop at a little shelter before the ascent up the last section, the part which everyone has told us is the hardest and steepest part. In the shelter we meet another couple who´d slept there the night but early morning had already trekked up and descended with snowboards. Whilst the guys are sharing out the traditional Argentinian maté we chat about the route and the section ahead; a bite to eat and we start off with the final section. Winding through some woodland the trail starts to ascend almost immediately onto an open long ridge ascent. In the distance we can see 2-3 other people and only because of the coloured clothing against the snow.

We reach a steeper slope where the tips of some trail stakes stick out although not many but it becomes obvious, to us anyway, it´s a sort of zig-zag section. The snow is now on average up to half a metre deep so the pace is slowing down as we try and negotiate the way up which appears to be a rocky area covered in deep snow. Ascending all the time, the snow gets deeper and the stakes are long ago not visible anymore so it´s just about choosing the next 5-10m and then getting there. The slope is also more exposed and the wind is gusting through at around 70km/h every now and then. With the gusts, we hunker down for the 1-2min and then carry on with the next few paces. The deep snow sort of helps to anchor us in the gusting wind that seems to be trying to blow us off the slope. When there are some rock to walk on, we have to hunch down into a ball against the gusts when they hit us - interesting times!

After what feels like hours, we reach a crest (after 2-3 false "summits") and the Lago de Los Tres (covered in snow and ice) and Fitz Roy/El Chaltén (this is the original local name of this peak) is there in front of us in all its glory! What a sight! Once again, like countless times times up to now in Patagonia, I´m speechless. ...talking to anyone in this wind is in any case totally pointless! It had taken us over 90min to ascend, a section that would apparently in summer be about 40-50min´s only 1km!
I can´t believe that I´m standing in front of this Patagonian icon, it´s certainly a surreal moment albeit unforgettable. The one guy gestures that he´ll take a couple of photos of me with the phone at least - not the best quality but hey, I´m hardly complaining at this stage!

We only spend about 15min here before we start making our way down again. With the howling wind and even stronger gusts, there are absolutely no tracks visible but at least there´s no fog so we can use landmarks to keep our direction to the long ridge near the shelter.

Some more hot maté and then a large milanesa sandwich roll each which goes down like a gourmet meal of note. Now we have the 10km trail to negotiate back to the village of El Chaltén. We´re joined by an Italian guy and the 5 of us head back; moving much quicker but everyone is agreed on how tired they are so probably more motivated by getting back to rest than having a load of energy.

The evening after a long hot shower I realised that my trekking boots had saved me from a potentially nasty ankle injury up on the final slope. I had felt my foot slip against a rock deep inside the snow but not thought much of it. Now the boot was off, I realised that it had supported my ankle during a pretty hard twist, heaven knows how bad it could´ve been if I hadn´t been wearing the boots! Exactly why proper boots are so important and even more so when trekking pretty remote areas or areas with difficult access.
I was now hardly able to step on the foot, so bandaged up and frustratingly not able to go trekking the next couple of days.
Rancho Grande in El Chaltén: excellent accommodation with 24-hour restaurant

What an incredible day - difficult and challenging at times but at the same time rewarding us with spectacular views of a Patagonian icon...Mt Fitz Roy!

Date & Season: 8 August 2018 - late winter
Total distance: 21km
Duration: 10.5 hours
Conditions: 1st km icy and the rest of the trail snow varying from 15-30cm deep.
Last km ascent: snow depth ranging from 50-70cm and wind gusting up to estimated 70km/h


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