Patagonia: Cure for Winter Blues

Here in the dead of a northern hemisphere winter, backcountry travelers begin to dream about hiking under a warm sun and walking across green meadows. While the mountains of North America are still way too cold and snowy, the obvious solution is to head south. And no place offers better hiking than the mountains of Argentine Patagonia.

The iconic profile of the Fitz Roy group--a monumental ridge formed by the rock spires of Cerro Torre, Poincenot, St. Exupery, and dominated by the magnificent arrowhead of Fitz itself--appears out of the Patagonian plain more abruptly even than that of the Grand Tetons. These towers of pink-tinged gray granite, painted by sunrise in shades of brilliant orange and blood red, take your breath away. It is a sublime view, the reason to come here.

For decades it was predominantly climbers who made the long journey to test themselves against not only the difficult routes, but the infamous Patagonian winds. But the landscape at the foot of these mountains, what geologists call a steppe (the Spanish word is meseta), is ideal for hiking and backcountry travel. The glacier-carved landscape's hilly terrain is dotted with lakes and vantage points from which to see the mountains, making for hiking that is as fun as it is scenic.


Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

The peaks of the Fitz Roy group lie within the boundaries of Argentina's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, at more than 6,000 square kilometers one of the biggest on the continent. Fitz Roy is the star of the show, but the big glaciers to the south are major players as well: Lago Viedma and Lago Argentina lap up against the Patagonian ice cap, where huge glaciers spill into them, turning their waters a surreal blue from glacial sediment. It's an irresistible backdrop to one of the most scenic hiking adventures in the hemisphere.

Explorer Francisco Moreno named Fitz Roy for the captain of Charles Darwin's vessel, the Beagle, which sailed within sight of the peak in 1834. At 11,073 feet, the mountain the local Indians called Chalten isn't especially high by Himalayan standards, but it's shapely bulk rising from the rolling plain makes a staggering sight. In the 1950s and 1960s, these mythic towers drew climbers from all over the world, including Frenchman Lionel Terray, Italian Walter Bonatti, Argentine Jose Fonrouge, Scot Dougal Haston and American Yvon Chouinard.

Those visits explain the polyglot place names that dot the map as you hike around the hilly, beech-covered plain. The forgiving terrain demands little elevation gain, making for moderate but consistently mind-blowing backpacking in the shadow of these incredible peaks. El Chalten, the tiny village at the base of the Fitz Roy group, at the entrance to the national park, has an increasing array of creature comforts as it's metamorphosed from military outpost to mountain village of some civility. Just be prepared for legendary winds and rainy weather that are synonymous with Patagonia, often worst, ironically, during the November to March high season.

After multiple visits here I'm convinced the best route, if you want to see everything, follows this easy 36-mile journey through the distinctive beech forests known as "lenga" to the locals. Take four to seven days, depending on how much time you want to tarry at these scenic camps.


The Route

The route I recommend goes like this: From Chalten, hike seven easy miles to Lago Torre for the views across the lake to Cerro Torre, perhaps the most awesome rock spire in the world (don't miss the side trip to Campamento Bridwell). From there, it's another short day and five miles to Campamento Poincenot, where a stay of one or two nights allows for the steep side trip to Laguna de los Tres and the iconic sunrise view of the Fitz Roy group, and the rugged side trip to Laguna Sucia. From there a six-mile route follows the western bank of the Rio Blanco (past the turnoff for Glaciar Piedras Blancas) to it's junction with the Rio Electrico trail, and a third camp at Piedra del Fraile for another night or two. From there, the hike returns to El Chalten via a final camp at picturesque Laguna Capri, perhaps the prettiest camp of all.

Getting to Fitz Roy became much easier with the opening in 2002 of a new airport at Calafate City, which saves two days of driving on gravel roads from Rio Gallegos. There's no longer any reason to venture into Calafate itself, as so many new lodges, restaurants and other amenities--bookstores, hiking supply shops and microbreweries--have sprouted in Chalten that it's the logical base camp. Major trailheads are within a few blocks of each other, and hiking permits are not required.


Why Go Now?

In these days of a weak dollar, Argentina offers one of the rare travel bargains for North Americans, so even though it's a long way to go, it's not as expensive as you'd think. And while my trips down here in the early 90s were stormy, windy and wet, the last trips in 2002 and 2004 have been blessed with hot sunny days during the hiking season, Christmas through March. The shifting climate has the big glaciers retreating at an alarming clip, but the better weather makes the hiking even more fun now than it was 10 years ago.

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