The firefly sparks of a dozen headlamps sketched out the trail above our camp, with only the faintest pre-dawn glow to indicate the presence of the towering massif above. Climbers and trekkers had been hunkered down through the rain and wind for a month in the little boomtown of El Chalten, Argentina, awaiting this first clear stretch of weather, and last night and this morning had burst out of town with the pent up energy of exploding ordnance to test their mettle on the steep granite lassoliths of Monte FitzRoy and Cerro Torre. Oblivious to our good fortune, our little trekking party had arrived in Chalten just the previous day and hiked the short 6 miles from town to bustling Campamento Poincenot, one of the climbers’ basecamps just below the FitzRoy massif, in hopes of bagging a rare sunrise on the towers the next morning.
Now here we were, at 5:30AM, following the twinkling headlamp chain up the steep rocky switchbacks to the top of the knoll above tiny, aquamarine Laguna de los Tres at the base of 11,168-foot Monte FitzRoy. Vivid images from the trail seared themselves in memory. Climbing under the twisted limbs of the Lenga forest, an owl hooted nervously (and invisibly) above us and then burst across the canopy with a flash of white and chaotic flutter. The early dawn glow made the granite rocks of the trail give off their own fluorescence, allowing us to jettison our headlamps. Looking behind, the sunrise made a halo on the horizon behind massive Lago Viedma on the edge of the vast steppe behind Chalten, and cast in silver the nearer lakes of Capri, Madre and Hija below. Then, cresting the hill, suddenly the towers were there, looming huge and immediate behind the little lake, still ghostly grey though the sky was rapidly progressing from black to violet signaling that the show was about to start. In a performance worthy of an IMAX film or classic symphony, the unfolding of the sunrise on the towers started with salmon pink at the uppermost tips, progressing downward in vivid orange, and finally spreading across the glaciers on the lower flanks and encompassing Laguna de los Tres at its base.
Dawn breaks over Laguna de los Tres ©Lynne McCullough
We were drawn down, scrambling through the rocks to the shore of the Laguna in hopes of capturing the reflection of the brightly illuminated towers above; at first the reflection was a Picasso-like distortion from the wind-cast ripples in the water, but then suddenly like an unseen hand the water calmed and we were gifted with nearly perfect mirror-images of sky, peach-orange spires and bright snowfields. An almost unbelievable and rare gift of glory, in a land where such a display is made even rarer by the notoriously capricious weather of southern Patagonia.
We four long-time friends had made our way to this dramatic dawn performance just the day before from Seattle, flying by way of Buenos Aires (impressions of the city limited to a short white-knuckle taxi ride through the lovely tree-lined main boulevard along the waterfront, between the international and domestic airports) into another slightly larger boomtown, El Calafate, on the shore of Lago Argentina about 3 hours and 215 km south of Chalten, and 2760 km by road and 3 hours by air from Buenos Aires. We had stopped for an extra day in Calafate for a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier (more about Calafate and Perito Moreno in another segment of this saga).
Our hired car picked us up bright and early from our hotel, high on a hill above Lago Argentina, and we set out on the lonely stretch of road across the stark plains. But not uninhabited as it turned out. Despite a very low apparent density of vegetation (likely an outcome of the cool year-round temperatures, low rainfall and incessant summer winds), as we trained our eyes to the patterns of the rolling grey-brown steppe we soon picked out groups of wildlife. Guanaco (Lama guanicoe, a 200 lb cinnamon-colored relative of the camel) and nandu (or Darwin’s Rhea, Rhea pennata pennata, a three-toed five-foot-tall flightless bird related to the ostrich), are both native to this area of southern Patagonia. We definitely were NOT in Kansas anymore. Our driver, Raul, had the radio tuned to a station playing traditional Argentine ballads and pop favorites, which set the perfect mood.
In this part of southern Patagonia the steppe is punctuated by very large and deep east-west lakes carved by glaciers which have now receded in closer to the Andes. Our road skirted Lago Argentina going east, then north and around Lago Viedma on famed Route 40, then back due west to Chalten. Periodically gravel roads split out into the nothingness, marked with the beguiling names of Estancias (ranches): La Querencia, La Estela, El Condor, Helsingfors.
Midway between the two vast lakes, Raul suggested a brief stop at a roadhouse oasis named La Leona on the banks of a river of the same name. Stumbling out of the car into the bright morning, we found ourselves facing a bit of history – a 110-year-old little sprawl of buildings, still the same on the outside but remodeled on the inside to a nice little souvenir shop and restaurant with guest rooms in smaller structures nearby. Obviously a crossroads for a very long time (and now declared Historical and Cultural Patrimony of the Province of Santa Cruz), a signpost outside displayed distances from this outpost to places around the world from Sydney (14,468 km) to Tokyo (21,041 km) to New York (11,168 km). Indoors on the walls of the restaurant, newspaper clippings were posted indicating that the elusive Butch Cassidy had passed through here. More than a little surreal.
Finally we rounded the northeast corner of Lago Viedma and turned west to our first views of the Andes, still flirting with a low cloud cover. Glaciar Viedma (one of the largest glaciers draining the Heilo Sur or South Patagonian Ice Sheet) was a small tongue of blue-white at the other end of the grey-blue lake. The clouds were just clearing the peaks when we made our last turn to the north, following Rio de las Vueltas to Chalten – yes, that’s FitzRoy! There’s Cerro Torre! How long till we get there, Dad?
At last we crossed the river, passed the sign (El Chalten, Capital Nationale de Trekking) and drove along the main street of Chalten. “Chaltén” turns out to be a Tehuelche word meaning smoking mountain. Cerro Chalten was later renamed Monte FitzRoy, after the captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, who first documented the peak in his 1834 expedition up the Santa Cruz River. The native peoples believed that the looming Cerro Chalten was a volcano because of the clouds so often streaming from and around its peak in the strong summer winds.
The town, the youngest in Argentina, was established by fiat by the Argentine government in 1985, its initial purpose being to establish its territorial prerogative in a border conflict with Chile concerning the Lago del Desierto area just north. The territorial dispute was definitively solved (at least according to the Argentines) in 1994, when an international jury ruled in favor of Argentina. Settlement occurred rapidly boosted by state incentives beginning in 1987, and both the population and the infrastructure have continued to expanded rapidly in the ensuing years. The streets of the town are named for an international polyglot of early settlers who arrived from the corners of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: a Swede Fred Otten, followed by his countrymen the Ramstrongs and Halvorsens, the Rojos from Spain, Madsen from Denmark, and several others. Now the town is a magnet for international adventurers drawn by the internationally renowned climbing routes on FitzRoy, Cerro Torre and the adjoining pinnacles, as well as the well maintained trekking trails and easy access for ice trekking within easy reach of the town.
Reflecting its dramatic expansion, as we drove the gravel streets of town, buildings of all architectural styles were scattered about as if dropped by a Kansas tornado, and new foundations were rising everywhere. Signs for adventure tours on the glaciers, backpacker lodgings, restaurants and services lined the roads, and lean, scruffy adventurers bustled past on their way to somewhere.
Our lodging, a warm and welcoming little place called Hosteria El Puma, fronted la Loma del Condores (the hill of the condors) and had llamas stabled in the back. The proprietor took our bags to store for us, handed us our first of what would be several voluminous green plastic sack lunches, and introduced us to our trekking guide Fabio who would prove to be a font of information on the geology and ecology of the area, as well as a well-travelled trekker and climber with several languages under his belt, all overlaying the soul of a poet.
The trailhead took off just out the north side of town, winding steeply up and around Loma del Condores into the Lenga forest. In no more than 20 minutes the tap-tap-tapping of a Carpentera (Campaniles magellanic, or Magellanic Woodpecker) lured us off into the bush – and sure enough, there was the flash of red with black feather counterpoint, on a branch overhead, with an all-black juvenile nearby.
Magellanic Woodpecker ©Lynne McCullough
Near the top of the climb out of the town, the trail leveled out onto a broad terrace with the first views of FitzRoy and its companions since our initial fleeting glimpses on the way into town. True to its historical name, the peak was trailing wisps of cloud, but even at a distance staggering in its dominance over the terrain. Fabio knew of a short side trail which took us to (literally) a picture-postcard view over a small waterfall with the peaks as a dramatic backdrop.
In no more than an hour, winding a bend in the trail, the gnarled Lenga gave way to a glimpse of brilliant azure and then the full majesty of Laguna Capri, surrounded by the deep green of the forest and loomed over by the stark grey FitzRoy massif and the sky now nearly mirroring the vivid color of the water. Nearby camps were already well occupied by fellow travelers enjoying the break in the weather.
Laguna Capri ©Cheryl Talbert
We dug into our green lunch bags at the trail junction (beginning what would be a repeated refrain in subsequent days: “What? A huge sandwich PLUS a tub of corn salad PLUS a brownie PLUS an apple PLUS a granola bar?”), and then with a mixture of reluctance and anticipation (plus the weight of about 3 pounds of food) we set out again to our camp at the base of the massif, about another 45 minutes beyond. The upper camp was a bustling mini-village of tents and multi-lingual chatter. Fabio led us down further to the banks of the glacial stream where our trekking company had set up a tent camp for us, distant enough from the noise of the upper camp to make for a very pleasant night’s rest. A bottle of Argentinian white, some antipasti, and a tasty pasta meal cooked on a camp stove closed off the day as we inspected the winding trail up the hillside to the mirador above Laguna de los Tres, our path for the pre-dawn climb the next morning.
Fabio and Fernando serving wine at Campimento Poincenot ©Lynne McCullough
The sun slowly moved from the valley floor, floodlighting the spires, then fading to orange and gold until the bright stars and the ghostly outlines of the peaks were all that remained. Finally the chance for my first sight of the Southern Cross that guided so many explorers down and around this southernmost section of the Americas. Time to lay out the long underwear, the down and mittens and warm hat, the headlamp – tomorrow we would watch the dawn break over the Smoking Mountain.
 Clean, nicely equipped public buses also run the route between Calafate and Chalten three times a day – see Chalten Travel and Cal-Tur for details and bookings.
 Many of the estancias offer rooms and horseback tours for visitors – see http://www.interpatagonia.com/estancias/austral_i.html.
 According to Tehuelche mythology, this area has a great value, as Elal was hidden on Fitz Roy Mountain’s summit, taken there by a swan, in order to protect him from the giant Noshtex, who was his father and wanted to kill him because the Sun had said his son would be more powerful than him, because of having kidnapped his own mother. In order to keep him company, almost every animal from the island Kooch had given life to inhabited Patagonia, beginning here. From http://www.calafate.com.