Ice Trekking and Camping in El Chalten
A Patagonia Experience
It was a 2 hour walk to Base Camp and our guide enforced strict marching orders pretty much the entire way. Luckily we had some stragglers in the group so I was able to stop and get some pictures of the scenery and look around a bit. For the most part it was low growth forest with the edge of the mountains surrounding us. As we climbed gently through the forest we came to one lookout where we should have been able to glimpse Cerro Torre were it not shrouded in clouds and mist at the far end of the lake. Once we reached base camp, a bit after 9 AM, we had some cookies and juice to refuel for the next stage of our trek. We met our 2 glacier trek guides (different than the guide that brought us up to base camp), and they gave news that didn't totally surprise me at the time. The winds were still howling and they said we would walk up to the glacier, but that unless the winds died down a little bit we would not be able to head out on the glacier (I asked later and was told that the sustained winds would need to drop below 30 mph/50kph).
After the short break where we got our crampons and harness that we would need shortly we were off walking again. We quickly reached the terminal moraine of the glacier and trekked up and along Laguna Torre, a beautiful, barren glacier fed lake. After crossing the terminal moraine, we climbed up to the rocky lateral moraine to journey along the south edge of the lake. Except for one small problem: the Rio FitzRoy was exiting the lake was blocking our path to the glacier. No bridge over this lake for the trekkers. We would be hooking up our harness and crossing the river hand-by-hand over the tyrolean traverse that had been set up on the lake. One guide crossed over and the one that remained hooked each of us up in turn and we crossed over the fast moving waters of the Rio FitzRoy. It was quite a fun traverse just keep an eye out on your fingers that they don't get caught in the pulley.
After crossing the river we had a short walk along the lateral moraine approaching the glacier. However before we reached the glacier the nice path along the moraine and the valley closed in directly on top of the lake. To approach the glacier we had to skirt to the top of the valley and walk along the ridge and descend back down to lake level and the glacier itself. So we made the sharp left turn and headed inland and up. And when I mean up it was UP. The trail was so steep in some places that ropes were tied around trees and you would pull yourself up to the next incline. The climb probably wasn't more than a few hundred feet but was probably the most strenuous work of the entire trip. On the ridge itself we could now look down at the front of Glaciar Torre. A short walk and a rocky descent brought us back down to the edge of the glacier.
I had noticed as we approached that the wind had died down since we had left base camp. So we would get the chance to tie on the crampons and get out on the glacier. Thankfully because after the time and effort to get out here I would have been severely disappointed to not have had the opportunity. Winds were still blowing at 15-20 mph probably but that almost seemed calm compared to earlier in the day.
We headed out and the glacier was amazingly beautiful. Our two guides wound our way out and up into this beautiful void of white and Cerro Torre itself peaked out from behind the clouds. The sunlight playing off of the glacier and the jagged spire of this incredible mountain just boggled the imagination. As incredible as Torres del Paine was the week before, this had the benefit of seeming more rugged, more remote, more in tune with the danger around us. Of course in reality we were in perfectly capable hands. The guides assisted us over a few small crevasse jumps that we had to make (some people needing more assistance than others). After around an hour of wandering around this barren expanse of ice, we were led to a small protected recess in the glacier to eat our lunches (if you wanted to sit down the crampon bags made for decent waterproof seat cushions on the ice).
After our all too short break for lunch (20-30 minutes) we climbed out of the recess to find that the wind had picked up again. Not quite as rough as what it was back at base camp, but enough that it made keeping one's footing a bit more challenging. Unfortunately this meant that we would not be able to try out the experience of climbing an ice wall with an ice axe. Looking back after our trek back this turned out to be a good decision for several other reasons as well. So we headed back off the glacier by a slightly different path than the way we came and was able to experience more unique views, ice formations, and streams of water rushing across, around and under the glacier. The wind continued to move clouds around the summits of Cerro Torre and its peripheral peaks (Egger, Standhardt, Punta Herron). It was tempting not to just try to walk and stare at this granite monolith towering overhead (hard to believe that the mountain is barely over 10,000 ft in elevation).
Eventually we cam back down to that area where the ice and rock began to mix and soon we made the final jump off of the glacier back on to solid rock again. Crampons came off and the long trek back had to begin. And, man what a long trek it would be. Our group of 20 or so on the trek included a few that at this point were pretty much physically exhausted. As we proceeded to climb retrace our steps back to the tyrolean traverse we had to make the climb and descent of the ridge. This would prove to be nearly too much for a few people. As the group trekked up the scree slope from the glacier we would take maybe 5-10 steps and then the two people would need to stop and recover for a minute or two. Another 5-10 steps and another break. I could sense our guides mounting frustration and serious concern that at this pace getting back to base camp and ultimately El Chalten was going to be a challenge. Finally a group of us decided that we would press ahead (for me the constant stopping and starting was more tiring than just continuing to make progress). We crossed the ridge descended back to the lateral moraine and trekked to the Rio FitzRoy where we had no choice but to wait for the rest of our group (with our guides) to get across the traverse. 30 minutes or so later the trailers arrived and we crossed and returned to base camp.
It was nearly 6:30 back at base camp, a relatively sheltered area east of Laguna Torre. For Jim, Susan, and myself we were done hiking for the day as we would be spending the evening in the camp. Everyone else had the 2 hour hike (at least) back to El Chalten. Good thing it stays light until almost 10:00 PM. The base camp where we stayed was a semi-permanent "tent city" with a kitchen and dining tents in addition to regular sleeping tents. One could stay in one of these tents as part of the organized treks or bring their own equipment and set up for the night as well.
We had a decent camp dinner, and settled in to relive the days trek. Total distance covered was probably about 20 km or so including distance on the glacier. Had we returned all the way to El Chalten this would have proved to be a longer day then the day up Valle del Frances in Torres del Paine. Unlike that day where I bonked to an extent, today I was feeling fine, other than that pesky blister that was a minor nuisance. As the light began to fade and chase the shadows from our sheltered glen away, I was still feeling pretty tired however. It had been a twelve hour day of trekking, and as invigorating as the views and experiences can be, as darkness settles in there is not much to do but crawl into the shelter of a tent and give way to the silence of sleep.