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Approaching the Face of Cerro Fitz Roy (Chalten)

Las Torres from EcoCamp at sunrise
Las Torres from EcoCamp at sunrise
We took our time getting started this morning as today was not going to be as long or strenuous as yesterday's trek to and on the glacier. Starting our trek we retraced about 20 minutes back towards El Chlaten via the trail we had trekked 24 hours previously. But instead of heading back down the valley we made a sharp left turn and headed up and over the little ridge separating the approach of Cerro Torre to Cerro FitzRoy. This ridge obscured most views of FitzRoy and since it was very cloudy on the drive in on Monday, I had yet to really see the other famous peak in the northern area of Los Glaciares. Before we left the valley, we were able to get one final view of Cerro Torre in a clearing amongst the lenga trees. Still partially obscured in clouds, it was nonetheless a continuing sight to behold with its knife-edged and serrated walls confounding me as to how anyone could climb this beast of a mountain.

As we climbed the ridge, Jim, an avid bird watcher, heard and then saw a Magellanic Woodpecker. My second sighting along with the one in Valle del Frances last week. Unfortunately for Jim this woodpecker decided not to sit still for very long and quickly flitted from view, so once again no pictures were obtained of this elusive bird. We continued our hiking up and over the ridge. This was the easiest hiking of the trip and a marked difference from Torres del Paine. Even the climb and descent of this ridge was over a well graded trail with relatively few rocks although we still had to deal with quite a lot of roots. Oh well, I shouldn't complain too much. When we finally crested and descended we were afforded some welcome flat trails along the shores of Laguna Hija y Madre. The waters of these lakes shone in the sun of late morning as we trekked by the shore. Lenga forest alternated with open meadows and I truly felt at peace during this section of walking. The pace maintained by David (our guide) for Jim and Susan was very easy and I lingered at the back taking my time to soak in the views around me (I was also soaking in a bit too much southern latitude sun at the edge of the hole in the ozone layer, but that was beside the point).

Being in the great wide open the clouds blowing in the breeze presented amazing and ever changing formations, but most importantly kept the overall sky mostly clear as we circled around and Cerro FitzRoy slowly but surely poked its summit out from behind the ridge. Over the course of 30-45 minutes of hiking the first sliver of this monolith sneaked out from behind the ridgeline, then the shape of the main peak appeared, but it wasn't until we approached Campamento Poincenot that the entirety of the FitzRoy Massif finally opened up in front of us. And an impressive sight it was. Besides the main peak of FitzRoy (or Chalten as it is also known - the smoking mountain), the minor peaks include Cerro Poincenot, Aguja Rafael, and Aguja Saint Exupery to the south of the main peak (or the left in my photos) and Aguja Mermoz and Aguja Guillamet to the north of FitzRoy (or the right in my photos).

We lunched underneath the granite face of FitzRoy and its siblings at Poincenot Camp. Directly in front of us we could see on the lower slope the trail we would take to Laguna de los Tres. The trail switchbacked up the steep mountain hillside and using Jim's binoculars we could see other people moving up and down the trail that we would be climbing shortly (one can see the trail zig-zagging up the slope in a few of the photos if they look closely). After cleaning up our lunch spot we put our packs back on and proceeded up towards FitzRoy. We passed another campsite, this one the true base camp for climbers attempting to bag FitzRoy proper. From there a small trail enters the trees on the lower slopes and begins the climb upwards.

Initially through the trees the climb wasn't too bad but fairly soon we came out of the trees and it looked like the trail was going straight up a the side of a cliff (or nearly so). We lost view of FitzRoy behind the slope of this major rise. The trail was more defined than the rocky scramble up to Las Torres lookout in Torres del Paine, but it was probably steeper and more difficult in this section. Two way traffic needed to be maintained with hikers going up and down as we began our just after 3:00 PM. I again held up the back of our gang of four up the slope and with the pace was able to pause occasionally to take a look back at the sights behind as we climbed. The higher we reached, the views of the valleys below were amazing. I could see Lagunas Madre and Hija and the route that we had hiked earlier in the day and I could see Laguna Capri, near where we would be spending the night when we returned from our ascent. While I could not see El Chalten itself, I could actually make out Lago Viedma, the large lake south of the town, and a good 5-10 miles away from our location. I could also see (once it was pointed out by David) Hosteria El Pilar, the lodge where we would be spending the following night. The sweeping views of the surroundings were simply marvelous.

But enough about what was behind, we were moving forward to Laguna de Los Tres and FitzRoy. We finally crested the top of the hill only to find it was a false summit and that there was a bit more climbing to go. But after what we had already climbed this was a small hill that would only take about 5 minutes or so to walk (the total time was a bit over an hour for the 1.5 mile walk and the climb is approximately 400m/1300 ft). Being at the "top" I forged on ahead to the wonderous glacial lake sat in the shadow of FitzRoy. Small sheets of ice still floated on the water surface in the late spring season and snow still came down to the shoreline on the opposite shore where the climb to FitzRoy summit truly began. I approached to the shore and dipped my hand into the frigid cold waters of the lake and nearly fell back in shock. I pulled out an empty water bottle, filled it with the crystal blue water, and then took a frigid first swallow. Unbelievable.

I gradually walked around the rocky shore of Laguna de los Tres. On the south shore is the outlet of Laguna de los Tres. A small stream flows for maybe 20 feet before falling off through a series of cascades nearly 800 ft down to Laguna Sucia in the valley below. I snapped a few photos near the edge, paying careful attention to footing and maintaining some small distance from the edge. I glanced and saw that my three compatriots had climbed to the high spot overlooking the lake and so put the camera away and scrambled up some rocks to join them. From our overlook, we had magnificent views of both small lakes and I get my first good look at Laguna Sucia far below. We rested for a while on the rocks grabbing a few pictures and watched as some climbers descended the snow field down towards our lake, glissading over the snow on the descent. Which peak were they after and did they accomplish their goal. I'll never know, but I like to think they were descending from a successful summit attempt.

After nearly an hour on the little plateau, we figured it was time to descend. We had to retrace our hike back down to the sign post past Poincenot Camp and then take the trail towards Laguna Capri instead of back towards Laguna Madre. And as I re-learned on my time in Patagonia sometimes going up was actually easier than going down. I think I had gotten used to all the footing issues by now and actually did not find this descent too difficult. We actually found people still heading up to the top even after 5 PM but in reality they still had 4+ hours of daylight left and depending on where they were spending the evening this should not have been much of an issue.

We finally settled in at Laguna Capri camp around 7 PM. We had another traveller from Italy and a guide who joined us for dinner and conversation. After dinner I headed over to a viewpoint overlooking the Laguna Capri to get a few shots of FitzRoy, but clouds were rolling in and obscured the summit as the sun set over the western horizon. Sitting and looking at the mountains, David said that last Dec (2006) there were only four clear days all month. Twenty-seven days during the month Cerro Torre was never visible at all and almost that many days FitzRoy was hidden from view as well. We had continued to be lucky weather wise for the most part. The winds had been fairly blustery, but not obscenely so, and while clouds had billowed across the mountain peaks off and on, we were able to get some excellent views of both Torre and FitzRoy. Tomorrow that would finally change.

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