Dated: 27 DEC 18
El Chalten is a small town nestled in central Patagonia and sits at the foot of the most iconic mountain in this region. Fitz Roy is for any hiker, biker, climber, mountaineer or camera clasping bus loaded tourist, synonymous with Patagonia and a must see. You just have to pray for the weather to be clear.
But when we roll into town in the blustering wet weather searching for a place to pitch the town is akin to a small ski resort with ominous heavy grey clouds threatening snow. El Chalten comprises of log cabins and pine clad buildings; warm inviting looking bars with classic rock or western pop, climbing shops in place of ski rentals and tour companies. The street is teaming with out bound fresh faced hikers, smiling as the stride along with the backpacks and hiking poles and a few can be seen looking a little more rough around the edges heading to a bar for a well deserved pint after a few days out in the mountains. Its a fashion parade of the latest brightly coloured outdoors gear.
I love the feel of the place, so many like minded people all here to enjoy the outdoors. We are just looking forward to a hot shower and a good feed so go in search of the cheapest establishment that meets these lofty requirements. Its rare you meet a cyclist on a plump holiday esque budget, we tend to be cheapskates.
It is a great place to be stuck for Christmas, although it isnt festive in the slightest, there isnt a decorated tree is sight, the hike up Fitz Roy is the golden standard of Christmas Day walks though. The previous days gloom giving way to pristine blue skies, perfect. With towering plinths of exposed rock, glaciers flowing downing its slopes and aqua marine blue lakes at its feet, Fitz Roy mountain is incredible. So much so that you almost have to queue to reach the natural theatre like viewing platform that a moraine has formed. But sometimes the tourist spots are there for a reason and cant be shied away from; I think it is the first time that I have ever lined up for a rock, the ideal picture spot. As we descend down the mountain on the seven hour return journey I almost strain my neck as I repeatedly cast me eyes behind to get one last look. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, barely a cloud in the sky giving us a clear view of what is inarguably the most striking mountain in the world.
The Slovenia’s depart on Boxing Day morning and Australian Clive and I set off on the golden standard of Boxing Day hikes this time. The lengths we go to for a picture are ridiculous, 60 kilometres to be precise and a 1000m accent at the end. I think the furthest I have trekked just to see a vista. But what a sight, we crest the Heumul pass and before us is a vast expanse of ice, just a small portion of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is visible to us but its extent is mind blowing and gives just an idea of the mass of ice beyond. It is the third largest ice field in the world coming in behind Antarctica and Greenland. Dark mounds of debris on the surface look like tyre tracks revealing the flow of the ice as it makes its way out through Viedma glacier and the lake beyond.
I was sad to see the Slovenian depart, we have had a good week or so bumping into one another, camping and them letting this scavenger share their ratios. They were over on just a whirl wind cycle through Patagonia taking in some of the good bits. Not surprisingly they are advocates of cycle holidays. By the sound of it their life style in Slovenia is fantastic, not to many people and therefore lots of space. They save up their short annual leave for one three week holiday each year. Life on the road is far from romantic according to Mateja, you are confined to a small space, washing nothing but your pits and bits for a good week at a time in between showers, never left on your own and it can be tough going out in the elements. But you know you are with the right person when it still seems like a good idea on the return flight and you are still talking to one another as you plot your next adventure.
Our campsite on Boxing Day evening was nestled in a small bay to the north of the Viedma glacier. Full of ice bergs it acts like a baseball glove, catching these colossal snowy white balls, except they are neither snow nor balls. Huge icebergs some as big a multi story car park collect in the bay. Seemingly motionless it is a peaceful seen to sit, read a book or eat yet another pasta dinner. But this tranquillity is broken sporadically as the occasional ice fall, caved off by the afternoon sun great chunks or cliffs plung into the clear waters with an almighty clatter. The campers all quickly look for the source of the noise to witness the sceptical but it is futile for the noise if after the act, the action having already taken place by the time the sound reaches your ears. I was lucky enough to happen to be looking at the right spot at the right moment as one of the larger icebergs fell apart in a silent film, that is until the drum of sound reached my ears.
It was a special place to be camped. As you lay sleeping or reading in your tent you are reminded of the ice beyond the stony shore as the ice bergs go bump in the night, jostling and grinding against one another. It must be said that the hike out to the Bahia des los Tempanos campsite was great with the anticipation of the view but the trudge back in the wind was not so appealing. Over the past three days we have trekked a good 90 kilometres or so, my legs are stiff and my back sore, I’m not used to this walking lark or carrying weight on my back, it is far tougher than cycling.
En Chalten, as I have already said I really like, full of hikers, climbers and bikers. A small tumen of about fifteen cycle tourers went past Clive and I as we were trudging back to the pub, they must be the latest arrivals from the ferry. All like minded people; conversations are about equipment, routes, weather and the next adventure. Tent envy is a really issue, especially for me in my summer tent which as flattened on top of me one night as the katabatic winds draining from the mountains ravaged my tent. I was forced to spend two nights sleeping in a stairwell, amazed that my tent poles didn’t snap I decided not to risk any longer camped out in the wind in Fitz Roy’s foot hills.
People might wonder why travel so much? A holiday or two is enough, but travelling gives one an insight into the world and other cultures. Food is possibly the easiest culture to share with others and conversations about native cuisine is often discussed. Christmas is the ideal time to show case your nations favourites but with one oven in the hostel and about thirty guests there will be no roast potatoes and stuffed goose this year. Its mayhem. We celebrate the festivities on Christmas Eve, Clive and I are the only none mainland Europeans and it turns out those continental heathens celebrate on the 24th. My contribution, an apple crumble. The Dutch there tell of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) and Black Pete (Zwarte Pieten), in a somewhat controversial tradition today; Santa tours the country bestowing Christmas cheer and presents with his black assistant, Black Pete, dishing the punishment to the naughty lot.
On returning from the ice field I’m sat next to two hikers in hot debate; ways to reduce weight, cooking techniques and food, pros and cons of different cookers, rice vs pasta, noodles are apparently a no no (a staple of mine), protein sources, which tent is best, what routes to do and how to avoid the masses. The French chap impresses the other, he crushes packs of crisp so the entire thing is just the little shards at the bottom of a packet. Compact and full of calories beating both rice and pasta, the ideal space saving food. These chaps are carb, protein and calorie counters and more is best in this circle.
On the hole conversations are great and people talk enthusiastically about their passions for which they find themselves in Patagonia exchanging ideas and suggesting new places to explore. An outdoorsman’s think tank. But there is often an undercurrent of a not so sublet willy waving competition. I’ve hiked this trek, this fast, it was the furtherst possible from the beaten track, blah blah blah, we are all giulty of it from time to time. Clive asked a French couple if they have done any other big hikes, they had just finished the four day Huemul trek, and they responded, no not really. But the conversation continues and they are serious hikers, on an indefinite holiday hiking through South America and have done multiple 8 to 10 day treks. Pretty serious I’d say. Modesty to the point of bragging. That’s like me saying that I’m not a serious cycle tourer even now at this stage in the game, with tens of thousands of kilometres to my name, lots of countries and five continents; I’ve got a pretty big willy to wave.