At the bottom of the Americas, in the deep South of Patagonia there exists a town called El Chalten. Five miles away the Patagonian Ice sheet stretches as far as the eye can see. Between the two a series of towers rise into the sky. This may be the most impressive mountain skyline on earth. These pillars strike terror into the hearts of climbers. They are so steep even snow does not cling to them. Walls of golden granite soar into the sky. It is as if the earth here exploded in a desperate attempt to escape gravity. I’ve been led to many strange places by my love of the mountains, but none have burrowed into my soul quite like this place. Even now, my spine tingles thinking of it.
Trekking in the Andes often happens above tree line at altitudes where little grows. A sense of barrenness pervades the land. In contrast the trekking near El Chalten is alive with plants, trees, deer, birds, foxes, bats, and fish. Here southern beech, known as lenga trees, cover the hillsides and raptors patrol the sky. Shelf like plateaus drop down, one after the other, punctuated by waterfalls and lakes.
The beauty comes a price. The region famous for strong storms that materialize in minutes. Our first was plagued by bad weather. We left humbled and unsatisfied. After trekking in Chile, we decided to hitchhike back. This time weather gods smiled upon us.
We made a three day loop trek. On our first day we hiked from El Chalten to Campamento Poincenot. Here we made the grueling ascent up to Laguna de Los Tres. The view from here is among the best in the entire area. Fitzroy takes center stage. The lake reflects it and its neighbors like a rippling mirror. A spectacular sunset capped of an incredible start to our trek.
At 4:30am the following morning we climbed back up to the lake. As we crested the high point the first rays of pink and purple struck the towers. We marveled, lingering for hours, not wanting to leave.
We then hiked 3 or 4 miles to Laguna Hija. Here we took a brisk swim. The cold waters stung our skin. Luckily the black gravel of the shore had stored the warmth of the sun. We stretch out on our backs on the small, flat discs. The chill left our bones and we laughed as we named ridiculous shapes in the passing clouds.
That night we slept at Campamento D’ Agostini. Cerro Torre rose over us like a sentinel. Another beautiful sunset faded over the landscape in front of us. One final sunrise lit our path and in a few hours later we were back in El Chalten drinking beers in disbelief of what we had just witnessed.
The winds of Patagonia slept soundly. Over the last six weeks we had become accustomed to their violent lashings. Somehow we had snuck past them over the last three days. All the while the lenga trees were in their final stage of autumnal color change. Their tiny leafs lit up the landscape like a frozen wildfire or yellow, oranges, and reds.
The experience left us feeling like nature had let us to attend one of its most exclusive parties. Seven weeks of patience and perseverance in Patagonia had culminated in this one window of perfection. The red carpet had been rolled out for us. Conditions come along once, maybe twice, in a decade. This was the kind of scenery you remember until your last breath.
As we were walked to catch our bus, a windstorm kicked up. Lenga leafs swirled around us. Moments ago they were decorated the hillsides. Now their branches were bare. This was a final moment of brilliance. There we were, drinking it all in. Fighting the wind our mile walk felt like ten. I tossed my backpack in the luggage compartment and climbed into my seat exhausted. As the bus pulled away my gaze never left the window. Dark clouds swirled around Fitroy. Slowly and it slowly disappeared into the oncoming storm. Southern Patagonia was closed for the season. As I closed the window shade tears streamed down my face. I then slept through eight hours of the worst roads in Patagonia.