Sendero al Fitz Roy: Trekking Patagonia
This post is by Richard Norrish — one half of Rainbow Miles. On the couple travel blog, they write about their travels to gay-friendly destinations, hotels and bars. Check out their website here, where this post about trekking in Patagonia was originally published.
There is one road in and out of El Chalten, a small gathering of pitched roof houses, named after the ‘smoking mountain’ it sits beneath which is regularly covered in cloud. Today, however, the sky was blue and still. It was a perfect morning for the Fitz Roy trek.
As we took the road out, the town was cast in the shadows of the smaller mountain range to the east, with the morning sun low. The houses which doubled as restaurants and shops become fewer and fewer as the paved road nears to an end. The ‘Sendero al Fitz Roy’ hangs from a wooden frame spanning the now dirt track. We took the ‘right’ road out.
We’d left early, about 7.30am, mostly to avoid the much talked about rapid weather changes. But leaving early also puts you well ahead of the masses who take the two-and-a-half hour bus ride from El Calafate. The track was largely all ours… with the exception of a white dog we named Cookie, for his brown eye patch. As we ascended the first part of the track over the hills out of town, Cookie followed. A sign warned against taking dogs for the protection of native animals, so we tried to discourage Cookie, but he persisted. I was quietly thankful of his presence. I’d read a lot about the elusive Puma, and despite having researched the improbabilities of coming anywhere near one, my neuroticism got the better of me. I figured Cookie would make a trusty guard dog.
The first sight of the Fitz Roy massif starts the decline into the valley beneath it. The granite peaks jut out from snow-covered mountains, framed with a foreground of lenga trees, rocks and gravel. The sight kept drawing my attention back to it. As we walked on, I was in awe of every new glimpse that came into view when we ascended a rise or reached a clearing.
Crossing the valley takes about an hour. It traverses rivers, grassland and forest. All the while, the massif draws closer and seemingly taller. We stopped by the clear waters of the Rio Blanco for biscuits and a leg rest. The weather showed no signs of changing. We’d picked the perfect day for hiking. The awesome sight had distracted us from the fact that Cookie had left us to the mercy of the pumas some time ago. It was just the two of us.
Reaching the base of the mountains, a sign cautioned inexperienced hikers against continuing, and added the need for hiking footwear and good weather. We had the weather on our side. Our basic running shoes failed, but we were both physically fit, so figured 2 out of 3 warranted the ascent.
The warnings seemed a little unduly careful until we reached a small section of narrow path at the snowline with a steep decline on one side. The snow on the track was compacted and slippery, so with our non-hiking shoes, we opted to wade through 6-inch snow on the high side of the track.
At a base summit below the jagged peaks, the track ends in the midst of the snowline. The peaks feel close enough to reach out and grab, and the views across the valley towards El Chalten allowed us to track the path of the last 3 hours.
On our descent we passed the hordes from the buses. The track became crowded, and the mountain silence was filled with puffing, panting, talking and camera snapping. I was thankful for our more peaceful morning experience.
A middle aged French woman caught our attention. She hauled her stocky frame up the steep track with walking poles and strained facial expressions, while barking orders and moaning to her quiet, passive husband.
On the way back we stopped by the still waters of Laguna Madre by a campground, offering a different view of the massif and surrounds.
We arrived back into town about 4 to a kennel of dogs, but no Cookie… Perhaps he felt guilty for abandoning us. We grabbed some beers from the kiosk, a small log cabin stocked with crisps, beers, postcards, and a faint smell of marijuana. The guy who ran the store was smoking outside.
After a shower and beers, we went out for dinner. We took a table by a small window framed with kitsch curtains overlooking the road back into town. Dinner was home cooked lamb stew accompanied by Quilmes long necks. As daylight started to fade, the French woman and her husband walked by the window. Still pained, still moaning, 6 or 7 hours later. I wondered how anyone could sustain such a mood in such a beautiful part of the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Richie travels every chance his work permits it. Whether in a crowded metropolis or the natural world, he thrives on the emotions the challenges of travel bring and loves to share those experiences in conversations with friends and in writing. When not away, he keeps super busy re-discovering the life of his hometown Melbourne.