Argentina Part Five: El Chalten, and our final fun adventure, Tuesday 10th March – Saturday 14th March 2020

Hungover, we made our way to our bus, through the sunrise and the early morning chill. Our next trip was from a poster: everywhere in Argentina were images of the mountains above El Chalten seen from the road in, and we were both so excited to get to see that incredible view for ourselves. It was only a 2 hour drive away and we gazed in wonder from our bus window at the incredible sights ahead. The mountains approached, impenetrable, a fortress of rock and ice. We contoured around a vast lake where the southern tip of the Patagonian Continental Ice Shelf poured outwards into the water. Among the plains flamingos congregated in the sparse bodies of water we passed, and our grey cloudy morning felt all the more atmospheric for its brooding sky.

We arrived at 10am and didn’t expect to be able to get into our hotel for hours, so we were beyond delighted when they said we could check in. We rested for a while, just happy to be able to stretch out and get over the worst of the hangover in our lovely quiet space, although strange that we had staggered twin beds, so couldn’t actually see each other.

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In the afternoon we took a walk to the National Park Visitor Centre to get some advice for hiking. It was so exciting, seeing all these mountains so close to the town, so accessible for adventure. It was an excellent visit, as we got phenomenal advice from the knowledgeable staff about different routes and options. We opted for the more popular treks for a multi-day hike because we weren’t sure how Jay’s brain would cope with the exertion after the head injury, and keeping where there would be people was important as there was no phone reception in the park. However we also decided to do a couple of off-shoots, on paths marked as risky and where you had to register with the centre to be able to take them. Once you returned you had to notify them of your arrival, or they would send out search and rescue teams.

Speaking of this, on the registration forms we had to put our experience, so Jay wrote about his search and rescue experience and mountain leader qualification. The staff were really excited and we were promptly introduced to someone from the National Park Search and Rescue Team, who thankfully spoke English. We had a brilliant talk about the role of SAR there. They cover an exceptionally large area, made of mountains, glaciers and lakes, with innumerable hazards from terrain, weather, and of course tourists. We talked about the equipment they used and Jay had stretcher-envy.They are a paid team, part of the National Park, however in the town there is an Andean Club (an equivalent to the European Alpine Clubs), and they have a voluntary SAR team. If a rescue involves technical rope access, as many do, they are the ones who come and put up the rigs and manage that part of the evacuation, especially important given that there is no helicopter rescue in the region. It’s a brilliant system, and the teams train together to ensure interoperability, in the same way that Jay’s Urban Search and Rescue team, Serve On, train with other European teams in EVOLSAR so that we can all work together in a disaster.

We saw that the park had opportunities for volunteering, even for a single day, so we signed up to spend the following day with the path building team. We would work from 8am – 3pm and then hike the 12km to our first campsite when done (yes, with hindsight, we realise this was rather a lot to take on!).

After we’d left the ranger station, fully excited about our days ahead, we took the 2km trail to Las Aguilas, a viewpoint South of the town from which the plains and lake could be seen. We passed a lot of day-trippers from El Calafate and other towns, struggling up and down the steep, well-formed path. We followed a slight valley through lovely uplands, with beautiful Andean plants and ever expanding views. At the end of the trail, the viewpoint showed us the North tip of Lago Viedma, fed by the great Glaciar Viedman. We could see along the valley, the great Rio de las Vueltas and the towering mountains to the East. These sedimentary giants encapsulated multiple hues in their strata, which we wished we could have seen at sunset, where the light would have made them glow in all their glory.

Back in the small town we found a cafe that made vegan empanadas so we bought some for lunch tomorrow, and headed off to get camping supplies. We were ecstatic to find a shop that sold individual packets of dried goods – they clearly knew their market. We bought couscous, smash, dried veggies and stock cubes. Sadly we couldn’t find any dried protein, but we did find our first South American jar of peanut butter.

Back at the hotel we were exhausted, but managed to pack well. We sorted out our rations for the next 3 days of trekking, and put everything we didn’t need into bags to store at the hotel, for our return. We had bags of oats, dried fruit, nuts and coconut cream powder for breakfast, some with spoons of PB ladled in. Our lunches and dinners were various combinations of couscous or smash, with different spices, veggies and stock, and some with a hefty squeeze of extra hot chilli sauce in for good measure. We had empanadas, and bread and dried sweetcorn soup for another day too, so all in all we were pretty happy. But we were also exhausted, and Maeve was asleep by 20:45 with Jay following soon after. Well, we did have an early start the next day!

The next day when our alarm went off at 06:45 we still didn’t feel rested, but we were keen to get on and start the adventure. We ate as much as possible at breakfast and headed off to the ranger station for 08:00, with our big camping packs. We met Pablo, a ranger we’d be working with all morning, who gave us gloves with holes in the fingers and thumbs. We would be spending the day moving rocks from a collection point to the trailhead for the team who were laying a new track, to protect the mountain from erosion due to the existing paths being vastly over-used. As there are no helicopters here, all the rocks in the path have to be either found at the path location, or taken there manually.

We drove through the beautiful early light, North along the valley to a particularly rocky roadside, and began hoiking rocks into the truck’s trailer. It was beautiful watching the sun emerge from the hills, and the waters of the valley sparkle as it touched them. Geese chattered nearby, oblivious and uncaring toward our presence. When the trailer was full we drove to the trailhead and unloaded armfuls of rocks into huge piles. And that’s basically what our day consisted of: very hard manual labour, with a thousand squats, and a lot of weight-lifting!

We had a great morning with Pablo. He had been with the team for 2 years, and surprisingly, he was also a Psychologist by profession! We talked a lot about the role of psychology in Argentina, and then our conversations turned to other areas of common interest. Primarily we talked about how language is changing in Argentina, to become less binary and more inclusive of people with other gender identities. Everything in the Castellano language is gendered – emotions, activities etc, all gendered based on the subject. This is especially problematic for non-binary people, but also lots of professional roles are gendered as male, in a stunning feat of patriarchy. Hence the last president who was a woman, had what was literally a ‘man’s’ job. The current president, it emerged, has a son who is a drag queen, and was championing the changes to the language, by using gender neutral language on television. Predictably, the more conservative half of the country were in uproar about it, but mostly it was a welcome change.

At lunch, we ate with the rest of the park ranger team. They were so knowledgeable of the area, and shared with us their yerba mate, a drink that of hot water with dense tea-like herbs, drunk through a filtering straw. It’s something that is very social and people share together (another thing that is interesting to reflect on in the time of Covid-19). After lunch we moved more rocks and then were back at base around 15:00. Surprisingly we were given vouchers as a thanks which would give us discounts in the local restaurants! That would come in handy when we came back ravenous from our trek.

We had a quick stop for more empanadas on the way to the start of our trail, and a couple of coffees which helped enormously. We were exhausted and the prospect of a long hike was not appealing. But we had no where to stay so off we headed. The trail left town and immediately headed up a steep valley, giving us a taste of what was to come. It was funny seeing everyone coming back from day hikes, or from camping at the free campsite we were headed for, when we were just starting off. It was a long and tiring journey, but every step was stunning. It was largely sunny with some occasional cloud, cold out of the sun, but the lowering light was incredible as it picked out every rock feature, every gleam of water. The green of the valleys and mountain slopes was slowly turning to orange in readiness for Autumn, and the season felt ripe and ready to turn.

A few highlights stood out among it all, one of which was spotting the giant Magellanic Woodpeckers. We had desperately hoped to see these but not held out much hope as they were reportedly quite rare. However, we stopped at a viewpoint where the incredible Cerro range was in full view and Rio Fitzroy snaked below. Maeve went to use the drop toilet nearby, and as she emerged from the loo, there was one just casually sat in the tree opposite, looking right at her! Jay went racing down at the news, and they were everywhere. The noise of them smashing their faces into the trees, tunneling for insects, reverberated through the woodland and they didn’t seem to mind being watched at all. These huge black birds were magnificent, and the males had bright red heads. They were instantly recognisable and unforgettable.

At another point in the woods we stopped because we could see and hear a ridiculous number of birds. They were surrounding us, in all the trees, across the ground, just everywhere! It was magical and the area thronged with motion and life. Large striped brown woodpeckers hopped near our feet and didn’t seem to mind our excitement one bit. As we walked into the great river valley, a tiny and very angry looking owl glared down at us and twittered with disapproval.

Sadly we didn’t see any puma(!), however we were extremely lucky, thanks to Maeve’s acute eyesight, to spot on a distant hillside a number of grazing Huemul, the very rare native deer. Jay took a GPS reading on his watch as sightings are supposed to be reported, as they are such an endangered creature. When we reported the sighting to the rangers after our trek, they did indeed take it very seriously and we filled out a form with all the details, including the coordinates Jay had taken. We were delighted and surprised when the rangers told us there was a reward for a sighting, and gave us a beautiful and detailed poster with information about their habits and life cycle. It’s in Spanish but we can understand a few bits of it!

After many kilometres we eventually reached the free De Agostini campsite, near the source of the Rio Fitzroy. We were relieved to find that although the campsite was busy, we could still get a flat and comfy looking pitch. Exhausted, we put up our tent, and got on with making our dinner. The water from the river was so cold it actually burned, and Maeve managed to stick her whole foot in it whilst filling the kettle. The water was grey with glacial sediment, but we’d been told by the rangers that it was safe to drink if taken upstream from the camp. We still filtered and boiled it just to be safe.

It soon got dark and we snuggled into our tent, and decided not to set an alarm because we were so tired and achy from all the work and the three hour hike. We felt that if we were going to enjoy the next day we were best off getting as much sleep as we could. We fell asleep quickly but slept fitfully. Every half an hour or so the aches from the cold, hard ground against our hips and legs kicked in, waking us up as we tried to change position. At one point, we thought someone was shining a head torch at our tent, but it was the almost-full moon shining brightly down through the trees. The roar of the river accompanied our restless night, providing a backdrop to the occasional hoots of the owls and other creatures in the woodland.

As the sky was lightening and the hills turned to pink, we got up to watch the sunrise. We left the woods and clambered over the otherworldly rocky landscape to a vantage point. We were surrounded by red and silver rocks, sand, and incredible beauty. And a backdrop to it all was the Cerro range: a length of exceptional and jagged pinnacles, crested in snow, and clasping enormous glaciers. We watched the sun touch the tops of the range, and they briefly glowed red before the clouds swept in. They refracted the light, making the glaciers glow pink, instead of the usual hues of blue and grey.

Slightly awed, we headed back to camp and ate a boring breakfast of porridge, punctuated by visits from white-throated caracara: enormous eagle-like birds with tufty trousers that hopped disconcertingly near to us on the look for scraps.

After we’d packed we headed up to Laguna Torre, the lake that feeds the Rio Fitzroy. We gasped as we gazed down into it. Not only could we see the Glacier Grande which feeds it, but this mountain tarn was also littered with large icebergs. Deep blue and white, they glistened in the grey water that reflected the black and white mountains holding the laguna in their corrie. What a morning: sunrise on a glacier and icebergs in a mountain lake. It got more exciting as we were leaving and heard a noise like thunder reverberating around the mountains: somewhere nearby was an avalanche! We didn’t spot this one, but regularly heard the thundering noise as we walked back out of the range.

We set off quite late on our morning hike, and we passed dozens of day hikers who had set off early to get to Laguna Torre in good time. We were very happy when we reached the junction with the path to Poincenot campsite, which was much quieter, as it is only used by people doing multi-day hikes with and staying at the campsites. Where the path had been following the river valley before, it now rose steeply up one of the range’s spurs, through exceptionally beautiful, noisy bird-filled forest. By the time we eventually reached the top we were utterly exhausted. We had planned an additional off-path challenging ascent to an outlying summit, for which we’d had to register, but we sensibly recognised how tired we were and decided to just continue on to the campsite. Thankfully the rest of the walk through the woodland was gentle, but still stunning: beautiful lenga trees which felt familiar after so much time in New Zealand, huge black and white woodpeckers, and Jay especially was very excited to find a tiny dark brown frog with yellow stripes and a red bum: a nannophryne variegata.

We stopped for lunch alongside the beautiful twin lakes called Laguna Hija (daughter) and Madre (mother). Hija was very green, while Madre was bright blue, and both were crystal clear. We descended through a long stretch of bog which mercifully had wooden bridges crossing the wettest parts. Finally we came to an area with white shale beaches hugging the fast-flowing river, and we knew the campsite was nearby. Nevertheless the last 30mins of walking seemed to last forever! We finally reached the campsite and there was plenty of space. We found a pitch under dappled sunlight, with dozens of tiny birds hopping around to clear up the crumbs of the previous residents. We filled our water bottles from a nearby stream with a ‘potable’ sign, it was crystal clear and tasted earthy. At 4pm after pitching the tent we lay down for a ‘little rest’, and woke up 2 hours later! We managed to make some dinner and were asleep again at 8:30, drifting off to the constant groaning of the nearby glaciers, and the occasional rumble of tumbling snow somewhere in the valley.

We slept far better that night as it was slightly warmer, thankfully since we had an alarm set for 5:15. We were planning to get up long before dawn for the hour-long steep ascent to the world-famous Laguna Los Tres. This lake sits high in the mountains, and looks directly west across at three mountains including Fitz Roy. On a clear morning, the rising sun hits the tops of the mountains and they glow red against the blue sky, which is reflected in the lake, pictures of which adorn a multitude of posters and postcards everywhere in Patagonia.

We dragged ourselves out of bed into the freezing cold night and the light of the moon. We could hear other people in the campsite already clanging pots and pans to make breakfast. We packed up our pre-soaked porridge and our coffee, along with extra layers since we figured it might be even colder up at the lake. The moon shone on the silver snow-clad peaks of the Fitz Roy range. It was utterly magical as they towered silent and watchful above us, their millenia of observance barely noticing our presence. Unfortunately we were exhausted, cold and hungry, and so we missed out on some of the wonder as we were busy arguing about the heavy bag! We followed a procession of head torches zigzagging up the mountainside, which reminded Jay of running through the night on the Lakeland 100. As we approached the top of our ascent, the sky was beginning to lighten, and its early morning glow picked out Lagunas Hija y Madre far, far below.

After 45 minutes of sweaty, panting ascent, we crested a huge bank of rocks to see the laguna below and Fitz Roy above, shouldering its enormous glacier. All along the rock bank dozens of people sat huddled in the freezing pre-dawn, their cameras on tripods, ready and waiting. The sky lightened gradually, every moment revealing further details of the rock as the moon hung benevolently above on its slow descent. Sadly, due to a cloud bank on the horizon, it soon became clear that we wouldn’t get THAT photo. So we made our porridge and coffee, snuggled in and just watched the changing view. A tiny mouse scurried amongst the rocks at our feet, and a woman in a sleeping bag nearby shrieked and stood up as it tried to join her warm cocoon.

We made the steep descent back down the mountain, passing a few people on the way up who were content to just see the famous view in the daytime, rather than at dawn. At the bottom, before reaching the campsite, we started looking for another off-path route, the second one we had signed up for at the National Park office. Even with the best map available, we nearly missed the path as it had branches laid across and a sign saying no walking, which we assume was just there to dissuade unregistered hikers. As we started along the route we were amazed at how good the path was: a very distinct, flat route through the scrub which topped a small cliff along the river. By our map, the path was about the same distance as we’d climbed that morning to Laguna Los Tres, and had only a few hundred metres of gentle ascent. With the quality of the path, we expected it to take us less than an hour to reach Laguna Suica at the head of the river.

How wrong we were. The path soon dropped down to the riverbed, where we saw that people had built cairns all over the huge boulders that were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately very few were actually useful for wayfinding. We spent ages scrambling over the huge rocks until we came to a natural barrier: the river was funnelled between two sheer cliffs and there was no footpath through. We searched around and realised we’d dismissed the path: an almost-vertical scramble a few stories high up a muddy chute surrounded by vegetation, with nothing but tree roots to hold on to. Somehow Jay made it up with his enormous backpack on!

At the top of the cliff we joined another lovely clear path through shin-high scrub, and across a bog, before stumbling into our next obstacle: a vast, unstable, sheer sided boulder field, on scree. There was no path, so we tried to ascend over the boulder field, but the unstable scree below our feet shifted, and threatened to uproot the larger rocks and boulders. We had no choice but to stay low and clamber over and between the largest, most stable boulders. It was a real hazard area, made more challenging with our big bag, but eventually we rounded a corner and a clear path appeared, snaking through the debris up to a corrie where the mountains and glacier towered overhead. As we finally reached the top of the path, we had our first sight of the vivid blue lagoon. It was worth every ounce of effort to sit at the foot of the huge bowl: the only people there, whilst high above us people streamed up to the foot of the Fitz Roy range.

The glaciers opposite were vast, and we sat and made a brew while just gawping at them in wonder. We were treated to the remarkable spectacle of huge slabs of ice and snow falling from one high glacier onto a lower one, in a tremendous avalanche. It was fascinating because when we heard it and looked, there was nothing to see. The sound was so much slower. As we sat watching the shearing ice, the sound caught up a few moments later, demonstrating that the glaciers were so much bigger and further away than our perspective suggested. The glacier was extremely active and the thunderous reverberations rebounded within the hollow bowl of the corrie. This enormous cataclysm left us feeling insignificant in its scale, humbled and awestruck.

Eventually we had to leave. We really did want to stay but we’d only eaten porridge a few hours earlier and didn’t even have snacks with us. We had underestimated the challenge of the hike to this laguna, and wanted to get back with enough energy to safely negotiate the boulder field.

We made it without incident back to the campsite, ate everything in sight (accompanied by the ever-present birds), and packed up our kit. We set off for town far later than we had planned, but the lower sun had the advantage of picking out the hues of the autumnal leaves as the lenga forests began to turn. The path felt so busy after our relatively isolated laguna trek, but it did give us exceptional views of the range behind us, and the river valley which houses El Chalten ahead. The 9km hike passed all too soon, and Jay popped out to deliver our ‘return slips’ to the rangers office, before we headed out for burgers and beer. And once again, we were asleep before we knew what was happening.

On our final day in El Chalten we tried to make the most of our time in the charming and beautiful town. We had to do our duty and visit the rangers to tell them about the Huemel we’d spotted, then after lunch we took a gentle walk along the valley to a waterfall further North along the valley. As we approached, a sign informed us that this was a place of contemplation. Indeed it was, a beautiful cascade glittering into a crystal pool below.

Vegan empanadas in hand for the journey, we wound our way to the bus station on the edge of town for our late night bus. We were looking forward to our next stop – Bariloche – where we had finally booked the spanish course we had been wanting to do since we arrived in South America. We were really excited about it, and at that point still fairly unaware of the changes happening in the country concerning Covid-19. When we had returned from our trek, the guy at the hotel told us that the government were starting to think more seriously about it and we checked the FCO advice. It was all about being alert (sound familiar?!), but at that point we had no idea that our travels would soon be coming to an end. In Argentina, unlike most of Western Europe, Covid-19 had been well managed up to that point. Although the odd case had been confirmed, they were isolated and only in people returning from affected regions. Peru was more severely affected, and we were worried we might end up only visiting Chile and Argentina, and have to change our final flight home to leave from one of these countries. We had no inkling then that we would have to actually leave early, that it wouldn’t continue to be controlled in Argentina, and that we’d soon be in lockdown back in England. How much things can change in the course of a week.

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