El Chalten, Argentina
El Chalten is a tiny town. You can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. And yet – thanks to its location at the base of an incredibly scenic mountain range in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares – it’s considered the trekking capital of Argentina.
Fitz Roy, the tallest peak in the area and one of the world’s most iconic mountains, looms over El Chalten in a way I didn’t appreciate during my visit in 2011, because the view was always blocked. Clouds stubbornly hid Fitz Roy the entire time I was there. The mountain teased me with partial glimpses but at no point did it grant a completely clear look. This time, to increase the odds of avoiding a similar fate, I planned to spend an entire week in El Chalten. I could wait seven full days for Fitz Roy to let down its guard.
I didn’t even have to wait seven seconds. On the bus ride from El Calafate, still more than 50 miles away from El Chalten, Fitz Roy appeared on the horizon, perfectly visible in bright sunlight. I hadn’t realized how dramatically it dominates the entire landscape, a Patagonian Mount Olympus towering over the surrounding peaks. A dusting of new snow from a recent storm glittered in the late morning sun. I usually turn up my nose at the idea of taking photos from a moving bus, but this clearly called for an exception.
I checked into my hotel as quickly as possible and immediately set out on the trail towards Fitz Roy. An hour of steep uphill climbing took me to the first viewpoint. Fitz Roy was already beginning to spin up a cloak of clouds, but for brief intervals the entire granite face was completely exposed. As far as I knew this would be the best look I’d get.
With my big goal for the week accomplished on day one, I set my sights higher: catching sunrise light on Fitz Roy. My hotel was close to the trailhead, which meant I could be at the first viewpoint about an hour after walking out my door. So at 5am the next morning I put on my headlamp and started climbing.
The scene that greeted me at the viewpoint was the one I’d grown accustomed to seeing on my last trip – a curtain of gray clouds where Fitz Roy should have been. Shivering from the freezing wind whipping down from the mountains, I didn’t last long before retreating to El Chalten.
Up early again the next morning, the sky looked so cloudy I didn’t even bother hitting the trail. An hour later, just before sunrise, the clouds parted and I realized my mistake – first light would hit the peaks after all. Crap! I geared up as fast as I could and made it to the viewpoint in just 45 minutes, panting and sweating. Fitz Roy was putting on another great show, but I’d missed the best light.
The weather was so pleasant and mild I decided to continue on to Laguna de los Tres, an alpine lake at the end of the trail, about 15 miles roundtrip. Fitz Roy periodically disappeared behind clouds as the day went along, but it didn’t vanish completely. Lola, an Australian I’d met in Torres del Paine, had done the same hike just a few days before and said conditions were awful – icy wind, snow, Fitz Roy completely hidden – so I knew enough to appreciate my luck.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of steady rain. There was no doubt sunrise would be washed out. Still half asleep, I checked my phone for news of the US election that had been held the previous day. “PRESIDENT TRUMP!” said the headline. I didn’t understand. He couldn’t have actually won, could he? I had to read the election results on several different sites before it sank in. Alone in a dark hotel lobby with wind and rain lashing at the windows, the setting made the news feel even more ominous.
I thought about a Trump supporter I’d met in Alaska over the summer, a rural blue collar guy who was angry that “knuckle-draggers” like him were being ignored by our government. He felt marginalized by the changing economy and he resented the way the culture of our country was evolving. And somehow a billionaire New Yorker managed to sell himself as the solution.
The forecast called for good weather the next morning, and sure enough – the sky was perfectly clear. I left my hotel at 5:15am, confident that I’d have plenty of time to reach the viewpoint before sunrise. But a little before 6am I rounded a corner and through tree branches caught a glimpse of the sun hitting the very top of Fitz Roy. I was late! Sprinting the rest of the way, my backpack bouncing awkwardly and my legs burning, I finally reached the viewpoint.
Despite stupidly mistiming the sunrise I’d only lost a few minutes of light. Conditions were excellent. Fitz Roy practically glowed in the soft early light. It was relatively warm with surprisingly little wind, and the surface of the small lake below the viewpoint was calm enough to reflect the morning sun on the mountains. I sat at the edge of the lake for a long time.
Finally I tore myself away and hiked back down to El Chalten. After breakfast I headed south of town to Mirador Condor for a view of Fitz Roy that also included Cerro Torre.
I tried the Fitz Roy viewpoint again the next morning, but a blob of clouds covered the mountain like a giant topping of whipped cream. Just after sunrise a rainbow appeared.
Rainclouds took over the sky for the rest of my time in El Chalten, but I had nothing to complain about – Fitz Roy had been far more cooperative than I expected, and I was really grateful.