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Sunrise on Mount Fitz-Roy

A long and straight road cuts through a typical Patagonian landscape: vast nothingness for hundreds of miles on end. But far in the distance, these two fascinating sets of peaks draw you closer and closer, promising adventure: the Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz-Roy.

Cerro Torre on the left, Mount Fitz-Roy in the center.

It was midday when Joey and I disembarked in El Chaltén, a sparse and wind-swept village, colorfully painted in pastel colors. Hiking boots and trousers, t-shirt and a beanie, that’s the vibe. UV-reflective sunglasses and gore-tex gear paint the town a rainbow. And don’t forget your sun-screen. This is the South American mecca of hiking, where people are dropping in and out of mountain trails all day and night.

Joey geared up and keen to hit the trails. Rio de las Vueltas in the background.

We had arrived on the first sunny day following a week-long rainy spell. Buoyed by our luck, we decided to go hiking immediately, despite it already being midday. We had prepared for a three-day hike, little did we know it would only take half that time.

El Chaltén is in a region of ecotone, the transition from steppes to forested mountainsides.

Our first target was the mythical Mount Fitz-Roy, or rather the meltwater lagoon at its base, Laguna de los Tres. It sits on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, ownership of which is disputed with Chile. The trails there took us through forests and marshes and over sandy riverbeds, all the while the craggy snowy peaks grew bigger on the skyline. Bright white glaciers, raging rivers, and serene lakes made for an incredible landscape to hike through. As the evening came, the sun was quick to disappear behind the enormous mountains. We spent a cold night at a bare-bones campground next to the Río Blanco, ready to rise early the next morning for a sunrise hike to the lagoon.

Dusk in the forests where we camped out.

Scenes from the Rio Blanco valley.

Joey and me made a surprisingly good hiking team, despite our friendship being built on a foundation of beers and music more than any outdoor activities. One thing we’d underestimated however was how much food we’d consume, and we rapidly realized we hadn’t packed enough to keep us satisfied. We’d have to solve that problem…

We woke up around 5AM and got into gear. That didn’t take long as we’d basically slept with everything on, minus our shoes. We immediately left for the summit hike to the lagoon in pitch black. As we reached the top, we could see Mount Fitz-Roy’s dark silhouette looming over us. We had barely started catching our breath, when something magical started to happen. First Light.

First Light on Mount Fitz-Roy.

The sun hadn't yet broken the horizon behind us, but it started illuminating the clouds in the sky with rich oranges and reds. The sunlight was bouncing off the clouds and onto the peaks, making them glow a deep ember red. It didn't last long, and then the light disappeared, leaving only the blue of the sky.

And then, Second Light hit. The sun peaked over the horizon, and bathed Mount Fitz-Roy in vibrant orange light.

Second Light appears on Mount Fitz-Roy.

The sunlight transforms the scenery.

Reflections of Second Light in the lagoon.

We thought it was over when the clouds blacked out the sun on the horizon. We were ready to start making our way back, but then to our surprise Third Light hit. This time the sun pierced the clouds and cast a strong fiery yellow hue on the mountain, bringing the whole landscape to life.

Third Light on Mount Fitz-Roy.

Clouds obstruct the sunlight on the mountain.

By the time we got back to our camp, packed up the tent, and had our minimal breakfast, it was still only 9AM. So we hit the tracks fresh for our second target: Cerro Torre. The hike took us along more lakes and through age-old woods filled with beautiful rotting trunks. It was tranquil, and devoid of other hikers.

Hiking through the woods.

Joey catching a break in the sun.

At some point, we realized there was no point camping another night when we could easily make it to Cerro Torre by midday and be back in El Chaltén for beers that evening. That prospect gave us a real energy boost, as did the realization that we now had extra food we could indulge in! Clearly our research had misled us and three days weren’t exactly necessary for the hike...

Leaving Mount Fitz-Roy behind us.

The next section was a wide valley filled with swathes of dead and live trees, culminating in the magnificent skyline of Cerro Torre. We got to the murky brown Laguna Grande with a few icebergs floating on the surface, and then climbed for another hour along a ridge of rocks to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the menacing glacier which slides down from Cerro Torre and the other peaks. There’s only one way to put it: the view had personality.

Cerro Torre from across Laguna Grande. Note the size of the hiker at the bottom.

Glacier Torre, part of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field hiding behind the peaks.

While sitting in the sun admiring the view, we would hear tremendous cracks and impacts coming from the glacier. Spotting the source of the noise wasn’t easy, as the distances were too large for the sound to reach us on time. The cliff face we were standing on alone was immense, not to mention everything towering above us.

Cerro Torre peaks at roughly 3,100 meters altitude.

At some point, we broke our eyes away, and started the long trek back to El Chaltén. We were fired up and ready for beers. At 5PM, we came in sight of the colorful collection of shacks that is El Chaltén.

Chorrilo del Salto, a waterfall near El Chaltén.

Joey’s tracker showed that we’d walked over 43 kilometers that day, and by the end it hurt to walk on the concrete streets in our hiking shoes. The conclusion of these epic two days of hiking came in the form of burgers and beers at a local bar with some fellow hikers, sharing stories. It was much deserved, in my opinion.

Much love to El Chaltén, an incredible place I hope to one day revisit.


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