Argentina: Entry 2

10 January 2003: El Calafate, Argentina

Subject: Argentina

Wow! The last few days have been some of the best of the trip so far. Maybe even the best of all. First a day trip to the spectacular Perito Moreno glaciar, and then six days hiking near Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, two of the world's most spectacular mountains. My photos are being developed as I write this but there doesn't seem to be a scanner in this town, so you'll have to wait a bit for the photos.

Perito Moreno

For some reason, unlike just about every other glacier in the world, this one is actually growing. It flows down from the Campo De Hielo Sur, a huge ice cap amongst the high mountains on the Argentine/Chilean border, into Lago Argentina, a vast glacial-green lake with its head in the mountains and its body spread out over the flat semi-desert that they rise from. The lake it quite narrow where it joins, and every few years during the twentieth century the glaciar would actually reach the far side of the lake, blocking the flow of water. The water would back up until eventually the ice dam broke under the pressure. It would take just a couple of days for the thirty metres of excess water to return to normal.

You don't get to see anything quite that dramatic on the regular tourist excursions, but it is certainly a spectacular sight. The glaciar is actually touching the bank, but there is a tunnel through it through which the lake water flows. It is supposed to be advancing at three metres per day, and that means a lot of ice falling into the lake. Basically the trip involves watching bits flake off and fall into the water, 70m below. We were lucky to have excellent weather while we were there and watching the ice falling, and just looking at the extraordinary form of the glaciar surface, was delightful. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who happens to be passing.

El Chaltén

For "ordinary" tourists the Perito Moreno is the highlight of the Los Glaciares national park. But for those with the energy to hike for a few hours the spectacular mountains of the Fitz Roy area are the best bits. Karina and I took a bus from the comparative metropolis of El Calafate to El Chaltén, a tiny place constantly sandblasted by wind coming down from the ice cap. The journey itself was a fantastic experience; about 300km on unsurfaced roads through spectacular landscapes with incredible views. The route first goes east into the flat desert, which looks great at this time of year with lots of tufty clumps of brightly coloured vegetation fluttering in the wind. Then it turns through almost 180 degrees to return to the mountains a little further north, and as you drive along you can see the famously sheer-sided summits of the Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre groups and the edge of the Campo De Hielo behind them. We got to El Chaltén after dark, and it really has the feeling of a last outpost of civilisation. (Like El Calafate, it is not really connected to the outside world; it has its own small power station on the main street, for example!)

The next day, having stocked up on provisions in a tiny supermarket, we eventually set off into the hills at half past four in the afternoon! But luckily aorund here it gets dark very late, so we still had plenty of time to walk up to the free campsite, put up the tent, and do an evening trip to see a view of the mountain. It was spectacular! Fitz Roy is almost 3500m high and we were still not too much about sea level. The top thousand metres are vertical rock, and below that the snow tumbles down steep glaciers. Out viewpoint was at the outlet from a lake; the glaciers stopped about 300m above the lake, and from time to time lumps of ice would fall off and rumble down the rock into the water.

The next day we walked up to another, higher, viewpoint; a semi-frozen lake with, again, Fitz Roy towering behind. Unsatisfied with the relatively unadventurous walk to get there we set off around the lake and up towards a small summit; the route was steep and rocky but I managed to get to the terrifyingly small and precipitous top, from where I could see down onto the previous day's lake and glacier and around at Fitz Roy and all its subsidary summits. This area is notorious for bad weather, with groups of climbers egularly spending weeks at base camp waiting for the wind to drop, so we were really lucky to get great views from just about everywhere we went.

Continuing what was to become a daily pattern, having got down from this viewpoint we set off on the second walk of the day, down the valley and around the corner into the Valle Electrico. We were hoping to climb up to another high vantage point here, but after a windy night the next day had to sort of wind that really could blow you off your feet. So instead we did a shorter walk up to the lake at the top of the valley, trying to decide on the way whether it was raining or if the water was being picked up from the lake by the wind! But as this was the only really windy day we're not complaining.

We spent the afternoon walking to our next campsite at Lago Capri; we had to retrace our steps for a while which is never that enjoyable, but the campsite made up for it when we got there. It is a small, free campsite overlooking a lake in which Monte Fitz Roy is reflected. We pitched the tent so that we could open the door and see the view at first light.

The next day was probably the easiest walk of the trip; we continued southwards to the next valley where a huge glacier flows fown from Cerro Torre and the back of Fitz Roy, ending in a lake.

Cerro Torre is an astonishingly tall and thin needle of rock, capped by an overhanging mushroom of snow. It was considered unclimbable until an Italian said he had done it using a pneumatic drill. But many people don't believe him, especially as the line of drill holes comes to an abrupt stop well short of the top.

Anyway, we camped here and the following day joined an organised group on a trip onto the ice. There were only three of us with two guides - not bad as the other groups seemed to be huge and had paid the same price. (The company is called Viviendo Montaña if anyone is interested.) After a tyrollean traverse to get over the river and a walk above the edge of the lake we got onto the ice and put on our crampons. (MUHC people will be impressed to know how well our fellow client got on with a pair of Camp Jollies strapped to his trainers!) We strolled around for a few hours, looking down holes in the ice and had a go at climbing a bit of ice. All the time there were spectacular views of the mountains and they feature as the backdrop of most of my photos. Here is Karina getting to the steep bit of the ice climb as our guide looks on:

By this time our food ration, which had already been augmented with a meal from our glacier excursion company, was running low and it was time to return to El Chaltén. The next day, as a change from walking with huge rucksacks full of camping gear, we did a day walk. The maps show a path to a 1270m top that ought to have views of all the mountains, but we got there and decided that it would be better from a bit further along the ridge. We finally got to a point at about 1550m with a fabulous panorama of just about everything in the area. Nothing beats views from summits - looking down, rather than up, on things, and having a 360 degree view, makes such a difference. This was a great way to end the trip, and we got the bus back to El Calafate.

So now I am preparing to visit Torres Del Paine, and Karina is going the other way, north through Argentina. Now it's time to collect my photos.