Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Inch by inch, Lady Patagonia raises her skirts

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I hadn’t really read ahead about the treks I could do from El Chaltén. In fact, my original plan was simply to relax and do nothing. But as soon as I got there it became very clear that the thing you HAD to do as the bare minimum was two walks up to ‘miradors’ (view points) to see Mount Fitz Roy and the valley behind it.

I only had one pair of shoes with me – my cycling shoes, complete with metal cleats in the base – and a pair of flip flops – so am not exactly kitted out for trekking, but I figured for a couple of short walks I should be fine.

Sometimes the Patagonian weather leaves much to the imagination…!

Would I get to see any more??

Trek 1: Walk up to Mirador del Cerro Torre

First up, after a very lazy morning recovering from our border crossing misadventures, I decided to do the short 2.5km walk up to the viewpoint in the afternoon to see Cerro Torre. From there, it should be possible to see a number of very famous peaks, including Cerro Torre itself (3102m), Cerro Grande (2751m) and Cerro Egger (2850m), also the glacier plunging down the side.

I started my way up the trail and encountered another philosophical sign:

Always good to be reminded that your life is at the mercy of the elements! Patagonian weather is famous for producing four seasons within the hour. As I set off up the stony path towards the cloudy mountain peaks, I hoped that would be the case, as perhaps after a dose of rain the sun would come out and reveal what lay behind all these clouds. At this moment, Lady Patagonia was barely showing me her ankles, never mind anything more risqué!

I got to the mirador after trundling uphill for 2.5km to this lovely sign telling me what I should be able to see.

Alas, no such luck. The good lady’s lower shin was perhaps now on display, but definitely nothing above the knee! I could just about make out the peaks through the clouds, and perhaps a bit of glacier far in the distance, but certainly nothing more than that.

I’d planned to just do the short walk to the mirador and try my luck with the weather but given the absence of a panoramic view, and as the clouds did appear to be improving slightly, I thought perhaps I’d carry on to do the full day trek up to Laguna Torre. This would take me to the lake and glacier at the base of the mountain. It would be a 20km round trip all in all, but I’d managed this first bit in less than 2/3 of the suggested time and figured I’d be back down to the town before 8pm if I kept on moving. I guess all the cycling is definitely making me fitter. Luckily, I’d packed a rucksack with water, my waterproofs and cold weather gear, and I happened to have my snacks bag in there from the bike, so would have a few things to nibble on to keep me going. I decided to plough on.

I passed quite a few walkers returning in the opposite direction, and got the sense I was probably one of the last people heading up still, but the weather at least wasn’t getting any worse, so I kept going.

With little walk ways and plank bridges, the park management had done a much better job of maintaining the path than we endured on the border crossing trek!

After walking up stony paths, then through a beautiful wooded area and alongside the river bed, I emerged into the open. I walked up the last bit of scree onto the exposed ridge that circled the laguna. The wind was now howling and the temperature had dropped massively. The first snow flakes started to fall. Whilst the cloud never really lifted, Laguna Torres and the glacier beyond were still an impressive sight. I could see just a little more than the photos suggest (still only ‘knee-high’ level though really!). Despite the weather, walking around the ridge with the wet air on my face, and with a glow from the physical exertion of trekking up there relatively quickly, I felt completely revitalised.

Walking the ridge way with the glacier tumbling down into the opposite side of the lake – the damp air and first flecks of snow hide the rest of it behind the clouds

Feeling glowing despite the wind, wet and cold

The base of the glacier

Ice that had broken off the glacier and floated across the lake

Looking around me and along the ridge, I now couldn’t see any other walkers through the snow. I bundled up in my hat and gloves and set off back down to the town 10km below. As I walked back through the valley, the snow stopped and the sun gradually came out. Typical! I was sure the glacier was probably now in glorious sunshine behind me.

All kinds of little birds lined the route and tweeted their respective songs as the sun came back out

The peaks began to gradually emerged above the clouds

Back at the first mirador, the view up the valley was a bit improved….

…and I could now make out the top half of the glacier from a distance

Some parts of the valley were now completely visible beneath the clouds

I waited at the lower mirador a while to enjoy the view as the clouds lifted. As luck would have it, Peter who I’d met back in Villa O’Higgins was also coming back down (he’d walked all the way round the ridge line, to get right up close to the glacier), so we walked back down to El Chaltén together. There aren’t many people who I’ve really felt like talking with all that sincerely on this trip – I tend to save that for those who really know me back at home rather than for transient encounters – but we definitely put the world to rights as we made our way back down the trail.

We spotted this red-breasted bird on our way back to the town

Peter looking pretty happy after a day well spent

Stunning waterfall on the way back down

Trek 2: To Mirador del Fitz Roy

The following day I woke up a bit later and had a lazy breakfast after looking out of the window and seeing more cloud. I planned to finally have a rest day in the true sense of the word, but the guy at my hostal told me the weather was supposed to improve later, so this wasn’t the time to be lazing around! Kick up the bum duly received, I headed out to do the short 2 hour round-trek to see Mount Fitz Roy – one of the most famous sights in Patagonia (when you can see it that is!).

Reaching the famous mirador, I wondered why I’d bothered!

I joined a lady to sit on a log and commiserate. She was Japanese and said she’d come a long way to be here, so was prepared to wait a little longer. She was very patient and tranquil and reminded me a little of Kumi, who had been on my mind increasingly recently as her accident must have happened close to here.

We sat together for an hour or so, quietly, watching the wind blowing the clouds over the peaks and catching occasional glimpses of glaciers and spires as they emerged and disappeared again. After a while, you are able to pull together a bigger picture by piecing together each of the jigsaw piece snapshots that you’ve seen.

I hadn’t brought any food with me today, expecting to do just a short walk, so eventually decided it was time to say goodbye and continue round to the lake view.

As I reached the lake just 20 minutes later, I looked behind to this amazing vision appearing through the clouds!

‘Poincenot’, the second highest peak, was suddenly starting to come into view.

I literally ran back half way to the mirador, to a beautiful spot that I’d passed earlier on. Patagonia, the temptress, then put on a show more fascinating and full of suspense than watching any tv or film. I sat on a rock on my own glued to the view for 2 more hours, just watching this astounding panorama unfold as Cerro Fitz Roy itself, and the toothy spires behind it, were revealed.

Walking back round to the lake, the view just kept getting better and better.

And then, after 5 hours – 3 hours longer than normal – when I finally decided to head back down, I was treated to the sight of a huemul (a wild and endangered type of Patagonian deer) just grazing quietly near the side of the path. I was surprised how big its nose was!

I also got this wonderful view back up the valley to the border crossing.

I was so happy as I headed back into town. I’d managed to watch the elusive Fitz Roy emerge to blue skies and to completely unexpectedly get a sighting of a huemul (they are so rare you’re asked to report the sightings to a park ranger). Mount Fitz Roy is famous for being one of the most technically difficult climbs in the world and some unlucky mountaineers can spend weeks waiting for weather good enough to attempt a climb to the summit. It is a lucky person who gets to see these views. Cerro Chaltén – the collective name believed to have been first used by the indigenous Tehuelche people for this mountain range – means ‘smoking mountain’, reflective of the clouds that nearly always hang around its spires.

These few days had definitely been a highlight. After a delicious dinner it felt like tomorrow would be the perfect time to move on.

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