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El Chalten and Cerro Torre




In the wilds of Argentine Patagonia, over the border from the Torres del Paine National Park, lies the less visited area of El Chalten, a truly rugged mountain escape.



Continually changing weather systems that feed off the surrounding ice fields make it difficult to catch a golden glimpse of this park’s two main attractions: the icicle-sharp finger of rock that is Cerro Torre, one of the toughest ascents in the world, and its more bulky, but equally intimidating neighbour, Mount Fitzroy. Just being in the park is a fantastically bleak and unique experience.



Substantial beauty and immense technical challenges make these two mountains a climber’s dream, capped off with nightmarish ascents. Some climbers wait months for one brief shot at climbing these monsters; others slog along the painstaking route day-by-day, slaves to the whims of the weather gods. But the two towers are merely the jewels in a range equal to that found in Torres del Paine, in a park that offers exciting hiking on low or high ground, whether you can see the mountains or not.



It is easy to set up base in the town, as there are plenty of comfortable hotels, but out in the mountains is the place to be. Torre and Fitzroy rise up from two different mountain chains, separated by glaciers. Two main treks cut through the park, one to Lago Torre, where on a good day you can see Cerro Torre, and the other to Lago de Los Tres, where you can see Fitzroy when the clouds steer clear.



The first route begins close to the YHA’s Rio Grande hostel, climbing through fields and forests with resident woodpeckers to a clearing with awesome views of the mighty mountains. From here, the trail drops into a river valley and heads towards a distant glacier. A short scramble up the loose moraine brings you to an awe-inspiring view of the iceberg-filled lake, the path of the glacier and the rising pointed fingers of Cerro Torre. A long circular route can then take you past a waterfall and through rocky terrace-like fields back to town.



The second walk begins with a viewpoint over the river valley in front of El Chalten, before climbing an open hill with clear views of Fitzroy. From there the trek again heads along a river where it is possible to make a detour to Lake Capri before continuing on down the windy valley, where two steep climbs make the going difficult. Icy wind and snow often make the path punishing, but be persistent and if you’re lucky you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view of the deep blue ice lake, the face of the glacier and a close-up of the towering Fitzroy.



There is no doubt that a fair helping of good fortune is needed to see this area with clear skies; but it is the bleakness of the mountains and the many stories of weather-torn climbing failures that add to the area’s mystique. Seeing snow-shrouded Cerro Torre and Fitzroy with an icy wind nipping at your face is all part of the real experience.

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