Chile 2003: El ChaltÚn to Puerto Natales
Parque Nacionale de Glaciares, Argentina
Mar. 5 / Mar. 15 2003

Michael J. Ferguson

Les Publications INRS-Télécommunications, Montréal

Chile 2003: Main Index


1  El ChaltÚn, Wed. Mar. 5
2  El ChaltÚn to Laguna Capri, Thurs. Mar. 6
3  Laguna Capri to Poincenot, Fri. Mar. 7
4  Poincenot, Sat. Mar. 8
5  Poincenot to Laguna Torre, Sun. Mar. 9
6  Laguna and Cerro Torre, Mon. 10
7  Laguna Torre to El ChaltÚn, Tues. Mar. 11
8  Google Earth Map of the Mt. Fitzroy Trek
9  El ChaltÚn, Wed. Mar. 12
10  El Calafate, Thurs. Mar. 13
11  Perito Moreno Glacier, Fri. Mar. 14
12  El Calafate to Puerto Natales, Sat. Mar. 15

Next Section: Puerto Natales & Trekking Torres del Paine

1  El ChaltÚn, Wed. Mar. 5

This was the organisation day for the first trekking part of my trip. I was able to augment my current supply of risottos and pastas and have enough for about ten days, although breakfast and trail mix are still quite weak. Before the afternoon rain, Cerros (Mount) Fitz Roy and Solo showed themselves over the ridges surrounding town.

The rains came in the afternoon, and I retired to my tent to read, and examine the maps to plot my route.

2  El ChaltÚn to Laguna Capri, Thurs. Mar. 6

Early morning was clear, but after breaking camp, and storing my bike with the nice people at Camping El Refugio, misty rains had started. The trail climbed straight up 400m out of El ChaltÚn, with El ChaltÚn and the river valley below me.

The deeply cut horse trails gave me the first indication of the problems of crossing over from Chile to Argentina at Villa O'Higgins.

The rains increased, and on the plateau, I was stopped by a Park Ranger, who told me that the trail to Poincenot, the campground in front of Cerro Fitz Roy was closed because of waist high water. He was quite happy to hear that I intended to stay at the half way point, Laguna Capri. I arrived in moderately heavy rain, and found several others who had to abort their trek to Poincenot. This was a very sheltered, and well protected campground, making it very easy to put up my tent. The rain continued, so my only venture outside my tent was to get water. All the water in the park is drinkable ... wonderful change from North America.

3  Laguna Capri to Poincenot, Fri. Mar. 7

The rains ceased during the night and the morning was bright and beautiful, with my first real view of Cerro Fitz Roy to the north and impressive ranges to the west and south.

I backtracked a little bit towards El ChaltÚn to see if I could find my binoculars that broke its strap and fell off my pack. At the trail junction, I met a Swiss trekker from Berne, who told me had not seen anything on the trail. I followed him for a while towards Poincenot, but then let him race on ahead of me. Fitz Roy, the mountains further up the Rio Blanco valley, and the Piedras Blancas Glacier dominated the horizon.

The impassable section yesterday was at the trail junction going south to Lago & Cerro Torre, but today it was merely distressing rather than life threatening. I managed to fall backwards off a small log bridge, soaking both feet, and not being able to get up until I took off my pack. This removed all inhibition about getting my feet wet so I waded through the knee deep water to the other side. There was a crowd gathered trying to determine the most graceful way to cross.

From there, except for a slight wrong turn into another bog, it was an easy stroll to the Poincenot camping area. This was similar to the Laguna Capri campground with windbreaks around each tenting area. The protection was such that I didn't even need to rock down my groundsheet while putting up my tent. My stuff survived the dunking quite well, but still needed to get a little dryer.

It was a glorious day, and early afternoon, so I began the hike straight up the cliff to Lago Los Tres at the foot of Fitz Roy. The first challenge was to find a way across the Rio Blanco flood plain stream without further drenching my boots. The normal bridge was under about 10cm (4in) of water. There was, as I was told, a place about 100m upstream where you could rock hop across the stream. The real Rio Blanco was about 100m further west, where you crossed on a cabled log bridge with a single railing downwind. The climb is about 400m, and supposedly takes 40 minutes. As you rise, you see Laguna Madre, Laguna Hija, and even the huge Lago Viedma.

You think you are finished when you get to the top of the ridge, but that is an illusion. There is still the 25m to 50m high moraine, across a little flat, to reach the lake. This is where you get a close-up of the lake, Fitz Roy, and the Rio Blanco Glacier.

On the way down, you notice, even more, the lakes and ridges to the south,

and if you look really down, some very pretty small stuff.

I returned to camp, made supper, and met my neighbours, and ended a glorious day.

4  Poincenot, Sat. Mar. 8

There was a little rain during the night, but it stopped just before sunrise and the rest of the day was almost as nice as yesterday.

In the morning, I walked north, down the Rio Blanco, to the Piedras Blancas Glacier. It was sufficiently further than I expected that I felt I might have missed the turn. However, my fears were unfounded, and the huge moraine and boulders, along with my first view of the glacier showed me that I had indeed made it.

During my rock hopping, I found how tenacious life really is.

During the afternoon, I joined with Julian, a mountaineer, caver, and triathlete from Bristol England, to hike up to Lago Sucia and the Rio Blanco Glacier. The trail was mostly boulder debris on the west side of the Rio Blanco with one cliff climb around a point. Julian made it all look so easy. About 500m from the lake, we had to cross a stream, that under normal circumstances, had almost no water. However this time it was too much for me.

Julian found a 1.5m jump to a wet rock and made it across. I wasn't worried about the distance, but the landing scared me so I let him go. He came back about 20min later while I enjoyed the view of the lake, glacier, and mountains, where I was.

The clouds stuck to Fitz Roy would lift so we couldn't really see the entire glacial environment. The ridge south of the river was quite clear and beautiful.

5  Poincenot to Laguna Torre, Sun. Mar. 9

Fitz Roy may not have been visible last night, but this morning, in the early light, it was glorious.

After an appropriate degree of meditation, I packed up and started for Cerro and Laguna Torre. The knee deep water crossing was almost dry but the trail by Laguna Madre was boggy and quite wet. The wind in Patagonia never seem to go away. There are even waves on the water on the trail.

The caterpillars here seem to be a scourge in this forest. They are everywhere, and get into everything.

Perhaps they are the reason there is so much dead wood.

Although the morning started out beautiful, the rain came in the early afternoon, and I didn't see anything but clouds coming in the Rio Fitz Roy valley to Camp de Agostina at Laguna Torre. This campground was not as nearly as nice as the other two I stayed in, without individual campsite wind breaks, but still reasonably well sheltered behind the moraine. The rain was heavy, so I cooked supper in my tent and went to bed.

6  Laguna and Cerro Torre, Mon. 10

It was a beautiful, crystal clear day, and stayed that way. This was my first, early morning view of Cerro Torre from de Agostina campground.

My early morning objective was the lookout, Mirador Maestri, the Italian mountaineer who first climbed the unclimbable Cerro Torre, using a 150kgm portable compressor drill to fix bolts. I somehow missed the correct turn, and dead ended high above the lake. I didn't really care about missing the lookout because I really wanted to hike along the lake to the glacier, so I very carefully made my way down the scree moraine to the lake. Along the way, I became almost intimate with the glacier.

All along, I had Cerro Torre too.

From a distance, I thought that the glacier was almost down to ground level, but that turned out to be a mistake. The north side was covered with rock slide debris, the older rusty, and the newer grey. These rocks covered some of the huge ice ridges that made up the body and gave a new definition to a Glacial Lake.

The stark sheerness and squareness of Cerro Torre became more impressive as you approached it.

Looking back, you see the glacier spilling into the lake.

On the way back, the light changed on the front of the glacier.

One amazing thing was the debris on the large rock island in front of the glacier - how did it get there?

Another was an impressive demonstration of the weakness of the expression Like a Rock!. This rock is over 10m long. You could easily stand inside the split.

I didn't go back up the scree slope, but instead went along the shore, hopping form rock to rock, and munching on the small pieces of glacier ice in the Children's Cemetery.

7  Laguna Torre to El ChaltÚn, Tues. Mar. 11

Today there are clouds on Cerro Torre, but it is still quite beautiful.

Just south of Laguna Torre is Cerro Solo

which my neighbours, a French mountaineering couple from Marseille, climbed, up and down, in 12 hours - very impressive.

I arrived back in El ChaltÚn

in the early afternoon, and indulged in a steak lunch - a welcome change from the pasta and risotto of the past five days.

It is really incredible scenery.

8  Google Earth Map of the Mt. Fitzroy Trek

This is a link to the Google Earth Map of the trek.

9  El ChaltÚn, Wed. Mar. 12

I woke up at 4:00am to break camp, and pack my bike for a predawn, 6:00am, bus to El Calafate. After my bike was loaded, I discovered that the bus was full, and since I didn't have a ticket, I was thrown off. It was then I realised that I had mislaid my trekking pole yesterday, most likely at the Fitz Roy Inn which serves as the CalTur terminal, when I was checking on the bus. When I went back, they said they had not found anything - ugh. I may be forced back to stick if I can't find something reasonable in Calafate or Puerto Natales. One result of missing the bus was that I have spent most of the day writing my journal in the Albergue Rancho Grande, the terminus for Chalten Travel, the people I came down with from Perito Moreno. They charge more for my bicycle than others but it was worth it to have an excuse to be here with my computer plugged in.

The bus left on time with my bike and trailer stuffed into some compartments at the rear. However, it was not to be an uneventful trip. About 10km out of El ChaltÚn, the bus broke down for the first time. We were idle by the side of the road for a half hour while the driver fiddled with stuff at the back ... the engine is at the front. The rumour was that we had lost our brakes, but that was only the half of it. The engine was also acting up. We limped along, barely making it up the hills and using the full engine to brake us going down. The driver was continually in contact with his homebase getting advice on what to do. At our ostensible half-way pit stop, two small busses met us to take all the passengers but me and my bike to El Calafate. We broke down two more times. On the first one, the driver recovered the engine by priming and fussing with it, but the second time was more serious. He radioed for help, and drank his matte while the mechanics arrived. After a half hour of work, in various places in the bus, the engine started, and the driver roped the front door shut - it was broken too. This time we were escorted by the rescue truck, who explained to the police at the check point, that if we stopped, we probably would not start again. The last few kilometres were in first gear and it was quite possible the bus would expire on the spot. It was so sick that it went immediately to the maintenance garage where I was told ``This is the end of the trip!''. It was now 12:30am in the morning. Where was I to go from there? I had hoped to be let off at the Calafate Hostel, as on a normal trip and stay there - no such luck. I now wanted to go to the Rough Guide recommended Residencial Buenos Aires on Buenos Aires. I asked for directions 3 times, and finally made closure when a nice guy led me up a block and pointed to it. It was indeed impolite to wake up the hostess at 1:15am but she came to the door, and there was a room.

10  El Calafate, Thurs. Mar. 13

I spent most of the day replenishing my food supply, and money supply. None of the ATMs in town were working because a power failure in one half of town had apparently cut there line to the outside world. The power went out at about 10:00am and the outside world connection was fixed by 1:00pm. Finally, at 2:00pm. the ATMs that were outside the blackout zone started working. There seemed to lineups all day.

I also arranged my tour to the Perito Merino Glacier and confirmed at 7:00pm that they had the 12 necessary for it to go.

11  Perito Moreno Glacier, Fri. Mar. 14

Today I went on the Rough Guide recommended Perito Moreno Glacier tour run by Patagonia Backpackers out of the YHA Hostel here in Calafate. It was a wonderful day.

We started out on the gravel back road way to the glacier and were treated to a close-up view of the mountains and lakes and to a display of hawks, eagles, and especially flocks of condors.

We stopped at a small inn, and were greeted by their white cat in a rather quiet way.

Would it be a visit to Argentina without a gaucho?

After paying our 20Ap entrance fee to the park, we eventually got our first good look at the glacier.

We started our tour by hiking around a point to the lookouts. On our right was the Lago Argentina

but the dominant feature was the glacier in front of us.

Occasionally, the glacier blocks off a section of he lake. If this slot is blocked, the other part of the lake is isolated. The last time this happened, 14 years ago, the blocked section rose 60m.

After rounding the point, we went up to the lookouts. Here you could see the ice peaks that I had first noticed on the Torre Glacier.

Unlike the Torre Glacier the entire surface, and the front face had this strange mountainous quality.

This glacier is very productive, creating children at a constant rate. The broken peak in the middle looked as though it would go, and did, but my camera was not ready.

Gabriel, from Israel, and I were watching and waiting, each with our camera ready, for a second birth. My camera failed, by delaying its picture until the birth was complete, but Gabriel had more luck with his Nikon Coolpix.

After our tour of the lookouts, we had a short boat cruise to the face of the glacier.

We took a completely paved road all the way back to El Calafate. It was a very good day.

12  El Calafate to Puerto Natales, Sat. Mar. 15

This was a largely uneventful day, except that, although we had a large bus, I had to really dismantle the trailer and bicycle to get it in.

The RN40 is paved, neglecting potholes and washouts, from Calafate to where it turns to go to Puerto Natales, still 150km away. The head winds, abetted by light rain, here were as bad as any I have experienced so far. It was very hard even to walk from the bus to our hotel, pit stop. I couldn't imagine riding in that stuff.

After assuring the Argentinean gendarmerie that we had entered the country legally, and hence were permitted to leave, and then getting Chilean permission to come back in to Chile, we arrived in Puerto Natales. With the aid of the Lonely Planet city (town?, village?) I was easily able to find the Residencial Asturia. These city maps are invaluable.

Next Section: Puerto Natales & Trekking Torres del Paine

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On 12 Nov 2008, 11:57.