We’re in El Calafate right now on an emergency mission to fix our tent. It did not survive our stay in El Chalten, a little hiking mecca filled with an odd combination of gore-tex clad trekkers, expensive restaurants, ramshackle tin buildings, and the occasional horse. This is Argentina’s newest town; it was hastily assembled in 1965 to beat Chile to the border. El Chalten sits right at the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park, home of Argentina’s most famous mountains. Along with the towering granite spires of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, the area is known for severe weather. Unpredictable storms blow in at any time and in our four days, we had hot sun, cloudless skies, snow, torrential rain, and fog – all occurring in the span of a few hours. But it was the wind that really defined this place and on our last day it was so strong, I could feel it almost blow me off balance.
Apparently the tent felt the same way. We arrived back from hiking and found a large rip in the rain fly and a snapped tent pole. Our plans to trek around Patagonia’s other famous mountains in Torres del Paine are on hold while we try and find a way to fix this very essential bit of equipment. Otherwise we’ll have to swallow our budget and buy a new one and the tents we’ve seen many Argentines using do not inspire confidence – usually they’re sagging and in various states of disrepair. Maybe we’ll have better luck in Chile.
Aside from the wind issue, El Chalten was ideal for its proximity to Cerro Torre and Mt Fitzroy, two peaks rising 3,000 meters above the Patagonian steppe. I say “ideal” because there was no real backpacking required to get up close to the mountains. And judging by how our legs feel after three days of relatively easy day hikes, this was a good thing. Biking long distances for prolonged periods of time is completely useless for any other physical activity – except more biking.
The immense scale and technical difficulty of these peaks combined with the wild weather makes them two of mountaineering’s greatest climbs. And looking up at the mountains I had already seen in countless photographs was a testament to the stunning inadequacy of pictures in this particular setting.
The tops of the peaks are almost always shrouded in clouds; you can wait for days and never see them. But the clouds always seemed to part at some point in the day giving us glimpses of the entire summit massif long enough to take hundreds of pictures, each with a slightly different cloud arrangement clinging stubbornly to the mountain’s flanks.
Almost as exciting as the scenery and the weather was meeting up with Casey Jones, a junior at Williams studying in Buenos Aires for the semester. Our timing in El Chalten coincided and we hiked together to Laguna de Los Tres for views of Mt Fitzroy and an off-trail adventure scramble to a glacier lookout. When we got to the ridge it was snowing, but slowly the fog lifted, revealing a giant sheet of blue ice wrinkled with crevasses and studded with huge toothy pinnacles.
Having Casey around provided some much needed perspective on just how many strange behaviors we’ve developed over the last three months. He introduced us to his American friends from BA, but interacting with normal people turned out to be a little too much to handle. We were reduced to crouching behind a boulder eating spoonfuls of dulce de leche in mute silence while Casey tried without success to facilitate conversation. He chatted away while the others probably wondered why he’s friends with the two biking freaks. Sorry Casey – reintegrating into normal life might be harder than anticipated…
Sleeping in a bed for more than two nights now feels unnatural so we convinced Casey to move from the hostel to the “Casa de Jesus”. We pitched our tent in Jesus’s yard on a hill above town along with a motley crew of travelers. Jesus is a legendary figure around El Chalten, a man who offers up his entire property to complete strangers, most of whom end up staying for weeks. We arrived just in time for the nightly communal dinner cooked in a big “disco” over the fire and immediately felt more at home more at home among the dreadlocked unshowered tribe hanging out with Jesus than with the the clean “normal” tourists in the impersonal hostel.
I started writing this yesterday but as of this morning we don’t even have a broken tent. It was stolen last night along with all the cash in my wallet – confirmation of why we hate hostels. Or maybe we’ve just become too complacent after so much time spent by ourselves in remote places. We endured a morose bus ride to Puerto Natales and were cheered up by the less touristy vibes and the discovery of Alex’s camera that we thought had been in his backpack with the tent. I guess we’re going shopping now.
Below: the mountains we temporarily ditched our bikes for and waiting out the wind and rain in the tent (r.i.p.) with some wine and a book – we try to stay civilized at least some of the time.