El Chalten and Mt Fitzroy

Oh the wind, the relentless wind of El Chalten!…..

If I talk about wind, then I mean the sort of wind like you haven’t witnessed it before: constant, gusting, merciless, unforgiving wind that knocks you off your feet, wind that after a while becomes irritating. Wind that can make a fairly undemanding hike in the Andes a dangerous undertaking.

El Chalten is a small village in the Southern Andes, circa 200 miles North from Puerto Natales.

To get there I first had to cross the border into Argentina where – I have to admit – the very public and frequent reminders that “The Malvinas are Argentinian!” made me for the first time slightly uncomfortable travelling with a British passport.

About 100 miles behind the border I reached the regional center of El Calafate, which is located on the shores of the huge Lago Argentino which is supplied year round by the ice and melt waters of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in the West.

Changing buses here, I took the epic “Ruta 40” further North, towards the equally large and cold Lago Viedma, before turning West towards the mountains. For this journey I was lucky to get a front seat on the upper level of a double decker coach, which was providing me with a perfect panoramic view.

In this arid landscape virtualy devoid of any but the hardiest vegetation , with hardly any human settlements and just the cadavers of some unfortunate guanacos in the fence alongside the straight, endless road telling a tale of an most unpleasant death, my heart went out to the first brave people who tried to cross this land on foot or on horse back.

Sitting on my front row lounge seat sheltered from the elements like the pilot of a low flying plane, I felt a bit like a fraud enjoying the unforgiving countryside around we with the snowcapped mountains on the horizon.

It was just before sunset when I arrived in El Chalten and I had to fight my way against the wind along the highstreet towards my next residence – an individually designed and lovingly constructed tiny house which was condensing a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a double bed – all of comfortable size – on not more than 8 sqm. Possibly a bit tight for a family but perfect for me. Despite its lightweight construction I was also pleasantly surprised how little it appeared to be affected by the constant storm outside…..

Why is ElChalten such a windy place?

If you take a look at the map, you appreciate that the whole of Patagonia is wedged between the cold current on the Pacific side and the warmer current on the Atlantic side. The further South you go, the more likely it is that these temperature differences will result in strong wind and in storms. Cap Horn has been and still is feared because of this by seafarers from around the world.

To add to this El Chalten is located right next to a giant freezer – the Glacier National Park – which features one of the largest continental areas covered by a thick layer of ice outside Antarctica. Just imagine a slightly opened fridge door in the heat of the summer and the draft the temperature difference will create.

Further more El Chalten is located at the end of a long valley with a nearly perfect North-South orientation with any wind been funneled through the small gap between the mountains towards Lago Viedma in the South.

With this exposed position, El Chalten is not only one of the windiest places but also one of the coldest places in Argentina. While during my stay the temperatures hardly reached double figures, Buenos Aires was enjoying more enjoyable 25 C…..

So why then travelling to this cold and windy place ?……

The answer was given the next day when I set out after breakfast hiking West towards the mountains to another unforgettable sight in the Patagonian Andes: the Laguna Torres – an icy lake littered with floats and small ice bergs from the decaying edge of the vast ice field at the other end of the lake.

I don’t know what it is, but the sight of millenia old lumps of glacial ice in the water never ceases to fascinate me and as it appeared also several dozens of fellow hikers……

This trip was followed the next day with a long hike to the main highlight of the region – the Argentinian answer to the Torres del Paine : the towering peaks of Mt Fitzroy.

Named after the captain of HMS Beagle who had travelled up the Santa Cruz River in 1834, the sheer beauty of this mountain is attracting every year thousands of hikers from all corners of the world.

I was extremely lucky that once again the weather was outstanding (which is not very often the case…..) allowing a perfect view of the whole mountain, which is the gate keeper of the huge glaciers towards the Pacific side of South America.

As beautiful as the view was at the foothills of this giant, as brutal was the wind up here, forcing every visitor behind even the smallest rock for shelter and making any extended stay all but impossible. Standing here (or trying to…..) I was not surprised to learn at it took until 1952 (just a year before the climbing of Mt Everest) before a fearless team of French climbers had manage to summit this iconic mountain.

At sun set, exhausted, but with another wonderful memory in my luggage I stumbled back into my tiny house, now satisfied and ready to continue with my journey further North.

Published by The Blue Vet

I am a veterinary surgeon with a German and Norwegian educational background. I have been the founder and for over 20 years I have been the senior veterinarian at the Virginia Water Veterinary Clinic in Surrey, England. When starting this blog I was also the President of FECAVA, the Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Associations. In the summer of 2019 I left my clinic to work as an international locum and clinical advisor. I am interested in all aspects of clinical companion animal medicine, in endurance sports and in traveling and meeting people with and without their pets and especially in sharing my knowledge with colleagues in other parts of Europe and the World.

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