The northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Fitz Roy sector, is a trekking paradise. One of its main attractions is that those with limited time, or who are not in peak fitness, can still make worthwhile day-hikes using El Chaltén as a base.
The sector also contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain peaks on Earth. Two concentric jaws of jagged teeth puncture the Patagonian sky with the 3405m incisor of Monte Fitz Roy at the centre of the massif. This sculpted peak was known to the Tehuelche as El Chaltén, “The Mountain that Smokes” or “The Volcano”, owing to the almost perpetual presence of a scarf of cloud attached to its summit. It is not inconceivable, however, that the Tehuelche were using the term in a rather more metaphorical sense to allude to the fiery pink colour that the rock walls turn when struck by the first light of dawn. Francisco Moreno saw fit to name the pagan summit after the evangelical captain of the Beagle, who, with Charles Darwin, had viewed the Andes from a distance, after having journeyed up the Río Santa Cruz by whaleboat to within 50km of Lago Argentino. Alongside Monte Fitz Roy rise Cerro Poincenot and Aguja Saint-Exupéry, while set behind them is the forbidding needle of Cerro Torre, a finger that stands in bold defiance of all the elements that the Hielo Continental Sur hurls against it.
For those who enjoy camping, the quintessential three-day Fitz Roy/Cerro Torre loop at the centre of the park makes a good option, and can be done in either direction. The advantage of going anticlockwise is that you avoid the steep climb up to Lagunas Madre y Hija and you have the prevailing wind behind you when returning to El Chaltén. However, the biggest gamble is always what the weather will be like around Cerro Torre, so if this unpredictable peak is visible on day one, you might like to head for it first. The longer interlocking circuit to the north will add at least another two days. There are also a many other shorter trails.
The Cerro Torre controversy
The Cerro Torre controversy
Even members of the French team that first ascended Fitz Roy in 1952 thought that summitting Cerro Torre was an impossible task. The altitude wasn’t the problem – at 3102m, it wouldn’t reach even halfway up some Andean peaks – neither was the type of rock it was made out of – crystalline igneous diorite is perfect for climbing. Rather, it was the shape and the formidable weather: a terrifying spire dropping sheer for almost 2km into glacial ice, battered by winds of up to 200kph and temperatures so extreme that ice more than 20cm thick can form on rock faces. Not only that, but the peculiar glaciers – “mushrooms” of ice – which build up on the mountain’s summit often shear off, depositing huge blocks of ice onto climbers below.
Maestri, egger and ferrari
The Italian alpinist Cesare Maestri became the first to make a serious attempt on the summit. In 1959, he and Austrian climber Toni Egger worked their way up the northern edge. Caught in a storm, Egger was swept off the face and killed by an avalanche. Maestri somehow made it to the bottom, and announced that he had conquered the summit with Egger. The world, however, demanded proof, something Maestri could not furnish – the camera, he claimed, lay entombed with Egger.
Angered by the doubters, Maestri vowed to return. This he did, in 1970, and it was clear he meant business. Among his equipment was a 150kg compressor for drilling bolts into the rock. Torre couldn’t resist in the face of such a determined onslaught, and Maestri’s expedition reached the summit, making very sure that photos were snapped on top. A stake had been driven through Torre’s Gothic heart.
Or had it? The climbing world was riven by dispute. Were Maestri’s tactics in keeping with the aesthetic code of climbing or had the use of a machine invalidated his efforts? Did this represent a true ascent? On top of this, Maestri’s photos revealed that although he had reached the top of the rock, he had not climbed the ice mushroom – the icing that topped the cake.
Enter Casimiro Ferrari, another Italian climber. Using guile where Maestri had favoured strong-arm tactics, Ferrari sneaked up on the beast from behind, from the Hielo Continental Sur. In the space of two days, Ferrari achieved his goal, and, elatedly, his team brought down photos of them atop the summit, ice mushroom and all.
Toni Egger’s body was recovered in 1975, but no camera was found with him (he is now commemorated in the name of a jagged peak alongside Cerro Torre and a simple chapel in El Chaltén). But despite the controversy at the time, the bolts drilled by Maestri were used for many years, forming the most common route to the summit.
A bittersweet irony
Nevertheless, this irony was a bittersweet triumph for Maestri, who feels he has been cursed. In the 1990s, he reputedly voiced his hatred for the mountain, claiming he wanted it razed to the ground. History has added its own weight to that of the doubters. The mountain has been scaled by routes of tremendous technical difficulty by modern climbers with modern equipment, culminating in the Slovenians Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic’s ascent of the south wall in 1988. It wasn’t until 2005 that a team of climbers managed to climb the route that Maestri claimed he and Egger took in 1959.
The controversy reignited in January 2012 when two climbers – American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk – unilaterally decided to remove many of Maestri’s bolts. On their return to El Chaltén, amid much local anger, they were briefly detained by the police, who confiscated the bolts. The reaction in the mountaineering community worldwide has been mixed: while some have praised their actions as returning the mountain to its natural state, many others have accused them of destroying a piece of climbing history.
The Hielo Continental Sur
The Hielo Continental Sur
Blanketing massive expanses of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Hielo Continental Sur (Southern Patagonian Icecap) is the largest body of ice outside the poles. Estimates vary as to exactly how big it is but most studies put the figure at around 17,000 square kilometres, some seventy percent of which is in neighbouring Chile. What is certain is that it is suffering from the effects of global warming. In 2003, Science Magazine published a report claiming over 16 cubic kilometres of ice was melting annually; Greenpeace puts the figure at 42 cubic kilometres annually, or “enough to fill 10,000 large football stadiums”.