The northernmost section of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Fitz Roy sector, contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain peaks on the planet. 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.
The locally vaunted claim that the northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is Argentina’s trekking paradise is fully justified, and the closer you get to the mountains, the clearer their grandeur becomes. One of the beauties of the park is that those with limited time, or not in peak fitness, can still make worthwhile day-walks using El Chaltén as a base. The shortest of these walks is to Chorrillo del Salto, a plunging twenty-metre waterfall, framed by a moss-green cliff and adorned by the skeletons of drowned lenga trees, ten minutes off the RP-23, 3km past Campamento Madsen north of town.
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.
Adequate outdoor clothing is essential in the park at all times of the year, as snowstorms are possible even in midsummer. Note that there is a ban on lighting campfires in the park, so if you need your food hot, make careful use of gas stoves; horses are no longer allowed in the park, either, owing to the damage they were doing to the terrain but some operators now use environmentally friendly llamas as pack animals for treks.Read More
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.
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 that 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 that he meant business. Among the expedition equipment lay his secret weapon: a compressor weighing over 150kg for drilling bolts into the unforgiving 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. The monster would not lie down and die.
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.
So, almost thirty years on, who does the climbing community take as the first to conquer the mountain? 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). The compressor drill used by Maestri in 1970 still hangs near the top, a testament to his subjection of the mountain. And, despite the controversy at the time, the bolts drilled by Maestri are used to this day, forming the most common route to the summit.
Nevertheless, this irony is a bittersweet triumph for Maestri, who feels he has been cursed. In the 1990s, he reputedly voiced his hatred for the mountain, claiming that 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 manage to climb the route that Maestri claimed he and Egger took in 1959.
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, the journal Science Magazine published a report claiming over sixteen 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”.