The little village of El Chalten in the Argentinian Patagonia serves as the base for trekking and climbing excursions in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Until 1985, this region was frequented only by climbers from the world over who would come here to test their skills on some of the most difficult mountains in the world.
In 1985 though, Argentina successfully claimed this area f rom Chile, and founded this village as a base for trekkers worldwide who want to also enjoy the wilderness in the national park.
The name Chalten means "smoking mountain" in the language of the nomadic Tehuelche people who used to live throughout the Patagonian region until the 1900s. The "smoke" refers to the plume cloud that usually is seen at the top of the Fitz Roy peak, which the Tehuelche considered sacred.
El Chalten lies along Rio de las Vueltas, nestled among the mountains. It has several hostels and restaurants, one market and a couple of small shops as well as a bakery (where we bought freshly baked sweet breads every day to take on our hikes).
Here is a (fuzzy) view of El Chalten along the river, taken well past sunset. Darkness would come only at around 11pm here at this time of year. This was very convenient, for we could go on long hikes during the day and still return before it got dark.
Here is a picture of Rio de las Vueltas taken as the sun was setting.
From anywhere in the village we had a view of the surrounding mountains. The most legendary peaks here are Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. I have read several absolutely incredible climbing stories of expeditions on these mountains - world class climbers have come here to try their luck on these two peaks, and several of these attempts have ended in tragedy. So I was in awe the whole time we were in El Chalten, realizing that this is the place where all that drama played out.
Fitz Roy is the tall mountain in the center of the picture below. Cerro Torre is the needle-like peak on the left, covered in clouds.
Mount Fitz Roy is named after Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle, the ship of Charles Darwin's famous voyage. It is 3375 m tall, which is less than half the height of the Himalayan mountains.
However, its steep and sheer granite rock walls present difficult technical climbing for even expert rock climbers. The ever changing weather and constant strong winds in this region add to the difficulty of this mountain. It was first climbed in 1952 by French alpinists Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone, and its peak still remains fairly elusive to even the best climbers in the world.
Here is a shot of Mount Fitz Roy and its cloud plumes, with pretty pink lupins in the foreground.
The other famous peak here has fascinated me for a long time, and so this visit was almost like a pilgrimage for me! Cerro Torre was considered impossible to summit by climbers for a long time after Fitz Roy's peak was successfully reached.
Cerro Torre's needle-like peak thrusts sharply into the sky, and its 2 kilometers of sheer, perpendicular rock surface presents a dizzying challenge to rock climbers. The unstable ice the constantly coats the mountain, and the winds that whip around it are daunting obstacles that few climbers have been able to conquer.
The tallest needle-like peak in the picture below is Cerro Torre, taken from the trail leading to its glacier. It hardly does justice to the magnificence of this mountain, but this was the only time the clouds cleared for me to get a picture!
Cerro Torre is also shrouded in controversy, with the spell it has cast on the climbing community. In 1959, Italian climber Cesare Maestri and Austrian climber Toni Egger made the first serious attempt at reaching its summit. Egger was killed on this attempt, and Maestri returned with the announcement that he had reached the summit. No one believed him.
In 1970, an angry Maestri returned to Cerro Torre, and drilled bolts all the way up the mountain to its top. This act has been considered by many as a violation of the purity of the sport, though Maestri's bolts are still used by climbers today!
Even this attempt by Maestri was brushed aside by the climbing community since he hadn't climbed over the giant ice mushroom that tops the mountain - which is considered by the community as the true summit! In 1990 Maestri announced that he hated this mountain and wanted to see it razed to the ground. Such is the power of Cerro Torre to arouse passion in the toughest of men!
The first successful ascent of Cerro Torre that has been accepted without question is that by Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari (from Italy), and Pino Negri in 1974.
Here is a little alpine chapel built by Austrian craftsmen in memory of Toni Egger who first attempted Cerro Torre and lost his life on it. Fitz Roy is in the background.
In the five days that we spent in El Chalten, we had excellent weather, and went on numerous hikes around the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains. It was awe inspiring to be in a place that has seen so much drama and tested the strengths of so many strong men and women.
Here are a couple of charming views of the little village.