Monday, February 2, 2009

El Chalten and two Magnificent Mountains

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.


Sepiru Chris said...

Hello Bindu,

I have never yet been to South America; I am getting the strong feeling that this needs to be rectified soon.

The only question becomes hiking boots or kayak...

I want to be there. Thank you for introducing an area that I know about, but only from books, not from pictures.

Have you ever been to the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival? I think that you might really enjoy it.


Jude said...

Wow Bindu, I'm speechless again. Cerro Torre is fasinating isn't it. You lucky lucky thing, the photos are stunning and thank you for explaining it all.

pink dogwood said...

You managed to have so much fun in one trip :) The views are amazing, but I know what you mean about not capturing the magnificence of the place. But for us who haven't been there, the pictures are amazing.

~ ॐ ~ said...

I want to go here too !!!!

these are just some really beautiful pictures and the post is just too good !!!

Robyn said...

It is the most beautiful mountain!The climbing history is so interesting. My husband is going to love seeing these photos. He reads everything he can get his hands on about mountaineering expeditions.

3rdEyeMuse said...

you never fail to pull me right into every picture & word you share. the photo's are lovely (actually, I have come not to expect less) - I especially like the one with the pink lupins and you brought everything to life with the stories of the two mountains.

thank you. :)

Chris said...

Bindu, Your photos are so gorgeous. It must be so amazing to see in person.

Vamsee said...

5 days of hiking in that beautiful place must have been like heaven. Long days are great especially when you are on vacation and want to make use of every daylight moment. Pictures are just amazing. The last two remind me of Switzerland / Austria.
Loved the story of Maestri.Poor guy...I feel for him.

painter girl said...

Love the stories of all those determined hikers. And the little chapel is absolutely divine.

bindu said...

Chris - even if you choose the kayak, take your hiking boots along! South America has incredible hiking, and we've done a fair bit of it in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and now Argentina. It's really great. Haven't been to the Banff festival - will keep your suggestion in mind! Thanks.

Jude - it really is. I'd imagined so many things about it from books, so it was great to see it.

Bhavana - thanks. We are not good about taking videos, so this will have to do to preserve the memories!

Om - thanks. :)

Robyn - I am obsessed with reading about climbing adventures too!

3rdEyeMuse - glad you enjoyed it. :)

Chris - it was!

Vamsee - even that time felt like it was too little. I haven't been to the Alps - some time in the future, perhaps!

Painter Girl - thanks!

Blu said...

Hello Bindu I am late as usual. As ever I found every word and picture a delight. It is great to see these wild mountains through your eyes.

best wishes Blu x

Nancy and the fatties said...

Bindu, this is unimaginably beautiful. Like a different world altogether. Was the light magical there? It looks like it has a special quality from your photos.
ps - I tagged you today!!!

ArtSparker said...

The mountain looks as if it came form the imagination, and paintbrush, of the german romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

~vagabond~ said...

The pink lupines are so pretty...what a welcome break from the infinite white landscape around me right now. I like how you put in bits of the history regarding the place in your makes for very interesting reading. Your posts make me want to see it all for myself someday. :)

Prashant Dhanke said...

Are those photos real??? Visiting that place is now in my "Things to do before I turn 30" :).

GMG said...

Hi Bindu! This (and the Torres del Paine) is my dream trip... unfortunately has been postponed for a while due to lack of time, but one day I'll make it... Your pictures are gorgeous!
there is a surprising post at Blogtrotter... Enjoy!
Have a great weekend!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

What amazingly beautiful mountains! I would love to see them - but not climb them! It must be really awe inspiring to actually be there and see all this, Bindu.

Indrani said...

These are amazingly beautiful sights! Not sure if I will be able to visit but what is the harm in dreaming! :)

Lakshmi said...

such idyllic villages..years ago, I had been to Brazil ..almost 2 decades ago..would love to go to argentina sometime

Bhavesh Chhatbar said...

I didn't know this place! Thank you so much for sharing. Trekking is like a passion for me. I have been to treks in the Maharashtra State of India, which are at completely different places than this one. It's such a beautiful place!!

Shayla said...

You stir up my excitement for hiking and running. I used to do them both, but haven't in a long time.
Such a beautiful shot with the yellow flowers and I was warmed up by seeing the lupins. They grow over here thick as carpeting and it was a good reminder that they would be back after the snow melts. Didn't know that they grew outside of the Canadian Maritimes :o

Shalini said...

Wow, this looks like a fantastic place. I loved all your photos, especially the one of the church.

Barbara Martin said...

Wonderful post and I enjoyed the information about the rock climbing, although I don't do this myself (I have a thing for heights). Lovely photos and thanks for sharing.

GMG said...

Hi Bindu!
Came back just to tell you that Blogtrotter has entered Rajasthan! Enjoy and have a great weekend!

pRiyA said...

this is gorgeous. i'm glad that even though i can't go travelling all the way there (yet!!!), i can at least enjoy this place on your blog!

lucky you!

Sydney said...

Once again you stun us with your excellent photos and stories! I can hardly believe how it looked in person.... it's magnificent enough through your lens.

Sorry that I've not been commenting as quickly. I've been out of town for about 3 of the last 5 weeks. Home today and for awhile now I HOPE!!!

The Wandering Hermit said...

Wow.. Patagonia, I am always reminded of Eric Shiptons description of the place whenever I see photographs of these fab mountains.. Beautiful photographs of some awesome granite walls..
I think fritz roy is much like Arwa Towers and Spires in Garhwal and the more striking Cerro Torre a dream of a climb I would want to do in a couple of years if all goes well..

I don't think Cesare Maestri and Toni Egger completed their ascent. No doubt Egger was a great rock climber but as nearly all the expeditions after them found traces of their climb upto 300 mtrs below the summit and nothing afterwards Maestri's claims are extremely dubious and just another sign of Ego overcoming Ability... And what he did subsequently on the
"Compressor Route" was despoil a great piece of granite for those to follow by drilling the rock and then leaving his machine strapped to the mountain.. disgraceful conduct. There was talk that the bolts would be cleared off the wall but no one has come through and done it as yet..I hope they do.