Monday, January 10, 2011

My Dogs Are Barking - The Tale of the Supertrek (Part 1 of 2)

The drive into El Chalten.  The Fitz Roy is peeking out through the clouds.

Cerro Torre.
Photo Credit: Ted Martens.
El Chalten is a small (one main road) mountain town in southern Patagonia at the base of two impressive mountains:  Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy.  The town exists for two reasons.  First, because as late as 1985 the border between Argentina and Chile was in dispute and somehow the slap-dash construction of El Chalten secured the land for Argentina.  Second, the mountains that the town sits in are incredibly impressive, and hikers (us) and climbers (not us) come from all over the world to enjoy the their natural beauty.

Generally, visitors to El Chalten spent a couple of days doing day hikes to Cerro Torre, Cerro Fitz Roy, and maybe to a few other notable miradors (viewpoints).  What is not recommended is hiking to both Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy in one day.  This, we subsequently learned from an Argentine park ranger, is called the ¨Supertrek¨ and is not advised for anyone who does not ¨have many experiences with long hikes.¨ And he then told us that even if you were in physical shape to do such a hike, that is it is better to do them separately to better enjoy the park´s natural beauty.  This helpful advice, however, came a bit too late.  We had ¨done¨ the Supertrek two days earlier, and indeed, the ranger was right.  The Supertrek is very very ill-advised.

The thing about El Chalten is that it has notoriously bad weather.  Climbers hoping to climb the tremendous (and seemingly straight up) rock spires have been known to wait weeks for the weather to clear to allow a summit attempt.  Thus, when we (along with some friends we met in El Calafate earlier in the week) woke up on our first day to a perfect blue-bird day, and the weather report said it would hold, we planned an ambitious, but seemingly doable trek.  First to Cerro Torre, the most difficult spire to see because any clouds in the area will inevitably surround and obscure it (or so the guidebook said).  Next, we would head towards Cerro Fitz Roy, the biggest and most impressive peak in the area (but one that is slightly easier to see in cloudy weather).  And to connect the path from Cerro Torre to Cerro Fitz Roy we would retrace about half our initial trek, make a left turn, and then join the path to the Fitz Roy to creating somewhat of an ¨A¨ style trail with the town of El Chalten forming the top.  During the planning stages it seemed all good.  40 kilometers later (actually about 35 kilometers later) it seemed like the worst decision of my life.  I am quite confident my legs, my feets, and the rest of my body had never been hurting so bad in whole life.  I felt like an old man (am I?).  But lets start at the beginning.

El Chalten to Cerro Torre (11 KM)

The day began with a meeting at the fanciest hotel in town where Ted and Sarah were staying (for the night, for free.   Everyone was just a little bit jealous).   The weather was indeed perfect.  The Fitz Roy loomed in front of us, its 3405 vertical meters (11,171 ft) looking awfully close.  Definitely close enough to see that day.  Definitely close enough to see after a quick swing by Cerro Torre.   We´d be back, or as I pictured Bern – one of our Austrian trekking companions - saying in his perfect Schwarzenegger accent: I´ll be back.  The trek started innocently enough.  We passed, somewhat strangely, a Rastafarian drug-store trailer just off the trail.  Joking that we knew what kinds of drugs he dispensed we merrily carried on.  Little did I know just how badly I would crave his, or any other, pain-killing drug to get me through this bone crushing day.

The views were already spectacular.  How many photos of a single mountain spire can one take?  Well over a hundred it turns out.

Cerro Torre behind a flower-lined mountain stream

Later, we passed a group of about 20 middle-aged Germans with full packs, neon colored trekking gear, and ski poles.  Ski poles?  Actually, no.  The more informed hikers in our group told us were walking sticks, oops.  Oh how I would have killed for a walking stick just a mere 10 hours later…  As we pressed on at a brisk (Ted leading) to uncomfortably brisk (Jesse leading) pace, we passed fields of beautiful flowers; crisp, cold (and delicious) mountain streams, and of course, mirror still tarns (you know, a mountain lake or pool, formed in a cirque excavated by a glacier).  As I lagged slightly behind (mostly due to extensive photo-taking, and not due to my general lack of physical fitness) I heard what I thought to be the group of Germans coming up behind me.  Picking up the pace, because I did not want to be passed by the old folks, and because its much nicer to hike without anyone in front of you, the sounds of their footsteps nonetheless got closer and closer.  In fact, it seemed like they were sprinting to pass me!  When I finally turned to see the inpending Germans you can imagine my surprise to learn that I was not be chased by the Germans, but rather, a huge llama that was running up the trail behind me!  My first fear was that he smelled all those veggies Jesse made me carry in my pack for snacks and on our sandwiches.  This was (as with all things), all her fault, and the fact that I would about to be attacked by an herbivore after my veggies - especially since my preferred meal of a steak (only) or ham (only) sandwich would have left me safe and sound from the South American camelid.  As I turned to face the llama, however, the tables turned.  Perhaps knowing that Patagonians enjoy llamas for their meat, or more specifically, that I enjoy a good llama steak, he turned and fled.  Later, I would wish with all my might for that one little llama to come back to me and carry me, or my pack, or even just my camera as we made our way home at nightfall.

Here's the thing.  If you can't spot the prey when you're eyeball to eyeball, you ARE the prey.
Photo Credit: Bern Schmotzer.
The rest of the hike up to Cerro Torre was beautiful.  Sitting by the lake and taking in the view I enjoyed the veggies that I earlier thought would lead to my demise.

The Chalten hiking club.

Cerro Torre in the distance.

At the lake immediately before Cerro Torre and the glacier. 

Ted and I even went down to the lake to play with the glacial ice.  Like ice everywhere it was cold.  And wet.  And after (unsuccessfully) trying to lift a huge piece of it, left our hands both cold and wet.  How old am I?

Cerro Torre to Fitz Roy:  Laguna Madre & Hija and Their Warm Rock Beaches (approx 16 KM)

Having logged 11 kilometers and feeling pretty good the group headed the six kilometers back towards the connection between the Torre and Fitz Roy.  This less traveled and most uphill trail passes you by two beautiful mountain lakes: Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija.  After walking and walking and walking we reached the rock beach at Laguna Madre.  The entire beach consisted of perfectly flat and rounded black rock.  As the cool wind blew down the mountain and across the lake we sat to take a short rest.  After a moment of sitting the warmth of the rocks radiated through our pants, through our long underwear, and soothed our tired muscles.  It was like a hot stone massage, in the middle of a spectacular mountain scenery.  It was perfect.

You can't see the hot stones in this photo, but they were amazing.
I also took out the umbrella I had foolishly been carrying all day.  In any event it made for a good Mary Poppins photo opp.

Oh, supercallifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious.
You can also see the hot stones on the beach.

JLM: More importantly, please note Dave's white long-unders one-piece.  It was handsome beyond words.
Sitting there and enjoying the view, the warm stones on our tired legs, and skipping rocks it seemed like perfect day.  Who knew we not even halfway done the longest hike of my life.  After soaking up a few last waves of heat, we geared up and pressed on towards the Fitz Roy.

Truly spectacular.
Laguna de los Tres (3 KM, 500 vertical meters)
About an hour later we reached the turn-off.  The paths split.  It was now 6 PM, and we'd been walking since 9 AM.  One way headed back to town.  And town was still 10 kilometers away.  The hike up the vista for Fitz Roy, at the snow line, was another 3 kilometers away from town.  And it was another 500 (or so) vertical meters (as if I knew what that meant at the time).   A brief discussion revealed the two groups.  Jesse and Sarah (the sensible women in the group) would be heading back to town.  Ted and Bern (the men) would push on to make a "summit" attempt.  Citing the good weather, the hours of daylight left (it doesn´t get dark until well-after 10 PM), and ample hiking experience they each had, going for the summit was a no-brainer for them. For me, well, it was a closer question.  But, to go back with the girls?  What about my pride?  What about my manhood?  There never really was any choice.  I was going.  And besides, we had only hiked about 20 KM at that point, so I was feeling pretty good.  Or at least, OK.  Or, my legs and feet were not killing me.   So, without further ado (or revealing in any way my anxiety about the hike we were embarking on) we said goodbye and planned to meet at the Cervezaria a few hours later.  What I didn´t know then was that in fact, a few hours later I would still be  somewhere on that stupid mountain with each step hurting more than the last, and still be over 10 kilometers from locre (hearty corn stew), from cerveza (beer), from home (a bed and a shower).

At the split - saying goodbye to Jesse, painless legs, and my positive view of long hikes.
The final push up to the Fitz began innocently enough.  Nice streams, a gentle or no incline, and plenty of conversation with Ted & Bern to keep things interesting.  Within the hour, things took a (sharp) turn for the worse.  As the trail went from flat, to inclined, to an out-and-out stair-climber (with random, uneven, and muddy or icy steps), and as Ted & Bern pulled ahead leaving me alone with the thoughts of my poor, tired legs, I came to realize that part 2 of the Supertrek was not going to be pretty.

Stay tuned for part 2...

Here are some more photos of the hike (and here is the rest of the album - but SPOILER alert, you will see photos from part 2 in there).

Cerro Torre from the boardwalk.

The walk towards between Cerro Torre & Fitz Roy (walking towards lagos Madre & Hija)
The Fitz Roy.  The nemesis.
Portrait in Yellow

Portrait in White


  1. no wonder you thought Lion's Head was a cinch! I only wish you were wearing you're long underwear... but i guess we got the awesome hat! - D

  2. these pics are amazing! So jealy (Zoe's word for jealous).

  3. My legs hurt just reading this post

  4. Your pictures look like an impossible jigsaw puzzle...with the mountains reflected in the lake...truly amazing!

  5. Gorgeous scenery, I wish I were there! The white long underwear was a nice choice.

  6. Regarding the long-unders: Since then the "great white onesie" has seen lots of action. Most recently as the base layer (3-4 layers deep) in Wadi Rum (Jordanian desert) because we slept in a (unheated) Bedouin tent with night temperatures dropping into the high 30's. Stay tuned because it will surely be making repeat appearances.

  7. dave, someday you'll be glad you did this, especially as the hardships of the story get told and retold over the years. just remember for the future, though, that the pictures can never be changed so you may want to think more about your wardrobe next time.


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