How do I sum up a place like Patagonia? It is not an easy thing to do. Wikipedia gives it a try, defining Patagonia as "a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of South America. Located in Argentina and Chile, it comprises the southernmost portion of the Andes mountains to the west and south, and plateau and low plains to the east." It almost goes without saying that these words don't really do the place justice. So here's my spin: "Patagonia is a geographic region comprised of terrain that is equal parts rugged, awe-inspiring, forlorn, breath-taking, rocky, icy, steep, stupendous, stunning, remote, windy, gnarly, and last but not least, wildly dangerous—not only to your mortal flesh, but also to your soul, which, thinking it has finally reached its place of eternal repose, may choose to never leave."
But even these words falter, their sum somehow failing to equal the whole. Where words prove inadequate, pictures may help—but they, too, seem not up to the task of telling the story of a place like Patagonia. Since words and pictures are the only tools I have at my disposal, they must for the moment suffice, as paltry as they may be.
During my fifteen day of trekking in the rugged wilds of Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, I traversed glaciers, climbed into high mountain passes, was blown over by hurricane-force winds, climbed up—and fell down—steep slopes of loose rock, crossed raging glacial streams—both on foot and suspended from a rope, Tyrolean-style—and climbed pitches of ice. I was buffeted by wind, rain, snow, and sun; experienced four seasons, all in the same day; and was worn down by grueling ascents and knee-pounding descents. I hiked over 150 miles of rugged terrain. I lost ten pounds. I witnessed stunning sunrises and sunsets, and majestic peaks wreathed in smoke. I was at times alternately tired, lonely, hungry, and sore—but usually all at once.
In other words, I had a whale of a good time.
What follows is a “travelogue” of my journey to Patagonia, a day-by-day account of my experiences and impressions. It is not meant to serve as a trail guide, travel guide, or a photography how-to manual, although it will likely give readers some good ideas about where to go. Rather, I have tried to tell the story of Patagonia through my own perceptions. By necessity they are narrow and myopic, much like the ancient fable of the blind men examining an elephant, each touching a different part, each erroneously concluding different things about the massive creature. So, with a hand groping in the dark, here's my story of Patagonia.
Cerro Pollone at sunrise, Paso del Cuadrado, Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia, Argentina.
CLIMB TO THE SUN
March 10, 2010: After two days of almost non-stop travel, I finally arrive at El Chalten, a small town near the Chilean border, the self-proclaimed “trekking capital” of Patagonia. Surrounded on all sides by Los Glaciares National Park, one can walk along just about any street in town, and keep going until it turns into a trail heading into the mountains. Established in 1985 to bolster Argentina’s claim over nearby land disputed with Chile, Chalten in recent years has become a veritable mecca for trekkers and travelers the world over, transforming it quickly from a dusty border outpost to a trendy tourist hotspot. With the recent construction of an airport in nearby El Calafate, and the even more recent construction of a paved highway between Calafate and Chalten, tourists—and tourist dollars—are pouring into Chalten. Old Chalten is swiftly giving away to the new, like a phoenix rising from dusty desert ashes. Spend a few days in the backcountry, and chances are that upon your return to town you will see a new building where a pile of bricks lay before.
I meet with Merlin Lipshitz, head guide of Mountaineering Patagonia. His company will be guiding me for much of my journey. Although by his name one might think Merlin grew up in Manhattan, he is southern Argentine born and bred. We settle into his office for some tea (Argentines never seem to tire of drinking tea) and to discuss my itinerary for the upcoming days. He has chosen 26-year old Alejandro Aleuy (Ale for short) as my guide, but Ale is not available to start until the next day. Impatient after two days of airline and road travel, I am eager to get up into the mountains and to begin making some photographs. I decide to start solo. I tell Merlin to have Ale meet me at a camp near the shores of Laguna Torre the next morning at 9AM, grab my backpack, and hit the trail.
It is only about seven or eight miles to Camp De Agostini, my destination for the evening, and I make good time, arriving in less than three hours. I pitch my tent and make some dinner, and then head up the trail to arrive at the rocky shores of Laguna Torre, a beautiful and large lake with a giant glacier perched menacingly at its head, ready to drop tons of ice. This is not mere conjecture on my part, as several car-sized icebergs are afloat in the lake below me. Above the glacier, a spike of granite pierces the heavens—Cerro Torre, the second largest peak in the region. "Cerro," loosely translated, means "hill" in Spanish, which doesn't quite seem to fit—it is like calling a lion "kitten." At 3102 meters above sea level, Cerro Torre is only bested by the iconic Fitz Roy, the very heart of Los Glaciares National Park.
At sunset, Cerro Torre flirts with fast moving clouds. I stack a number of neutral density filters on my lens, lengthening my exposures to thirty seconds or more, and experiment with capturing the moving clouds back-lit by the setting sun. I continue shooting until night falls, and then head back to camp by headlamp. Crawling into my tent, I surround myself in the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, lulled to sleep by the noisy torrent of nearby Rio Fitz Roy.
March 11: The next morning I awake to completely clear skies, a novelty in the high Andes. Blue skies, a tourist’s delight, are a photographer’s nightmare. An hour before sunrise, I walk to the lake, and follow the curving shore until I reach the place where it empties into Rio Fitz Roy, and begins its tumbling descent over cascades and small waterfalls. I make a few images as first light hits Cerro Torre, but without some clouds in the sky to catch the light, I don’t get anything terribly interesting. After some shooting and scouting, I head back, break camp, and hike for a half hour to reach a place known as "Thor Woods," where I meet Ale, my guide for the next few days.
Ale, like many Patagonian Argentines, is slender and dark. His English is much better than my Spanish, but since my Spanish consists of two words (“muchas gracias”), that isn’t saying much. He speaks English well enough for us to engage in basic communication—“me hungry, we eat now” and the like—but deeper philosophical conversations about the meaning of life will have to wait until I return home. Ale proves to be a really great guy and first-rate hiking companion, more than making up for our caveman-style of communication, although it takes me a few days to realize that when he asks me if I want "soap," he means "soup."
After tea and breakfast, we throw harnesses and crampons into our packs and hit the trail. Our destination is the Grande Glacier, which flows down from Cerro Grande to feed Laguna Torre. But first, we must cross the deep and swift flowing Rio Fitz Roy, not by wading across but instead by doing a Tyrolean traverse via rope. We clip carabiners onto the rope and our harnesses, and while hanging over the raging glacial waters, pull ourselves hand over hand to the other side. After a steep climb over high cliffs, and an equally steep descent on the other side, we reach the source of Laguna Torre—the massive Grande Glacier.
We pause to put crampons—basically metal spikes—on our boots, and begin to explore the glacier. We quickly pass through gentle sloping ice fields into heavily crevassed terrain, where the ancient ice, compressed by the weight of the glacier for hundreds of years, is as blue as the sky. We spend several hours climbing on the glacier, carefully navigating the fractured landscape, climbing over ice towers and deep into crevasses, some dropping hundreds of feet or more into eerie blue darkness.
Belaying over a deep crevasse.
Although the ice climbing is fun, after awhile I begin to worry about a fall. I'm here to take pictures, I tell myself, not to climb through dangerously crevassed terrain. The risk of breaking a leg or an arm is too great, I reason, which would put a quick end to my photo plans. Time to head back. At this point, we are high atop a tall ice tower, surrounded on all sides by vertical slopes and deep crevasses. Since we can't find an easy route to down-climb, Ale places a few ice screws and lowers me by rope into less dangerous terrain. On the way down, I can't help but snap a quick shot of Ale, leaning back from the top of the ice cliff, belaying as I descend.
Once back to solid rock, we remove our crampons and begin the arduous return hike to camp. We don't get back until late in the day, with just enough time to eat dinner (and drink tea) before I head out to Laguna Torre for sunset. I follow the shoreline of the lake looking for an interesting composition, but am unable to find anything to my liking. When I reach the outlet of the lake, I take a left turn at Rio Fitz Roy, pass the Tyrolean rope, and begin to follow the river downstream, hoping to find an interesting angle with a view of Cerro Torre in the background, all the time eyeing the sky, waiting for some interesting sunset light. Because I am east of the mountains, sunrise would give me a chance for the best light. Sunset won't work unless some high clouds catch the last light of day. This is what I am hoping for.
Finally, I find what I have been looking for: an interesting set of foreground rapids, and a stretch of river that leads to Cerro Torre in the background. High clouds drifting overhead begin to glow red with the fading light of day. I use several neutral density filters to lengthen my exposure times, allowing the flowing water to blur, and the fiery clouds to paint a red smudge across the sky. When the light fades, I pack up my gear and head back to camp, turning in early. I've decided to head back to the glacier for sunrise the next morning, and I need all the rest I can get.
March 12: Ale and I awaken at 4:00AM and start to head towards the glacier. On the way to the Tyrolean traverse, I get my first taste of the infamous Patagonian winds. While hiking along the high moraines (hills of glacier-deposited boulders) that surround Laguna Torre, we are buffeted by gale force blasts. Although it is dark, we can see that clouds cover Cerro Torre, and it soon begins to rain on us. Concerned that the high winds will make the Tyrolean traverse dangerous, and that the incoming weather will make photography difficult, Ale and I talk over our options. Although I hate turning back on a shoot, we eventually conclude that traveling to the glacier is not the wisest option. Reluctantly, we turn back to camp and crawl into our sleeping bags to catch a few more hours of rest. I awaken again before sunrise, leaving Ale asleep at camp, and head back to the lake, expecting high winds and cloudy skies.
Much to my chagrin, the winds have died down completely, and the clouds over Cerro Torre have broken up and are attractively draped over the peak. I begin to curse my laziness for not braving rain and high winds to get to the glacier for sunrise. I console myself by making images of a perfect sunrise at a picturesque location. But frankly, Laguna Torre, even with all of its icebergs floating around, doesn't really excite me all that much. The glacier, on the other hand . . . oh well, I tell myself, I have plenty of time—I vow I will return to the glacier before my trip ends.
After tea and breakfast (did I mention that Argentines are big on tea?), Ale and I head for our next campsite, Camp Rio Blanco in the shadow of Fitz Roy. The weather is warm and pleasant, and after a steep climb up a hill, the hike is flat and easy. After several miles of walking, we arrive at camp in the early afternoon, allowing us to relax in the comfort of a small wooden cabin, which we surprisingly have all to ourselves. We soon understand why—rain clouds move in and begin to unload their cargo, and we pass the rest of the evening playing chess while it pours outside. Rain ruins any chance for a sunset shoot, so after dark I head to my tent, which I discover is now all but floating in what has become a small pond. Luckily, the inside of my tent stays fairly dry, and I pass the evening in relative warmth and comfort.
March 13: I emerge the next morning prepared to hike up in the dark for a sunrise shoot at scenic Laguna de Los Tres, but solidly overcast skies and steady rain send me right back into my tent. No point in shooting sunrise when sunrise isn't going to happen. I've only been trekking for three days but I'm already exhausted—might as well get some rest while I can.
After our obligatory morning tea and breakfast, we begin to hike to our next destination, a bivouac camp high in the mountains. One the way, we take a side trip to Laguna Piedras Blancas, which is perched below thousands of feet of hanging glaciers. After a quick snack, we continue on the trail, passing through a beautiful forest of lenga trees, a native Patagonian hardwood. By this time, the clouds have begun to break, and the lenga are bathed in a lovely dappled light. I make a few images of the forest, and we continue along our way.
"Tell Lonely Planet that there is no trail to Cerro Electrico," the young caretaker of the Piedra Del Fraile way station and shelter implores me as his wife rolls her eyes in amusement. "Every year we have trekkers come here who ask, where can we find this trail? They all have the Lonely Planet book in their hands. Please write Lonely Planet and tell them there is no such trail. The trail goes to Paso del Cuadrado, which is the most beautiful view in Argentina." He seems intensely passionate about the subject, and although he smiles mischievously, I can tell that his entreaty is earnest.
Ale and I have left the National Park and have entered private land, which is open to hikers for a small fee. We've stopped by the way station to pay the fee and eat lunch before beginning the steep climb to our campsite for the evening. The young couple who tend the station are wonderful people, both friendly and funny in perfect measure, but unfortunately I have forgotten their names. I remember their cat's name, however: Puma. Despite her ferocious nom de guerre (she is ostensibly there to eat mice), Puma is as sweet a lap cat as you can imagine. She sleeps deeply as the caretaker gives me his Lonely Planet lecture, which is apparently one that Puma has heard many times before. Ale and I are not allowed to leave until I promise to write Lonely Planet and advise them to correct their Patagonia guide book.
After leaving the way station, we begin to hike a section of trail that Ale, in broken English, calls simply "the steep." He isn't kidding. We ascend a brutal 1000 meters in a little over one kilometer, heading our way up to lonely and windswept Camp Piedra Negra (Black Rock). Lagging behind Ale, I realize I am carrying far too much weight. Normally a proponent of ultra-light backpacking, I find myself burdened by an extra camera body, extra tripod, and too many lenses. Nothing is worse than spending more money than you can afford, and traveling half-way around the world, just to have your camera die or your tripod break a few days into a trip. So I find myself struggling up a unrelentingly steep slope, burdened by back-up equipment that I hope I will never need to use, and realizing I won't make it to a viewpoint in time to photograph sunset, which is beginning to look like a stunner in the making.
Ale graciously offers to carry some of my extra gear, which helps some, but after four days of heavy trekking and two hours of climbing up "the steep," I am nearly spent. I continue to struggle up the trail as sunset light catches the high clouds above Fitz Roy, but I am unable to find a place with a clear view of the peak. The orange light in the clouds has faded by the time I wearily stumble into camp, which is nothing more than a few tent spaces scratched out of the rocky terrain behind a giant black boulder. We are far above tree-line, and our view is dominated by the Fitz Roy massif and a steep glacier leading to a high rocky pass—our destination the following morning. In the twilight, Fitz Roy glows softly, and passing clouds streak by, driven by a demon wind high aloft. I make a few long exposure images in the fading light (which offer some consolation for missing sunset), and then snuggle deep into my down mummy bag for the evening, trying to find a comfortable position on a bed of rocks.
March 14: Ale and I emerge from our tents in the darkness at 4:30AM, on a cold and forbidding morning. Clouds cover the sky in all directions, save one—the eastern horizon. By the light of our headlamps, we strap on crampons and rope up to begin our climb on the glacier to reach Paso del Cuadrado, perched precariously below the mighty Fitz Roy. For over an hour, we climb steeply in the dark over ice and snow, until we reach a short cliff of rocks and mixed ice. After a cautious ascent of the precipice, we stand atop the pass, free ourselves of rope and crampons, and gape in mute witness to one of the most spectacular views on Earth.
In all directions, I see nothing but mountains, glaciers, and then even more mountains and glaciers. In the distance, the enormous Campo de Hielo Continental Sur—the South Continental Ice Field—stretches to the western horizon, a barren waste of hundreds of miles of more ice than you can imagine. Perched high atop a small finger of rock, surrounded by granite ramparts reaching to the heavens and thousands of feet of vertical exposure on all sides, I suddenly feel insignificant and alone. Which, as it turns out, I pretty much am. Ale and I have this whole magnificent place to ourselves, like two indiscernible "You are Here" dots on a map the size of Massachusetts.
And then, it happens. The sunrise of a lifetime. Light finds its way through the crack in the clouds on the eastern horizon, and everything suddenly seems to be on fire. First the clouds, and then the peaks all around me, blaze in the glory of the dawn. I run around with my camera, frantically trying to capture every fleeting moment before moving on to the next. Ale has cocooned himself in his bivvy sack to stave off the freezing cold, but fueled by adrenaline, I need no such protection.
I spend an hour photographing the magnificent changing light, running up and down the boulders at the top of the pass, shooting in all directions. Light graces the slopes of a distant peak at one moment, and then strikes high clouds the next, creating dozens of different compositions with each passing minute.
The massive peaks around me—Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, Cerro Pollone, Cerro Gran Gendarme, and countless others—all get their chance at sublimity. Although tired from several grueling days of trekking, I feel as fresh as new snow, and as young as a spring rain. Life is good again, and the magical light show more than makes up for any missed opportunities from the days before.
I keep shooting until clouds block the sun, and only then I notice the dull ache in my chilled fingers. I head over to Ale, who I envy, warm inside his bag, able to watch the glorious sunrise without the pressures of making photographs, each moment quitely transitioning to the next. After I warm up a bit and pack my equipment, we begin the descent to camp, and then, back to Chalten for an evening off before I return to the backcountry.
The steep hike down is murder on my knees, and the deep concentration required to avoid falling in the loose scree is tough on my nerves. At one point, Ale slips and falls backwards. I ask him if he is okay, and he replies with a grin, still prone on the ground, "I needed a rest." I chuckle in appreciation at this old backpacker joke, and for a moment, I relax too much and my concentration breaks. I, too, slip, not conveniently backwards as with Ale, but foreword. I tumble ten feet down the steep slope, rolling over a small boulder, which I then manage to catch with my arm to arrest my fall. Face creased with concern, Ale runs over to me, frantically asking if I am all right, checking me for injuries. His unease abruptly turns to mirth when he hears my cheeky reply: "I guess I needed a rest too." My first Patagonia tumble has left me with nothing more than a bruise on my arm—and my pride!
Within a few hours we arrive in Chalten, which seems to have a few more buildings than when I left. After five days in the wilderness, the hustle and bustle of town seems somewhat surreal to me, but I welcome a warm bed, a hot shower, and—most of all—a flush toilet. The first leg of my Patagonia adventure is over. The next morning, I will return to the backcountry, and begin the second stage of my journey.
Interested in photographing Patagonia? Then consider my Patagonia Photo Workshop.
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The view from Paso del Cuadrado at sunrise, the "most beautiful view in Argentina."