El Chaltén is a rapidly-growing little mountain town that’s rightly nicknamed the “trekking capital” of Argentina. Multiple spectacular hikes start right from the town itself, and at 20-25km round trip, they are long but can easily be done in a day. The most popular hike of all is the one to Laguna de Los Tres, which offers a straight-on view of the famous Fitz Roy mountain range.
Unfortunately, as with all mountain ranges, the weather in El Chaltén and the surrounding mountains is unpredictable and changes quickly. All you can do is pick the best looking day in the weather forecast and hope for the best. My first two days in El Chaltén were rainy and cloudy, but the third was predicted to be better, so I chose that day to give the Laguna de Los Tres hike and the Fitz Roy a shot.
The trailhead to Laguna de Los Tres starts right at the edge of town, and you can use it to go up and back the same way. Alternatively, you can ride the shuttle up north to Hotel El Pilar, where there is a second trailhead that also leads to Laguna de los Tres. It works out to be about the same distance, and this way you can see an additional glacier – Piedras Blancas – and avoid taking the same route twice.
I booked a shuttle to El Pilar for 150 pesos ($9) from Las Lengas, one of the three transfer companies in town. The shuttle picked me up at 8am, and by 8:45am we were at the trailhead of El Pilar.
The trail ran through a forest, with only a moderate incline. Along the way, I started seeing hints of a glacier through the tree leaves, but couldn’t quite find a good vantage point. Soon, though, I arrived at a mirador and found that it was the glacier Piedras Blancas.
I’ve never seen a glacier stuck up high between the mountains before – what is keeping the wall of ice in place?
Shortly after Piedras Blancas, the trail opened up into a flat clearing. Not long after, I found myself at Poincenot, the camp below Laguna de Los Tres. Only 2 more kilometers to go until the top!
At the start of the last kilometer, however, there was an ominous warning: extremely steep, good physical condition only. A 400m incline over 1km…that works out to an average incline of about 35 degrees, doesn’t it?
They sure aren’t kidding, that last kilometer is brutal. They really make you work for that view! Finally, at the top:
It was such a relief to see the lake at last, but all we could see was a thick blanket of white clouds above it. We just had to imagine the Fitz Roy above it.
The view out to the other side was great, however. So there WAS beautiful weather, as predicted. Just not over the Fitz Roy, unfortunately.
I stayed long enough to eat lunch, but the clouds started to worsen and it even began to snow, so I decided to head down. I made some new friends at the top, and we chatted as we descended together. As we reached the bottom of the terrible last kilometer, one of them happened to look back at the Fitz Roy. Lo and behold, the clouds were parting:
We sat and watched to see if it would if the Fitz Roy would emerge. I was fighting an internal battle over whether to go back up to the top now that the Fitz Roy was visible. I was so, so close, less than 2 km away. But I didn’t want to make the miserable climb again, especially if there was a possibility that the Fitz Roy might be covered again by the time I got to the top. Meanwhile, it just got clearer and clearer… god damn it!
Finally, I resolved to continue back down, as I didn’t think my body would be overly happy with a second summit. I consoled myself with the thought that I could always come back up a second time, since I had a few more days in El Chaltén. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would actually do it, but at least it kept the regret at bay.
Besides, there was a lot to enjoy on the way down. The peaceful Laguna Capri:
And a view out towards the valley to the west:
Finally, 20km later, we made it back to town.
It wasn’t exactly the hike I was hoping for – or rather, it was, but I didn’t have the right timing. Apparently, you can miss something by being too EARLY too, not just too late.
To be fair, even without the view of the Fitz Roy, it was still a beautiful and overall enjoyable hike. But I knew I had to go back at some point to see the Fitz Roy. Sooner or later, if not on this trip, then on a return trip to Patagonia. As it turned out, I would be back sooner rather than later!