While the circuit can be completed in either direction, prevailing winds are northwesterly and traveling counter-clockwise provides a tailwind when traveling on the Southern Ice Field.
It’s possible to start the trek in El Chalten by following the popular track to Lago de Los Tres, fording the Rio Blanco and following another track to Río Eléctrico. Alternatively, a short and inexpensive shuttle ride leads directly to the trailhead for the Río Eléctrico.
Either way, the first major landmark is Piedra del Fraile. Sheltered by a Roche Mountonnée and the last lenga trees, the rustic, yet charming, refugio offers meals, camping, and lodging. Piedro Del Fraile is also where 150 pesos ($20) is paid to travel across their privately owned land.
Beyond is a stark alpine landscape sculpted by wind, water and ice. Frequent rock cairns mark the route across rocky glacial outwash and a high bench above the steep polished granite that defines the shores of Lago Eléctrico.
Currently, Lago del Marconi is most easily bypassed to the left, on its south shore, where Glaciar Marconi can be gained from its lateral moraine. Glaciers are dynamic, however, and an alternative route that requires wading the cold waters of the Lago del Marconi to gain Glaciar Marconi from the right (north) maybe required.
Paso Marconi also marks the disputed border between Argentina and Chile. One mile north, near the base of the 9,357 foot Gorra Blanca, is the Chilean Refugio Eduardo Garcia Soto. If unoccupied, the research station provides a well-situated shelter to spend the night or wait out inclement weather.
From Paso Marconi the route travels for 20 miles along Patagonia's 130,000-hectare Southern Ice Field—the third largest contiguous mass of ice on earth. Only the Antarctic and Greenland Ice sheets exceed it in size.
Defined by wind, rock, snow and ice, the colossal frozen landscape is reminiscent of West Antarctica.
The ice field is generally flat and covered in snow. In the spring and early summer, skis or snowshoes are needed. The circuit, as a whole, contains more walking than skiing and an ideal location for “Fast Shoes.” Crevasses do exist and "roping-up" prudent.
For eight more miles the route travels along the Southern Ice Field to the massive Glaciar Viedma. A promontory of red rock provides a well-located landmark for direct reckoning. The route leaves the ice field near Lago de Los Esquies.
Unfortunately, as the glacier steepens and melts, the route is forced to the left (north) onto a vast and loose lateral moraine where campsites and a rock cairns will be found.
At Lago Ferrari the route leaves the Glaciar Viedma valley and ascends Paso Del Viento. The alternative Paso Huemel Route continues down valley where the cozy Del Viento Refugio provides a safe haven in foul weather.
photo by Volker Junge
This Paso Huemul route provides commanding views of the Glaciar Viedma as it calves into Lago Viedma. From the trailhead at Estancia Rio Tunel a shuttle ride is required to return to El Chalten. A popular destination for guided glacier tours this can be easily arranged.
The rapid recession of the Glaciar Rio Tunel has resulted in the deterioration of part of the trail. At the foot of the glacier the track disappears and the route becomes steep and loose. Walking on the glacier itself can mitigate at least part of this treacherous section.
Below the glacier, fording the Rio Tunel is the next obstacle. Above Lago Toro is a narrow turbulent canyon where a steel cable is used for a Tyrolean Traverse. Otherwise, a route to the right can be followed to a ford near the inlet of the lake.
Below Lago Toro the route re-enters the land of the living where green flora including; beech trees, Calafate bushes, and Sphagnum moss, great the weary traveler. There is also a charming campground with a small refugio.
A well-marked and developed track follows the Rio Tunel for several miles through open pasture before climbing out of the valley to the the junction with the track to Loma del Piliegue Tunbado.
While the 40-mile Fitzroy Circuit has been completed in a day, mere mortals should plan at least 3 or 4. To allow for weather delays guided groups schedule 8 days.
“There is something eminently satisfactory about a circular route. It rounds out the journey and is as satisfying in its way as the complete traverse of a mountains.” – Bill Tillman