Monday, December 9, 2013

Cerro Fitzroy Circuit

For adventure travelers possessing mountaineering skills and equipment, a fantastic way to experience Los Glaciares National Park and its vast wilderness of rock and ice, is trekking and skiing the epic Cerro Fitzroy Circuit.

Lesser known than Patagonia’s famed Torres Del Paine Circuit, the Fitzroy Circuit requires miles of trail-less travel, technical glacier travel, solid orienteering skills, and good weather. Beginning and ending in El Chalten, half of the 40-mile circuit is on Patagonia's Southern Ice Field.

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.

In between Lago Eléctrico and Lago del Marconi is a mile of loose moraine. Careful route finding minimizes suffering. Several good campsites can be found at flat spots sheltered from relentless katabatic winds.

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.

Crampons are recommended for negotiating Marconi’s ablation zone

At the firn line, of Glaciar Marconi’s north arm, exists a short headwall that was traditionally passed on the left under dangerous seracs. A safer route, requiring some rock scrambling, exists further right. Above, good neve’ leads to Paso Marconi.

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.

If time allows, an extra day can be sent ascending the glaciated low-angle slopes to the summit of Gorra Blanca. Those making the 3,300-foot ascent are rewarded with tremendous views of the Fitzroy region and a pleasant ski down.

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.

Midway is Circo de los Altares. A short detour to pay homage to this mountain cathedral is essential. The view of Cerro Torre and its companion peaks is divine.

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.

Glaciar Viedma quickly transitions into an ablation zone. Initially, a relatively flat section provides a pleasant walking surface. 

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.

From Paso Del Viento the route follows a good track into the Rio Tunel Valley.

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.

Several more easy miles leads to El Chalten where showers, cerveza and bifes de Chorizo await.

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


  1. You had nice weather so it seems. And more firm snow footing. When we did it 5 years ago in March, it was all pure ice, we had to zigzag for endless miles to reach Circo de los Altares. Did you do it solo?

    1. I completed the traverse solo with skis in early December (springtime in Patagonia) when there was still lots of snow. I got lucky and had one day of good weather when it mattered most--skiing 20 miles of the Southern Ice Field. I had to wait a day at Refugio Eduardo Garcia Soto for the window.

  2. First, your photos are quite inspiring and I'm looking forward to standing in those spots!

    Second, I plan on doing this solo, and am looking to prepare adequately. I have some small experience in wilderness travel (hiking around Denali for 6 days, and backpacking the border trails along the US/Canadian border for 4).

    I feel that this may be more extreme than that. I'm looking at mid January next year. Will I need skiis or snow shoes? Any equipment that is a must have, or will a strong back and a good pair of boots do the trick?

    1. Wesley, If you are not highly experienced with glacier travel I would not recommend doing the circuit solo, especially in mid-January when crevasses are open. There are many competent guides in El Chaltén. Consider hiring one.

  3. Can you answer some questions on the section going up Paso Marconi? I'm planning to climb just the pass with a partner and budgeting 3 days there and back from Rio Electrico in late December. We have glacier travel experience and are comfortable on snow, but are wondering how necessary roped travel is. If the conditions are icy then we would be comfortable unroped but we're curious about the exposure and slope angle. Any tips or insights?

    1. Three days there and back from Rio Electrico is viable if you have good weather. Keep in mind that it is often windier approaching the pass than it is at the pass. The glacier travel is not very involved and their few, if any, crevasses. There is, however, some 4th class climbing to bypass a headwall on the steepest part of the climb. It can also be tricky getting on the glacier. This section is melting rapidly and changes every year. You will be able to get some good bata at the refugio on Rio Electrico.