Tuesday, December 3, 2013

El Chaltén, Patagonia

Named after Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle, Cerro Fitzroy (11,171 ft) is a massive awe-inspiring granite spire rising beside the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. Forced upwards by the subduction of the Nazca Oceanic Plate under the South American Continental Plate, Fitzoy and its companion peaks, including the equally impressive Cerro Torre, have been sculpted by eons of glacial ice. The result is one of the most majestic and revered mountain cathedrals on earth.

For two fantastic weeks I had the opportunity to celebrate this alpine temple and its surrounding landscape. I was accompanied by my good friend Moe Witschard. Surviving on a low budget we managed to fill our days trekking, skiing, packrafting, and making new friends.

The small and friendly mountain community of El Chélten is conveniently located nearby at the confluence of the  Río de Los Vueltas and Río Fitzroy. Originally established in 1985 to assist in securing the disputed border with Chile, El Chélten is known today as the Trekking Capital of Argentina and its economy is solely based on tourism and recreation.

Much of the landscape around El Chélten and Fitzroy are protected as part of the 726,927 hectare Los Glaciares National Park and World Heritage Site. The National Park Service of Argentina has established an extensive system of well maintained trails that start and finish at, or near, El Chélten.

Wilderness explorations in Los Glaciares National Park can last from several hours to several weeksTrekking and alpine climbing are the two most popular activities.

Much of the land surrounding the National Park is privately owned. Not unlike western Dude Ranches, many of these estancias have learned to diversify by providing services to tourists. They run the spectrum from deluxe accommodations to rustic backcountry lodging at a very affordable price.  

Moe Witschard leads the way

November is springtime in Patagonia. Each day, depending on the weather, we chose between skiing, paddling, trekking and/or climbing.

Ascending Cerro Vespignani

Twenty miles north of El Chélten, near Lago del Desierto, the summits of several glaciated and non-glaciated peaks are easily accessed in a day from a dirt road known as Highway 23.

Descending Cerro Vespignani

From the summit of Cerro Vespignani we enjoyed  a 4,000 ft ski descent to timberline. We dropped another 1,400 snowless feet to the valley floor, slept, and the next day paddled 25 miles down Río de Los Vueltas back to El Chélten.

Within a mile of Lago del Desierto, the Río de Los Vueltas flows over two unnavigable waterfalls. A roadside run, they are easily portaged on river right. The rest of the river is Class 2(3) and tremendously scenic.

Above Laguna Condor is long stretch of meanders. A down valley wind propelled us across miles of flat-water. We had our first of twelve Condor sightings at the appropriately named lake.

Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)

Andean Condors are massive. They can weigh up to 26 pounds and their wingspan can reach 9 feet. Reaching speeds of 34 miles an hour condors are known to fly as high as 16,000 feet. If conditions are right, these extraordinary flying scavengers may travel 200 miles in a single day.

The Río Eléctrico is the first major tributary of the Río de Los Vueltas. We paddled the Eléctrico during a previous excursion. Starting at Piedra del Fraile, the Eléctrico offers five of miles of super fun and highly scenic Class 3 boating down emerald green glacier fed water. 

Several miles below El Chélten the Los Vueltas enters a narrow and deep 5-mile canyon. The crux of which are two Class 4 rapids near the entrance. The first Class 4 drop contains a wide hole that has taken several lives. Moe and I successfully navigated around the lethal hydraulic by staying river right. In order to avoid several smaller holes, as well as undercut ledges, the next rapid involves technical maneuvering . Below we estimated 20 more class three rapids—several worthy of scouting.

photo by Moe Witschard

Patagonia is know for its bad weather. And the Fitzroy Region is no exception. We experienced our share of wind, rain, and snow. Yet, in the spring the maritime climate is relatively mild compared to comparable latitudes (49°) in interior North America. Long daylight, patience and flexibility rewarded us.

"It is easy to specify the individual objects of admiration in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind." - Charles Darwin



  1. Gorgeous, Forrest. Great photos, great video, great descriptions.

  2. Fantastic pictures once again Forrest! Thans for sharing and enjoy the next bits of your trip!