El Chalten and The Fitzroy Massif

August 13th – 16th, 2016

After a successful trip to Refugio Frey, Jessa flew back to Canada and I was left to finish off my Panamerican journey solo. I headed south to El Chalten to see if I could get some more skiing in and finally see the iconic Fitzroy massif. I had heard a lot about how windy it gets in Patagonia, but so far it didn’t seem so bad to me. That all changed as I crossed the vast, open, and arid Argentinian pampas on my way to El Chalten. I found myself fighting powerful gusts and holding the wheel disconcertingly far from center to maintain a straight course. At times it was more like sailing than driving, with the wind direction doing more to decide my speed than how much throttle I gave.

I arrived late in El Chalten and parked in front of Che Empanadas where I grabbed a bite and hit the sack. It was a chilly night in the camper and when I woke up I was thrilled to find almost a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Galvanized into action, I got started on the day’s mission, finding touring partners. I sleuthed around town chasing down a few names I had gotten from a ski guide up at Refugio Frey. It took all day, but by nightfall I had groups lined up to ski with for the next two days. It’s not every town where one could so easily roll up solo and find people to ski with the next day, but El Chalten has a welcoming community of outdoor enthusiasts. On winter weekends the town gathers at the tiny local ski hill, where they have built a small rope tow and a warm up tent.

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Early the next morning I dragged myself out of my warm sleeping bag to meet up with Federico and Swami, my ski partners for the day. We piled into the camper and bumped our way along the dirt road towards Laguna del Desierto. All the way along Federico pointed out the many skiable glaciers and peaks accessible from the valley. The terrain around El Chalten is staggering. As we rounded a corner the guys told me to get ready, and suddenly the Fitzroy massif came into view, glowing orange in the rising sun’s light. Since I had arrived in El Chalten it had been obscured by clouds. I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular unveiling of a mountain that I had dreamt of visiting for many years.

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As we continued down the road snow accumulated progressively until the undercarriage was starting to drag. I kept the momentum up and we plowed through. Suddenly we came over a roll and spotted a large animal walking in the road about a hundred meters ahead of us. My first thought was wolf, but as it turned to escape into the woods we got a good look at the impressive side profile of the large puma (mountain lion). No one in the car had ever seen one before and the sighting left us buzzing and elated. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Arriving at the trailhead for Mosquito Peak, the day’s objective, I took speed and inserted the camper into the snowy shoulder. We’d worry about getting it out later. We stowed our skis on our bags and started hiking through beautiful forest. In Patagonia most ski tours start with a hike, even mid winter. Never the less I had learned the day before that this had been the worst snow year in memory in El Chalten. That foot of snow I had woken up to the night I arrived was only the second fall of the year, and it was August. That’s analogous to Whistler of Banff getting their second snowfall in February. This was one of the first days out of the season for everybody, not just me. Eventually there was enough snow to ski and shortly thereafter, when we crossed into the alpine, it became painfully obvious just how shallow the coverage was. Rocks were showing through everywhere, and from a distance it wasn’t even obvious where we could ski at all.

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Soon we caught up to a couple groups ahead of us and we hooked up to ski some lines on a shoulder below the peak. Amazingly, the local guys managed to sniff out some rock free shoots and gullies and I got some improbably great laps in knee deep blower pow. I had an awesome day hanging out with the El Chalten crew and taking in the spectacular views.

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After our day skiing together Federico offered to let me crash at his place while I was in El Chalten. I gladly took him up on his generous offer, and I spent a few nights there learning more about Argentina, getting to know Federico, and enjoying sleeping next to a heater and taking warm showers. For me the defining characteristic of the Argentinian people is their willingness to share everything. Whether it was a warm place to crash, a cup of mate offered by a stranger in line at the grocery store, or a ski buddy who I met yesterday sharing his lunch, Argentinians always offered to share whatever they had. In that way I found them to be beautiful people.

My next ski outing was planned with local guide Max Odell and his son. That night I went to their excellent Mexican restaurant for dinner. They picked me up the following morning along with another El Chalten local named Agustin. Unfortunately with such little snow the viable options to ski were limited and we returned again to Mosquito. However, with Max at helm we snuck a track between some rock bands and up to the true summit. This vantage affords some great views, including a unique side perspective on Fitzroy. The top is glaciated and was holding 50-60 cms powder. We enjoyed some fantastic skiing on the way down. It was awesome to see Max’s thirteen-year-old son out crushing it in the backcountry with a great mentor.

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After 4 days in El Chalten the weather window closed and I decided to head south again. It was my favourite stop in Argentina and I will definitely be back to explore the massive potential for ski touring and mountaineering from this friendly mountain town.

T

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