When we rolled into El Chaltén it was a blustery afternoon and the surrounding Andes Mountains were hidden by dark grey clouds. Through the rain splattered windows I saw outdoor gear shops, hostels, coffee shops, boutique hotels, and a small grocery store all within a short walk from anywhere in town. This was our home base while we spent two full days hiking and running some of the most famous trails in Patagonia. Our tour bus carried runners and hikers from Asia, Europe, and USA as part of Andes Adventures Patagonia Running Adventure. As our bus slowed to a crawl through town I was aroused from my road trip stupor to a state of excited anticipation.
The weather was clear and warm earlier that day when we stopped at Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. We walked the boardwalks beside Argentino Lake where the 250-foot front wall of the glacier was calving. We often saw waves in the lake before we heard the sharp crack of the ice breaking and its splash into the water. Perito Moreno glacier is part of the second largest extra-polar ice field in the world comprising over 200 glaciers; it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing. Fifty kilometers of the Chile – Argentina border, which runs through this ice field, remains undefined and a source of dispute between the two countries; this southern Patagonia ice field is an enormous resource of fresh water.
Chaltén means “smoking mountain” in Tehuelche and refers to numerous peaks in the area because they are notoriously shrouded in clouds. The most famous tower is 11,020 foot Mount Fitz Roy, named after the captain of the HMS Beagle that carried Charles Darwin on his famous expedition; this granite tower and its accompanying spires form the skyline that the Patagonia clothing company uses for its label. We planned to hike to Laguna de los Tres at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy on our second day when the weather forecast predicted clear skies.
The first day we hiked or ran 6 miles to Laguna Torre (“Lake of the Tower”) with an option to extend north to include Laguna Hija (“Child Lake”) and Laguna Madre (“Mother Lake”) completing a 17-mile loop back to town. Laguna Torre is a glacial lake that sits at the base of 10,177-foot Cerro Torre; this tower is considered one of the most difficult climbing challenges in the world because its vertical walls are topped by overhanging mushrooms of ice. When we reached Laguna Torre, we were disappointed to find low clouds concealing Cerro Torre.
A brisk wind was blowing across the water and rain was intermittently sprinkling, but with the temperature in the 50’s the conditions felt comfortable for running so I joined two others from our group and continued to Lagunas Hija and Madre to complete the loop. It was significantly warmer in the shelter of trees as we made our way up to the lakes. The trail was soggy in spots and we spotted the occasional small frog at our feet. Once in a while we would glance up and catch a glimpse of a rock tower peeking through the clouds. This was one my favorite runs on the trip; it was easy to moderate terrain without the crowds of the more popular trails.
The trail to Mount Fitz Roy was more crowded and with good reason; the dramatic mountain spires were in view much of the way to Laguna de los Tres and the skies were clear that day. We started at the north end of the park and proceeded up through a beech forest offering us views of Piedras Blancas Glacier.
Once out of the trees we could see Mount Fitz Roy and its accompanying towers in the distance.
A ranger near the base of the final ascent to the lake sternly told us not to run the last kilometer. He wagged his finger, shook his head “no”, and then pantomimed pushing people out of the way. I wondered who had ruined the reputation of runners in this park. This last ascent was steep and rocky with areas of loose footing. The hill was so steep that the mountains and lake were hidden behind it which made for a breathtaking moment when we reached the top and experienced the full impact the view.
I opted to hike down to the shore of Laguna de los Tres and up to another viewpoint where a lower lake could be seen. I could hear the waterfall between the two lakes but it was hidden in a crevice of the rock. I paused here taking in the stunning panorama, appreciating that the summer Patagonia weather, notorious for being rainy, cloudy, and windy, gave us a break on the day of our run to Mount Fitz Roy.