We stood utterly alone in a moonscape of tumbled gray rocks left behind by the last Patagonian glaciation, the view of the full Chalten massif stretched before us – the best view in the house. Before us, on the eastern edge of the massive South Patagonian Icefield on the southwest extent of the massif was the striking pinnacle of Cerro Torre (3,102 meters) with its ever-present cap of rime ice, as well as its companions Torre Egger (2,900 meters) and Cerro Standhardt (2,800 meters). Five kilometers to the northeast was the E-shaped chain of needles and peaks dominated by Cerro Chalten or Monte Fitz Roy, 3,405 meters, flanked by its cadre of internationally named companion spires: Guillaumet (2,539 meters), Poincenot (2,003 meters), Saint Exupery (2,680 meters).  Between and beyond the peaks and spires was ice – vast expanses of ice extending valley-ward from the fourth largest icefield in the world.  A mind-blowing sight even for one used to the tall volcanic peaks, rocky crags and glaciers of the Cascades and Sierras where I’d spent so many years of my trekking life.

Torre-Cheryl-the chalten massif from cerro torre to monte fitzroy, from the pliegue tumbado trail (cheryl talbert)_std
The Chalten massif from Cerro Torre to Monte Fitz Roy, from the Pliegue Tumbado trail

We were on Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, loosely translated as ‘fallen folded hills,’ a steep day trail out of the little climber’s boomtown of El Chalten on the eastern flanks of the southern Patagonian Andes 2,000 kilometers (about 1,360 miles) southwest of Buenos Aires.  Three days earlier our little trekking party of four had arrived in Chalten at the start of a rare spate of bluebird weather, and in the intervening days had backpacked the massif through the excellent system of trails and camping areas in this section of Parque Nacionale de Los Glaciares.  In a gift from the gods that truly fit the word miraculous, we had been granted spectacular sunrises from the Miradors (lookouts) at the base of both Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, the dawn glow first catching the tips of the spires in salmon pink, descending and brightening to dramatic orange, and reflecting in the waters of little glacial lakes below.

Torre-Cheryl-sunrise from the moraine below cerro torre - reflected in laguna torre.  (lynne mccullough)_std
Sunrise from the moraine below Cerro Torre – reflected in Laguna Torre

From the top of the tallest ‘fallen folded hill’ we turned slowly, soaking in the panorama.  Filling more than half of our field of view, from southwest to northeast, the massive ice sheet enfolding the Andean peaks and pinnacles, anchored by Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy.  The enticingly named Paseo de Viento, “Windy Pass,” offered a way to trek onto the ice sheet and all the way around the back of the massif – but beyond the limits of our itinerary (and very likely our weather luck!).  Cerro Torre and its companions stood sentinel over Glaciar Torre and Glaciar Grande, flowing from the ice sheet around the granite pinnacles to little Laguna Torre which had reflected our sunrise early the morning before.  To the east of Fitz Roy, the silver spot of Laguna Capri, and below the wide valley of Rio de las Vueltas (translated – really! – “Winding River”).  On the banks of the river, little El Chalten, and to its south, the vast Lago Viedma stretched far east into the steppe and west to touch the icefield through its namesake Glaciar Viedma.

Torre-Cheryl-view southwest to paseo del viento and the toe of glaciar viedma. from loma del pliegue tumbado. (cheryl talbert)_std
View southwest to Paseo de Viento and the toe of the glacier Viedma from Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

The multiple moraines that we could see around Laguna Torre from our unique vantage point gave us a unique perspective on the movements of the glaciers over the period since the last glaciation, about 21,000 years ago, when ice covered most of southern Chile and Argentina.  Over the years, the ice has expanded and contracted dramatically, from a minimum during the last ‘great warming’ around 11,000 years ago, up to as recently as the 14th to 19th century when many glaciers in the region had their latest significant advance.  The story was told in successive arcs of piled talus 200 feet high below the lake. Nature is a messy housekeeper, and her residual rockpiles told a fascinating story.

Torre-Cheryl-laguna torre, glaciar torre and moraine arcs.  from the top of loma del pliegue tumbado (cheryl talbert)_std
Laguna Torre, Glacier Torre and moraine arcs from the top of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us on our perch above the massif, another more human-sized story was continuing in dramatic fashion as a pair of North American climbers were hunkered down in Chalten, besieged by local climbers and media, after a dramatic and controversial ascent of Cerro Torre which they had completed a month before our visit.

Torre-Cheryl-cerro torre from the valley of rio del torre, near our camp.  (lynne mccullough)_std
Cerro Torre from the valley of Rio del Torre, near our camp

The peak was long considered an ‘unclimbable mountain’ for its remoteness, its vertical rock faces and the mushrooms of fluffy rime ice capping the summit.  And of course, climbers of all the peaks in the massif are often faced with the legendary, horrific Patagonian weather including the constant, howling wind that locals call “the Broom of God.” While more famous peaks such as Everest and even the nearby, very difficult Monte Fitz Roy were first conquered by climbers in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1970s when Italians Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari, and Pino Negri accomplished the first recognized ascent of Cerro Torre in 1974.   And while a hundred people may reach the summit of Everest in a given year, years can go by between successful ascents of Cerro Torre.  And therein lies an irresistible attraction to the adventure junkies of our modern age.

Torre-Cheryl-cerro torre, with the compressor face on its right and rime ice cap on the top.  (lynne mccullough)_std
Cerro Torre with the Compressor face on its right and rime ice cap on the top

The controversy in the alpine climbing community surrounding Cerro Torre started back in the ‘golden age’ of mountaineering first ascents, when Italian Cesare Maestri and two companions tackled the extremely difficult south face in 1959.  Maestri claimed having reached the summit, but companion Tori Egger was swept to his death by an avalanche while they were descending, taking the camera and their only evidence of the summit with him.   Inconsistencies in Maestri’s account, and the lack of any gear on the route he claims to have taken, have led the climbing community to discount his claimed first ascent.  (Another party of Italians, Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari, and Pino Negri, now claim the recognized first ascent, via a different route, 15 years after Maestri’s disputed climb.)  To further sully his reputation among alpine purists, Maestri returned in 1970 to prove he could reach the top—but did so by installing 450 bolts with a compressor-powered drill (leaving the 200 lb drill dangling from ropes where it hangs to this day, 100 meters below the top of the mountain).  The route Maestri followed is now known as the Compressor route, and is viewed with great disdain as can be read in the Pataclimb blog: “If you are interested in getting to the top of the mountain without climbing it, and considering that landing helicopters is illegal in all Argentine National Parks, this gloryfied version of a via ferrata is the route for you.”

Torre-Cheryl-starting the climb to loma del pliegue tumbado (cheryl talbert)_std
Starting the climb to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

The controversy was reawakened on January 16th, 2012, a month before our arrival in Chalten, when Norte Americanos Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk reached the top of Cerro Torre via the Compressor Route in an amazing thirteen hour blitz, but in their case using what they defined as a “fair-means” ascent. Their skill and speed in the ascent have been lauded by the community, but they also raised a firestorm through a spur-of-the-moment decision to cut most of Maestri’s bolts from the face during their return.   Alpinist blogs continue to buzz with posts both praising and excoriating their actions.

Torre-Cheryl-last section to the summit of loma del pliegue tumbado. (cheryl talbert)_std
Last section to the summit of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

All this I followed with the bemused detachment of one truly ignorant of the sport.  No evidence of firestorm, or even a hint of the “Broom of God” interrupted our reverie as we soaked up the rays of a rare sunny day from our vantage point on the top of the world  in southern Patagonia.

Torre-Cheryl-spouse john looking southeast across lago viedma from the top of loma del pliegue tumbado (cheryl talbert)_std
Spouse John looking southeast across Lago Viedma from the top of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Sidebar – trekking around the Chalten Massif

All through this wide viewshed wind an extensive system of well-maintained trails to entice trekkers from the hardiest ice travelers to weekend walkers and all stripes between.  Guided and unguided groups can enjoy the fairly easy three-day, 38-kilometer trek ‘around’ Monte Fitz Roy from Chalten.  This route features nice camps and refugios, lovely views across Laguna Capri,  the opportunity for sunrise from the Laguna de los Tres lookout below Monte Fitz Roy, a peek at several of the local glaciers, and views of the mountain from the southwest as well as from the Electrico viewpoint on the north side.  Trekking companies offer services including setting up your camp, providing all sleeping gear, and carrying and preparing your food, or you can carry your own.

Another loop option takes in the same camp and viewpoint at Fitz Roy and then turns to the south past more lovely lakes and Lenga forest to camps and a lookout just below Cerro torre, 2-3 days and approximately 25 kilometers.  A tougher but rewarding 3-4 day trek can take you through the rolling grasslands south of town to a high plateau and lake at the foot of the massif, and experienced trekkers with appropriate gear can go beyond to Paseo del Viento (Windy Pass) at the edge of the icecap.  This route requires rappelling by a pulley system across a raging river and crossing short sections of two glaciers before winding steeply up to the pass for dramatic views.  And for the ultimate experience, the most rugged and well-heeled adventurers can connect these trips in a 5-7 day full circuit around the massif (guided only). This includes three days of trekking and camping on the ice sheet (with gear hauled on sledges behind you) between the Electrico valley on the north side of Fitz Roy, south to Paseo del Viento where one can cross back onto solid ground, and on back past Lago Toro to Chalten.  Weather permitting of course, which it often does not.

Torre-Cheryl-view northwest across laguna capri to the valley of rio de las vueltas.  from the top of loma del pliegue tumbado.  (cheryl talbert)_std
View northwest across Laguna Capri to the valley of Rio de las Vueltas
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