We arrived in Buenos Aires on Christmas Day, the mixture of the long hours of travel and the sticky heat of summer hanging heavy in the air. The cab whisked through the outskirts of the city, the lush landscape and palm trees sailing by the half-open window, the buildings growing more frequent and lines of traffic coiling closer. Pulling up at the turn, we trudged up the narrow, winding staircase, lugging gear behind us and slung over shoulders, killing time and exploring before we began our journey still further south.
After a few hours of rest in a nondescript room, with a warm breeze floating through the curtains, limbs splayed out over each other in the twin-sized bed, we headed out to the streets to stretch out legs and take in some of the city in our short time in BA. As soon as we hit the streets, the sun beating down hard on the pavement, people rushing around, cars racing past, it became pretty clear how poorly adjusted we were to city life. After food was found, coffee shops tested out, outdoor markets with soulful music found, drinks and long talks about life, outside a dark bar overlooking the street were had, we retreated to our little apartment, and drifted off to dreams of looming mountain-scapes in tiny towns at the ends of the earth.
Rested and the static of excited buzzing around us, we shouldered our gear, and made our way towards the local airport. After a brief flight glitch with Argentinian airlines overbooking our flight, we reconnected in El Calafate, the gateway to Chalten, where the glacial lakes glimmer the most brilliant colors of blue you ever did see, and the wind whips across the desolate pampas, the cool breezes making you feel a little more alive as soon as they touch your bare skin.
As the bus made its way towards Chalten, overflowing with bags, slamming us all towards the ceiling and back in our seats with every bump, the sideways wind pushing at the car, the Fitz skyline slowly making its way onto the horizon, the last light of the luxurious Austral summer days kissing the west face of the peaks in a final blaze of light.
The next day, the early morning sun pierced through the dusty windows, and the generous amount of daylight promised time spent exploring the terrain stretched out around us. In the not so far off distance though, black clouds were beginning to form, weather threatened, and the air hung heavy with threats behind us. This is how it goes in this part of the world though, and the extreme weather is just part of what makes Patagonia so enticing. The beauty of the unknown, waiting for that perfect window, only to make the good days seem all that sweeter - it not only is part of the experience, but in some ways defines this rugged region.
We made a plan: Explore Los Glaciares running long days on the trails, stopping at impossibly blue glacier lakes to take in the needles of granite jutting straight up to the sky, scout out the climbs that we had been dreaming about back in the warmth of our little apartments, boulder in the woods on days the winds were too intense to even walk, and practice, practice, practice at the local crag for when the questionable weather window towards the end of our trip offered some hope for all those big dreams.
The nylon walls of the tent rattled with the infamous Patagonia wind, and the soft pattering of rain on fabric was the only sound to break up the violent gusts battering our little home. Craig and I huddled closer together in those walls, our adult fort keeping us cozy and dry against the elements just a few inches away. The weather was suppose to break sometime that night, and we were going for our first objective, Cerro Solo, early in the am. It was 8pm, still light out, but the sky was a constant dim gray, filtering only small amounts of light. Packs ready to go tucked away in the vestibules, we drifted off with dreams of our first big day roaming the higher mountains that surrounded us.
When the quick beep of the alarm went off at 2am, the only sound was the local dogs barking somewhere in the distance. The skies were ink-black, and full of only stars. After firing up some boiling water, downing a quick coffee, and some random cookies from our food box, we shouldered our packs and made our way through the sleeping town for the trail. We jogged the 9ks to the trail, the excitement of the climb pushing us forward in those early hours. We hit the tyrol to cross the river and start the climb right as the sun was filling the valley with light, and Cerro Torre began to show herself in a blaze of pinks and purples, the summit clearing every few seconds. Even though the temps dropped right at sunrise, and the sweat from our run made us shiver in the early morning, that first light makes my heart so full every single time.
The day itself was glorious. With beta from a local and friend, we navigated to the summit, making only one mistake that required a bit of spicy rock climbing over ice and snow for a better vantage point, but after gaining a clear view, the summit of Solo was an easy snow climb away. A few moments later, there was nowhere higher to go, and we were looking down on Cerro Torre and the surrounding valleys, stretching out with impossible layers of mountains and glaciers cascading in every direction. The descent involved a 50 degree down climb on snow/ice with gaping crevasses awaiting your mistakes (pretty much my biggest fear), and an endless descent down chossy gullies with loose rock, mud, and scree filling the inside of your shoes and socks, but we had accomplished our first objective, and our tired bodies and mind felt oh-so-good in the glow of bigger adventures in the area.
The next day, we woke up tired but satisfied. We were midway into our seemingly endless French press coffee routine, when our friend Juan “Pipa” Raselli came to tell us that the weather window was closing in, to be honest it didn’t seem great - our odds of summiting our big objective for the trip, Aguja Guillaumet were pretty slim, but if we wanted to go for it, we had an hour to pack our stuff and head for basecamp. I’ll be honest with you: we did not jump up from that table and leap into action. We were tired from the 16ish-hour day before, and the thought of rallying, packing, and hiking with big packs for slim chances of success was less than appealing. We were back in town where the Malbec and coffee were plentiful, and we could spend the afternoon sitting in the sun, taking naps and recovering. But at the end of the day, we had traveled to the ends of the earth after all, and neither one of us had ever regretted going for something, even if we failed, and we only had two days left in the area. So we bought the biggest hunks of hard cheese we could find, some chocolate bars and cookies, and threw in two coveted backcountry meals that had been saved for this purpose, packed up what had been our little home for 9 days, and headed off for basecamp.
The trail begins 17 km from El Chaltén on the Provincial Route 41 at the Eléctrico river bridge, with a little footpath down a rocky path marked with yellow blazes. The trail is flat and comfortable for about an hour and a half, leading to Piedra del Fraile, one of the coziest mountain huts around. Named after an Italian missionary who took refuge here as protection from the strong winds coming across the Continental Ice Field, you can stay here, have a hot meal, cup of coffee, and soak in a kind of hospitality that warms your soul. That night we had a quick dinner at camp, the winds still howling, the rain coming down softly, and tucked away in the Lenga trees for a few hours of sleep. When the alarm went off buzzing next to us this time, there was not quite as much excitement in the air. The days before still lingered, and the thought of a 3-4 hour approach in the dark, over scree was less than thrilling. We settled into a comfortable pace quickly though, headlamps bobbing methodically in front of us, and even found easy conversation in those early morning with our little trio. And predictably, as it does every time, when those first rays of sun began to fill the peaks and valleys with new light, we found ourselves at the saddle, ready to approach the Amy-Vidailhet route (named for first ascenders Bernard Amy and Pierre Vidailhet (France)) and stoke levels turned all the way up as we could see our objective all dressed up in her best alpenglow.
After running around snapping a few hurried photos of the sunrise, taking bites of cookies in between strapping on our crampons and roping up, we started off for 4 pitches of snow/ice climbing to the saddle where we could see if the summit was an option with the weather. Settling into a groove of swinging ice tools, setting belays, and watching the clouds move quickly in and across the valley, we found ourselves at the next saddle where snow meets rock, and our next decision awaited. The winds were howling for sure, but it was early still, we were the only ones on the route so far, and our group decided it was plenty good to go for the summit.
Starting to climb the rock pitches to the top of Guillaumet was one of those moments that doesn’t quite feel real. Looking down and seeing the landscape of Patagonia, with jagged peaks, the glacial lagunas so small and scattered, and the tops of the glaciers jutting out like jagged teeth will stay with me forever. One lost glove, 6 frozen toes and hands, and 4 pitches of gorgeous climbing later, we found ourselves with only the snow ramp left to gain the summit. As we crested the last ridgeline, the north face of Fitz was smoking in the clouds, and the cover lifted like a dramatic veil, uncovering perfect snow-dusted granite that loomed so closely above us. The wind died down, the sun was out, and as Pipa commented, it was truly a gift to stand on that summit in such perfect conditions, for those glorious minutes.
The descent was long and cold, punctuated only by the winds which seemed to kick up to remind us of our place and, of our good fortune to be able to roam in the mountains. The day at this point was approaching 16 hours, and the gusts blew us down to the ground, chipping quickly away at our remaining physical and mental reserves. Back at camp, we broke down as quickly as possible, and one foot in front of the other, made our way back down to the spot that would bring us to the meeting place. Arriving at the bright red bridge, where Pipa’s wife would pick us up in her car, we fell into an exhausted, every-single-thing-hurts, heap. Huddled together for emotional support, just as much to block the winds that were still howling through the valley. The light gave way to a soft dusk yet again as we waited, and the sense of accomplishment and happiness from what we had just done had yet to sink in.
The little Volkswagen came barreling down the dirt road, and whisked us into its warmth, along with kisses from friends and strangers alike, congratulations, Tupperware of bread, cheese, heaping piles of Argentinian meats, and a bottle of the ever- present Malbec, cork popping off joyfully, and passed around to the flurry of excitement in the car. The hot shower that night warmed our bodies back to normal, rinsing off the dust and dried scrapes from the previous days, warm water running over bruises, tired bones, and bodies capable of so much. Crawling into a real bed that night, under warm sheets with a partner who has now seen me literally rolling in the dirt with exhaustion, supported me through big days filled with weights of decisions and consequences, and still took so much joy and pride from it all, it made every step worth it.
The following days brought nothing but rest, lots of travel, trays of warm pastries and even more morning coffee that spilled late into the afternoon. Even back home, we are both still reeling from it all, visions of alpine rock dancing around, slow, secret smiles when looking back over images. It was hands down one of the best trips I’ve ever done, and somehow, that place that occupies all that space at the ends of the earth - that somehow holds more mystery with every return - has etched an even deeper spot into my heart.