Helen Rose's Hillwalking Diary, Patagonia. January, 2002
Patagonia. A walk on the wild side.
When I mention I was in Patagonia, most people have heard of it but don't quite know where it is. The problem is that Patagonia is not a country but an area in South America which includes parts of Chile and Argentina. It is the bottom triangle of South America and is defined in the north by a line from Puerto Mont in Chile to the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina. The southern most point is the island of Tierra Del Fuego with the most southern town in the world of Ushaia. Next stop south is Antartica! The area is noted for abundant wildlife, winds constantly blowing and a great deal of nothingness. It is one of the last unspoilt places on earth with a very sparse population. The ground is poor and mostly desert with low rainfall, it takes a hectare to provide grazing for one sheep so flocks are few and far between.,
Nevertheless, the area is fascinating and despite some awesome scenery, it is relatively untouristy. On the Valdes Peninsula, the sea life is abundant with whales, sea lions, Magellan Penguins and sea elephants. Down in the deep south in Tierra Del Fuego National Park there is unusual flora such as Darwin's Fungi which grows on trees and resembles apricots/. There are also flaming red flowered bushes referred to as firebush. The trees are mainly southern beech but have a short life span in the harsh conditions and there are many skeletons of trees with gnarled branches around. In the National Parks we spotted many different types of birds such as the condor with the huge wing span and the Patagonian woodpecker with its dramatic red chest and black and white striped wings. We saw at very close range herds of guanacos, which are unique to Patagonia, and a member of the camel family.
One of the most spectacular sights is the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world and we donned crampons to walk on the ice. We could hear the mighty roar of chunks the size of houses falling off the front of the glacier into Lago Argentina where they emerge as opalescent icebergs and create a slow motion tidal wave on the lake.
I could write at great length about Patagonia and may well do in the future but in the diary, I will limit myself to describing the walk to view Mount Fitz Roy. We also did a similar walk up to view the Torres Del Paines (Torres means towers and these huge slabs of rock are massive buttresses of granite) in the National Park in Chile but I will save that for another time. As usual, it was windy and these sudden powerful winds are known locally as the 'williwaws'. Mount Fitzroy is located in Los Glaciares National Park but these parks are so enormous, it is some distance from the Perito Moreno Glacier. Los Glaciares National Park covers an area of some 600,000 hectares and was created in1937. In recognition of its international importance, UNESCO declared it a World heritage Site in 1981. This is wild country and care must be taken when walking as weather conditions can change in minutes.
We travelled to a village called El Chalton along very rough roads. The village is pummelled by an almost incessant wind but it is a mecca for hikers and climbers wishing to attempt the climb of Mount Fitz Roy. Due to the very changeable weather conditions, climbers can have a long wait or have to abandon it if they don't have time on their side. We wanted to walk the trail to be as close as possible to Mount Fitzroy without technical climbing. When we left the village the weather was not particularly good but we had the services of a local guide and knew we were in safe hands.
We followed a trail through forest alongside the Rio Blanco River from the north on a circular route. The path was very good considering there are very few rangers in the park and most of the paths are maintained by volunteers. On route, the guide pointed out parakeets, Patagonian woodpeckers and an American kestrel eating a vole and spitting out the fur! The weather was windy but fairly clear and pleasant and we were lucky to catch views of Mount Fitz Roy and the lower glaciers. After two hours, we reached the Base Camp for Mount Fitz Roy where the wind was gaining strength. We followed a good path up about a thousand feet on scree slopes to Laguna de los Tres, a tarn named for three members of the French expedition that first climbed it about fifty years ago. The wind was ferocious on the ascent and reminded me of walking on the Scottish Munros. Strangely, all was calm at the Laguna and we looked up at Mount Fitz Roy in brilliant sunshine and no wind! We had a pleasant half hour stop and basked in the sunshine surrounded by the awesome slabs of rock, glaciers and snow fields. We walked back to El Chalton by the Rosada Trail and looking back could see Mount Fitz Roy swathed in heavy black stormy cloud It is 3128 m and takes two days to climb the rock. At El Chalton, we dropped into the micro brewery for a well deserved beer.
Argentina has a major monetary problem at present but hopefully this will be resolved soon and Patagonia will be an affordable place well worth a visit. The place is described variously as the 'uttermost' and the 'end of the earth' and both descriptions are apt. Even if the number of tourists were to increase dramatically, they would be lost in the vastness so it will still remain a remote and mysterious place.
Coming Attraction. Weekend at Ossian
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Thanks to Frances Rickus for the photographs.