Los Glaciares National Park

My Top Five Wild Hikes

I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” a dark, raw and fiercely humorous book on how one woman finds herself during a three-month long trek through the wild Pacific Crest Trail. The book is powerful, emotional, honest and inspiring, and Strayed uses her brilliant memoir to take a hard look at self-discovery, heeling and change.

Of course when times are tough, we can’t always pick up our bags and leave town. Yet, I often find that there is no better way to escape and reflect upon life than to go on a hike, and the more remote and wild, the better. I have been fortunate to have done many wonderful adventurous hikes over the years.  Although every hike I’ve done has been special and has brought me to a new place, there are a select few that have truly inspired me and are unforgettable.

Here is a list of the top five wild hikes that are bound to get your mind thinking.

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The Surroundings of a Patagonian Outpost

“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”  – Bruce Chatwin, “In Patagonia”

Getting to the end of the world takes a very long time.  After multiple flights starting due north in Minneapolis, I found myself arriving at literally the end of the world in El Calafate, Argentina. From 44.9 degrees north to 49.3 degrees south, it would take another three and a half hour bus ride to reach El Chalten, a tiny Patagonian outpost that marks the setting off point for Los Glaciares National Park.

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Hike to Mount Fitz Roy, Argentina

Hike to Mount Fitz Roy

One of the most blissful things about trekking is the amazing amount of energy you expand throughout the day.  For someone who loves to eat and drink, being able to eat and drink whatever I wanted and not gain a pound was something truly incredible.  Sweets, breads, nuts, cheese were on my mind and eaten with pleasure throughout the day while delightful, homemade Argentine treasures were rapidly consumed at night over a bottle of dry, smooth, aged Malbec.  Needless to say, after a long day of trekking out in the elements and an extremely satisfying and filling meal and bottle or two of wine, I instantly dozed off in a deep slumber and slept peacefully (a rare treat for me these days) throughout the night.

The next morning I awoke earlier.  Something was different.  I couldn’t figure out immediately what it was until I finally got my achy, sore body out of bed and gently pulled open the dark, thick curtains.  And there it was…the big, wonderful, glorious sunshine!  I was overjoyed to see the sun because I knew only too well what it meant.  Excellent, unobstructed views of one of the best hikes in Southern Patagonia!  If we got up, inhaled our breakfast and got on our way soon, there would be a good chance we would make it to the crème de la crème, Mount Fitz Roy and see the craggy, jagged ice-capped peak in all its glory.  Given the ever changing weather in Patagonia, seeing it or anything is not always possible.  In fact, Fabricio said that typically it is only a one in ten shot that the day will be clear when you reach the top, meaning 9 out of 10 unlucky trekkers see absolutely nothing but gray, massive clouds and fog.  That would be an enormous disappointment given how many hours it took to reach this remote place and the unlikely chance that I would ever get to see it again.  Thus, I was up and ready in a heartbeat and impatiently awaiting our guide’s arrival so we can begin our hike.

The trek to Mount Fitz Roy is not technically difficult.  It is just grueling and long, taking eight hours with a short break or two for lunch and rest.  I had done long hikes before and found that I really enjoy them.  There is something about being in it for the long haul, and challenging your body that gets you in some kind of mysterious bodily rhythm and mindset.  Trekking is kind of like running a slow marathon yet better.  Not as intense.  Not as extreme.  Yet, that same kind of exhausting, mind over matter feeling where you somehow enter a zone of deep contemplation and relaxation.  For me, hiking is the only sport that does this to me.  It brings me far, far away, into areas of my mind and body that have been long sealed up and hidden.  It represents some kind of crazy, deep release that makes me feel refreshed and whole once again.  There is something about using only your body and being in nature that brings me peace. And the longer the hike, the better.

We reached the start of the trail at half past eight and saw no one.  The air was fresh and crisp and there was not a single cloud in the brilliant deep blue sky.  I felt an energy and excitement for the day that made me feel truly alive.  I couldn’t wait to see the top and be rewarded with a supposedly gorgeous view of a postcard perfect Patagonia.   My brain was running wild with thoughts and conversation flowed freely and effortlessly.

The start of the trail:

Day 2 Hike:  8 hour exhausting hike to Mount Fitzroy:

Start of hike, beautiful weather.  We lucked out.  Not always certain you will see the peaks.  In fact, only a one in ten chance:

One of the surprising things about Patagonia is its purity.  When I was in New Zealand several years ago, I remember the big advertisement at the time was for “100% Pure New Zealand”.  I of course fell head over heels in love with the raw beauty and nature of New Zealand’s South Island yet it never felt as remote and pure to me as Patagonia.  Perhaps it was the utter ruggedness and harshness of the landscape and environment that made Patagonia seem so utterly pure.  I’m not sure if I can point a finger to exactly why I felt this why but I did.  In Patagonia, anything seemed possible.  The first time I dipped my empty water bottle into a flowing, glacial river I was extremely hesitant about its safety.  Yet my local guide encouraged me to give it a try, stating that it was the purest, freshest, most delicious water in the world.  And, it was.  I’ll never forget the incredible taste of Patagonian water directly from the source.  It was amazing and I could drink it forever.  Water in park is so pure, we used it to refill our water bottles getting drinking water directly from the streams and glacial lakes (burr…cold sticking your hand in but hugely rewarding for the effort).  Here is a picture of the rock landscape protecting the rapidly flowing glacial river with delicious drinking water abound:

As we climbed further along the empty trail, we suddenly saw a glimpse of our destination.  Here is a view of Mount Fitz Roy through the thick beech forest:

Small glacier pouring out of the mountains:

We were indeed truly lucky as the weather remained picture perfect clear.  Not a single cloud had arrived into the sky to mess things up.  What a miracle!  We knew that they last eight consecutive days on the trail had been misty and full of fog.  To hike eight hours and not see a thing would be a huge disappointment!

On the approach to the top and our much deserved picnic lunch:

Heading up through the snow:

The breathtaking approach of Mt. Fitz Roy:

View of where we started below:

At the top—wow, did we luck out on the clear sky.  Only 1 out of 10 days like this in Patagonia!  And no wind!!!! (there is a lot of wind, and there is mucho mucho mucho viento as they say here):

Wow….what a place for a picnic:

Strange patagonian clouds:

Almost home…one last look:

One of our great drinking holes:


The Tiny Outpost in the Middle of Nowhere

El Chalten is a different kind of place, an outpost in Patagonia, in the middle of nowhere.  It was established in 1985 as a trekking base for mountaineers who wished to summit the nearby, towering and difficult Cerro Torro and Mount Fitzroy.  It began slowly with only tents and today, twenty-five years later has a handful of small restaurants, hotels and shops.  The local population is about 2,000-3,000 residents depending upon the time of year.  Some people stay only during the main tourist season from October to late April, when the mountains and trails are accessible and tourists flock in.  Others remain for the whole year, living through the intense Patagonian winter and are nearly cut off from the rest of civilization until the Spring arrives in October.  It is a wild place, like no place on earth, and is a fitting location to explore the spectacular, divine Los Glaciares National park.

Here are some photos of El Chalten to stir up your imagination:

The town of El Chalten:

Our little humble hotel in Chalten.  El Puma.  It was actually quite lovely with a wood burning fireplace in the reception area and nice rooms:

The llama outside the hotel…watch out!  They spit!

Entrance to the town:

El Chalten from the mountains, in the valley below:

The one and only main drag in town:

The only grocery store:

The lone convenience store:

The road leading up to our hotel.  I couldn’t get enough of this old, crazy car:

For such a small town, I found lots of interesting photo opps:

Symbol of living in a small, remote town:  A classic!  My impatient Dad, waiting at the ONLY Atm in town, with the bank car there, yet you couldn’t get any money.  The wire connection was down.  No cash for the entire town until tomorrow.


El Chalten: The End of the World

The flight down to El Calafate takes about five hours non-stop from Buenos Aires.  It is hard to believe that Argentina and Chile stretch for so many miles from north to south (Chile is an extremely long country covering 2,653 miles from north to south while Argentina is slightly shorter at 2,268 miles from north to south).  During the flight south you can really capture the amazing distance between the two ends of the country as the landscape and geography dramatically change from lush, green farmland and pastures to barren, wind-blown, flat pampas and jagged, snow-capped mountains and glaciers.  It is like going from one extreme to the other and the change is quite startling.

We left for Calafate early in the morning.  It was almost 30 degrees Celsius in Buenos Aires that morning and we were sweltering hot in t-shirts and pants.  As we descended into El Calafate, the landscape had dramatically changed from vibrant greens to dusty browns and the wind was so incredibly fierce that the plane bounced around like a flying rollercoaster.  Having traveled to southern Patagonia before, I was prepared this time for the hair-rising landing into windy, turbulent Patagonia.  My stomach still dropped and my palms still sweat, but I knew that this was to be expected because Patagonia is by far one of the windiest places on earth. 

The airport was located in a flat, open plain with little vegetation and little to see.  El Calafate, which is named after the calafate berry which is prominent in this part of the world, is a small, tourist-based town that does not have much to offer besides a strip of overpriced restaurants, shops and hotels.  Most tourists use it as a launching off point to visit the world-famous Perito Moreno Glacier or some of the remote, yet priceless National Parks that surround the glaciers and craggy mountains in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.  There has been much debate over which Patagonia is better and as someone who has been to both sides, I find them both equally magnificent.  Realizing how important the spectacular landscape of Patagonia could be for the invaluable, lucrative tourism industry, both Chile and Argentina have fought for control over the land resulting in a funny, dotted and somewhat jagged line on the map splitting up Patagonia into a horizontal jigsaw puzzle from north to south.  Yet somehow it manages to work.  I learned quickly that you should never discuss this with the natives, however, as it is still a sensitive, thorny subject.

Once in the town of Calafate, we had time for a short lunch where we met a representative from our tour operator, Cascada Expedicionnes (the company I used several years before during our trek in Torres del Paine) and then headed off to the small, rundown bus station at the end of town where we would enter into the next leg of our long journey, a three and a half hour bus ride through the vast pampas and nothingness, until reaching the tiny outpost of a town, El Chalten:  One of the last frontiers before heading off into Los Glaciares National Park. 

There was only one bus a day to El Chalten, which left at 6:30 pm and arrived by 10 o’clock.  As expected, the bus station was jam packed with Gortex and backpack clad trekkers all heading to the same tiny village at the foot of the stunning, massive Mounts Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and Puntiagudo.    

The bus was remarkably silent for being so full.  Perhaps the others were just as tired as us.  There was nothing to really see and nothing to really say so we just sat back and tried to enjoy the long, bumpy ride.  We stopped about half way along the way at the tiny one-building/hotel town of La Leona, which is the infamous hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  There was absolutely nothing there except a hotel, a ranch and the tourist propaganda.   (This picture below represents THE town.  Sign indicated directions to all countries from that point). 

We boarded the bus after a fifteen minutes break and were on our way.  The sun began to set across the vast, flat pampas and the bus was completely silent for the remainder of the ride.

We arrived in El Chalen at night in the dark.  It first appeared as a glimpse from the distance.  It was black all around.  Total darkness except for the soft light coming from the bus headlights, bouncing off the barren landscape and empty pavement.  No street lights.  No cars.  Nothing.  Just darkness. 

Then there it was.  First a twinkling of light.  Then as we approached, more.  Several old fashioned lampposts lined the streets of the small mountain town, an outpost, at the end of the world.  It reminded me of some kind of Hollywood movie set for an old western film that used to run on TV in the middle of the night.  It was like no place I’d ever been; it didn’t feel real.

The bus drove down the one and only street, slowly passing rustic shops, restaurants and small, dated hotels until in no time it reached the makeshift bus station, a small, basic backpackers’ hostel.  We got off the bus, with knees aching and fatigue setting in, to find our host, Diego, smiling and welcoming us to the car.  We drove the short distance to our small, basic hotel, El Puma, and settled into our room.  But our night could not end without a much necessary bottle of deep, ruby red Malbec and a conversation with Diego about the hikes planned for the next few days.  I was looking forward to exploring this mysterious, remote land.  When I reached the room, I had no problem drifting suddenly and soundly asleep into a blissful, restful sleep.

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