Playing Hide & Seek with Fitz Roy in Patagonia; Beware of Stinging Caterpillars

Part 3 in a series: If you want a selfie with the Patagonian peaks that make up Argentina’s iconic Fitz Roy massif, you have to earn it. Expect wind, rain and steep ascents. Watch out for stinging caterpillars and feral cows. Photo bombs by meandering cloud banks may drive you mad.

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The road to El Chaltén, Argentina. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

First glimpse

We  caught our first glimpse of the storied collection of soaring rock pillars and ice-blue glaciers that includes Monte Fitz Roy as it rose from the dusty Patagonian Desert on a blustery bus ride from the El Calafate International Airport to the village of El Chaltén.

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Herd of Guanaco on the road to El Chaltén, Argentina. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The thrill of spotting Andean condors, Chilean flamingoes and families of skittish guanacos (wild llamas) amid the desert chaparral yielded easily to the anticipation of empanada-fueled hiking bliss as the cloud-veiled profile made famous by the logo of a certain brand of outdoor clothing almost came into view.

The amateur photographers in the group – that would be all of us – clamored from the bus into the gale winds near the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park to capture the classic skyline, bracing ourselves against fence posts, the bus and each other hoping for that money shot.

Alas, a tattered but persistent cloud cover refused to give way. No matter. We would have three days to capture that selfie.

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“Team Dolphin” sitting down to Dinner at Hostería El Pilar in El Chaltén, Argentina.

Base camp

Every expedition needs a comfortable base camp. The Hostería El Pilar experience includes expertly prepared farm-to-table fare and belt-busting desserts, happy hour around a warm fire each evening, and a hot breakfast at daybreak to fuel the day.

Add 11 convivial traveling companions, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable leader Rob Noonan (aka “Blanquito”), two expert regional guides, one lovable driver, and a trio of lodge hosts who were as warm as the pot-bellied stove that heated the dining room each morning, and you’ve gone beyond comfort.

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Morning frost outside Hostería El Pilar. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

Did we mention the view from the dining table? The Geek wasn’t the only photographer to venture into the early morning chill on our last morning to capture the changing light on the nearby peaks. Lolling in front of the warm stove, Coca the cat must have thought they were nuts.

Blown away at Laguna Torre

Our first hike at Los Glaciares National Park knocked The Geek on her backside … literally.

We gained about 1,000 feet of elevation as we gradually ascended to the shore of Laguna Torre  through groves of lenga beech trees with just a breath of fall color. The trail crossed a pair of ridge lines before dropping into a valley dominated by Rio Fitz Roy charging through  glacial moraine.

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On the trail to Laguna Torre at Los Glaciares National Park. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

As we approached the lake and its view of three classic towering stone peaks, we donned our rain coats and pack covers to protect against a steady wind-driven mist that became a monsoon as we staggered up the terminal moraine in a final assault on the elevated shoreline.

The 50 mph jet stream swooping down Glaciar Grande had whipped the lake into a frenzy, with silt-filled breakers the color of milk-chocolate breaking over crystal blue ice bergs not far from shore. The scene was surreal. Alien even.

As she tried to brace herself to snap a few images, The Geek in her billowing rain gear found herself lifted into the air on nylon wings and deposited on her backside before retreating.

On a clear day we would have seen a spectacular view of Cerro Torre (10,280 feet), Torre Egger (9,350 feet) and Cerro Standhardt (8,956 feet). But not this day.

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Approaching the ridge line at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

Tantalized at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Day 2 of our quest for the perfect Fitz Roy selfie took us up a steady incline through a forest covered with stinging caterpillars and a pasture occupied by feral cows to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, a ridge with an amazing 360-degree panoramic view.

The fuzzy black caterpillars with red bellies were plentiful on branches and the trail itself, feasting on the leaves of drought weakened lenga. We flicked off the occasional hitchhiker using our trekking poles, and more than a few of the creepy crawlers were crushed underfoot into a translucent green goo. Above the forest, signs cautioned us to beware of “vacas salvajes” as we entered their grassland, but the wild cows neither charged nor menaced. Mostly they looked kinda grumpy.

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The overlook yielded a clear view of Rio Fitz Roy and the now calm Laguna Torre deep in the valley below, and the turquoise waters of Viedma and the desert over our shoulders. But thin, overlapping banks of clouds limited our view of the individual peaks and glaciers to glimpses and teases.

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The clouds nearly lifted on the trudge home to the warmth of El Pilar, our cozy hostería. But not quite. Alas.

(Note: See all 360 degrees of the view from Loma del Pliegue Tumbado in a video at the end of this post.)

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The Full Fitz Roy

We stepped off on our third and final attempt at an ultimate Fitz Roy massif moment beneath clear blue skies. Our primary obstacles for the day proved to be other hikers and the final ascent.

The trail grew crowded as our route from the lodge merged with the primary path up from El Chaltén. The final push of more than an hour to the base of Mount Fitz Roy was a 1,200-foot slog up what at times was a 60 percent grade. A line of hikers snaked up loose rocks and gravel and stone steps at highly individual rates of speed.

Adopting a “heel toe” pace, MontaraManDan fell further and further behind our group. The Geek’s knees groaned.

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Mount Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

And just when it seemed the climb would never end, it did. And there it was, the Full Fitz Roy – Torre, Egger, Techado Negro, Saint-Exupery, Raphael Juarez, Poincenot, Fitz Roy, Mermoz, Guilloumet – rising thousands of feet above Laguna de Los Tres and framed in brilliant blue.

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MontaraManDan and Mount Fitz Roy. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

We munched our bag lunch. We wandered down the rocky terminal moraine to the lake. We snapped our selfies and portraits. But mostly we admired the view, intent on delaying the next challenge. Climbing back down.

Three-day Metrics

  • Miles hiked: 45
  • Steps taken: 100,000+
  • Vertical feet climbed: 6,100
  • Stinging caterpillars crushed under foot: 268
  • Savage cows annoyed: 4
  • Regrets: 0

This is the third a series of posts on our hiking tour of Patagonia, booked through Berkeley, CA-based Wilderness TravelWe have received no compensation for writing these posts. The observations and opinions expressed are entirely our own. Your results may vary.

Part 1: Passion, Politics and Empanadas Flavor our Buenos Aries Cultural Sampler

Part 2: Living the Penguin Dream at the “End of the World” in Patagonia

3 thoughts on “Playing Hide & Seek with Fitz Roy in Patagonia; Beware of Stinging Caterpillars

    1. Thank you! Some of the forest land at certain altitudes was nearly defoliated. We were told it could rally next spring. We hope so!

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