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A Novice Hiker Takes on the Mountains of Patagonia

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El Chalten is hailed as the trekking capital of Argentina, and it did not disappoint. The town was created in the mid 1980s by the Argentinian government to stake its border claim with Chile. But its location at the base of the Fitz Roy range has shaped the growth of the tiny town. Its winter population of 600 triples to 1,800 during the summer hiking season. Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, trails wind away from the town in every direction.

The influx of tourists in the summer means El Chalten is full of homey restaurants, hostels and B&Bs, and even a craft brewery. After a full day on the trails not much could be better than barbecued Argentinian beef and a few glasses of Malbec. El Chalten could not be farther from the barrios of Buenos Aires.

I had already been enjoying the relaxed pace of rural Patagonia for a couple weeks and I'd decided to settle down in this isolated town for a week. I was lucky enough to have a new Canadian friend as a hiking partner, having just met in the last town. Arriving on the bus from El Calafate mid-morning we threw our bags down and headed out on the trails. We hiked the full day, taking in the view from the base camp of Cerro Torre. Although not as well known as Cerro Fitz Roy, the 3,100m Cerro Torre is a technical climb well beyond the abilities of weekend warriors like myself.

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The next morning we set out for Cerro Fitz Roy base camp, a 26 kilometre round trip. This granite spear peaks at 3,375 metres and attracts hardcore climbers from the world over. Taking a breather for lunch we enjoyed our first view of the mountain while listening to another hiker pick away on a classical guitar. After a little more walking we stopped by a glacial river to enjoy a cerveza and a few empanadas. The rest of the walk in to the base was an easy stroll with plenty of pristine rivers to refill on water.

From here the real work began. The steep incline and loose rock of the glacier moraine drained me quickly and the midday sun baked down on me during this mistimed ascent. I slid back with each step as I scrambled up the final 400 meters of loose rock between the climbers' base camp and the viewpoint of Cerro Fitz Roy. As would become a theme throughout this trip, I had too much gear. My camera, extra lenses, tripod and hiking gear felt heavier by the moment. My legs burned from the climb and from the fatigue of the 22 kilometres covered the day before and the hike across a glacier two days prior. But James, my hiking companion, was still full of go. A mixture of pride and obligation urged me on.

Finally we reached our destination of Laguna Tres. To my left was a cliff that dropped hundreds of metres into the glacial lake below. To my right was a second glacial lake, but at our altitude. Behind me the vast and lush valley below. Straight in front of me lay Cerro Fitz Roy with its hanging glaciers. In a region famous for unpredictable weather we were thankful for the unobstructed view of the peak.

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Just then a few familiar faces strolled by. It was the Dutch, Swedish and American contingent from the Perito Moreno glacier a few days prior. Once you're on the backpacker circuit it's amazing how often you bump into friends from adventures past. So far from home it's a wonderful thing to see a familiar face.

After a brief rest and snack James and I prepared to head back to town. It was 6 p.m. and there was plenty of ground to cover. Lucky for us, dusk comes late in Patagonia, with sunset near 10 p.m. We slid down the moraine I had battled to get up. Back on the valley floor the weight of my pack disappeared and we floated along the trail with a quick, but unhurried pace. We gained a view of the town as it was lit by amber light by the setting sun. Just another day in Patagonia!

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