“Why did you like the Fitz Roy hike so much?” I asked Magellan before writing this post.
“The young mountains spectacularly framed by the blue sky,” he began. “And the hike has views all the way, you’re never stuck in the trees. Lots of vertical, though. And we had incredible weather.”
Incredible weather? Those of you who have been to Patagonia with its gale-force winds roaring through the Andes (like Karol who was blown over), shrouding the mountains with clouds and pummeling the air with icy snow may wonder what Magellan’s been smoking.
Mt. Fitz Roy was originally called Cerro Chaltén, “smoking mountain.” As the Tehuelche natives saw it, the gods were often puffing out clouds of white, obscuring the granite massif. It was renamed in honour of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle expedition of Patagonia in 1834. No white smoke, the day we hiked it. We awoke to azure skies and a forecast for good weather.
Because our Patagonia trip involved a lot of logistics, Magellan and I used a travel agency and hiking guides were part of the package. The BIG bonus was that Marcello, our guide, had arranged for transport to Hostería El Pilar, THE place to start the Mt. Fitz Roy hike, eliminating a long and boring walk from the town of El Chaltén where we were staying.
When everyone got out of the van and into their little groups, we realized our hiking companion was likely even more grateful for the ride.
She was moving slowly and wearing a leg brace.
Our first thought was “What are the chances she’s going to hike 22 kilometres?” followed by “Is she going to slow us down so much we won’t get to Laguna de los Tres, the lake at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy?”
We introduced ourselves and Marcello, Paolino, Magellan and I began hiking, following the Rio Blanco for about eight kilometres, gaining a manageable 300 metres. Magellan remembers the vertical. My memory is of twisting my head around to take in the incredible views in every direction.
Please pardon the adjectives… open vistas of jagged mountains, icy-blue glaciers, cerulean lakes and pristine wilderness. The colours were so intense, the air so clear and clean and fresh, it was like we were seeing the world through special lenses that brightened everything.
We filled our bottles with clean glacial water, so cold it made our eyes ache, opening them wider to the intensity of the scenery. The last time we dared to drink water from a mountain stream was in the early 1970s in Alberta’s Rockies.
Paolino was from Trieste, travelling with her husband and friends and a bit worried. Not about her leg or her fortitude or the weather but about what their teenagers back in Italy were up to. As she deftly kept up a good pace, our better selves kicked in. What if one of us had torn our meniscus while skiing at Christmas and two months later had to cope with it on a Patagonian trip planned months before?
Mt. Fitz Roy (don’t ask me why they split his name) is in Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the Andean range of mountains spiking toward the sky like Gothic church towers, Mt. Fitz Roy (3405 metres) is the most iconic. You probably recognize it from the logo of Patagonia, the sportswear company whose founder climbed it in 1968. Marcello told us that in 2013 a large number of climbers (91) made it over the glacial mushroom to the top, quite a feat. Some years, only a single person has ascended this icy dagger. (Somewhere I read the climb, one of the ten most difficult in the word, takes 36 hours.)
Magellan especially liked the geology of these young mountains, the second highest in the world. Patagonia’s granite towers are teenagers compared to the jubilado age of the Canadian Rockies. While most of the rock in Patagonia is sedimentary (100 million years old), the craggy spires of volcanic granite are young (20 million years old) and far better at withstanding the powers of glacial action.
The hike is not difficult. “How old was the oldest person you’ve guided on this trail?” we asked Marcello. Eighty-two! While not for jubilados, climbing the glaciers in this area and skiing down is how Marcello and his friends spend the winters.
We felt our age when we reached the vertical Magellan remembered so well. You climb 500 metres in the last 1.5 kilometres on a steep path of rocks and boulders to the top of a scree. Then it’s a knee-twisting descent to Laguna de los Tres, named for the three peaks above it: Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Saint-Exupéry. Magellan and I continued on, climbing a knoll for a stunning view of Laguna Sucia, its depth of colour like liquid jade. Not a breath of wind. Quiet as a Sunday morning. At this moment, Mt. Fitz Roy, considered the jewel of Patagonia, became our #1 hike.
Another great aspect of this hike is you don’t retrace your steps—except for that 1.5 kilometre steep bit. We dipped our toes into Laguna Capri, where Paolina’s husband joined us until he got to his group’s campsite in the Lenga beech forest. In the quietude, we ambled through the tundra-like grasses of de las Vueltas River Valley. It was a long, leisurely walk back into the town of El Chaltén, ending at the hike’s usual beginning. With the long-day sun beaming down and our slower pace, it was, unexpectedly, untiring.
Back home months later while reading the New York Times one Sunday morning, we learned something interesting about Robert FitzRoy.
The article explained how FitzRoy pioneered meteorological systems that accurately predicted daily weather for sailors and fishermen. He even invented a name for his systems—“forecasts.” In 1854, this was heresy. As the article tells it “When a scientifically enthusiastic member of Parliament suggested that amassing weather observations from sea and land could someday mean ‘we might know in this metropolis the condition of the weather 24 hours beforehand,’ laughter broke out raucously enough to stop the proceeding.”
FitzRoy is to weather forecasting what Darwin is to evolutionary theory. Thanks to them and many other early voyagers, we predict more and more travellers from around the world will experience the unspoiled beauty of the Patagonian wilderness.
Cascada Expediciones in Santiago, Chile, provided excellent travel arrangements for us—we highly recommend their services.
Total climbing: 1666 m
Here’s the review from the New York Times of Peter Moore’s book The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future